Playing a Historical Figure, You Can Copy ... or Conquer

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AS the seasonal tide of film biographies begins to rise, Hollywood will soon be caught up in a favorite debate of recent years: Is it better to mimic or to transcend?

In a simpler era the choice usually wasn’t difficult: movie stars were expected to outshine their subjects. Henry Fonda was among the handsomest leading men on the 20th Century Fox lot, but that didn’t stop him from portraying perhaps our homeliest president in John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” or other imperfect physical specimens like Clarence Darrow, Adm. Chester Nimitz and Alexander Graham Bell’s colleague Thomas Watson. Even in the 1960’s and 70’s the hard-bitten realism of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “All the President’s Men” didn’t extend to disqualifying Warren Beatty and Robert Redford from starring roles on the grounds that they were simply too gorgeous to play Clyde Barrow and Bob Woodward.

Then came “The Hours,” in which Nicole Kidman impersonated Virginia Woolf with a large glued-on schnoz and enough makeup to turn her glowing peach complexion into pure ash in a performance that won her an Oscar in 2003. A year later the former South African model Charlize Theron similarly won an Oscar for her portrayal of the real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” with the help of false decaying front teeth and an artificial double chin.

Mimics seemed to have carried the day, at least until this year, when Philip Seymour Hoffman confused the issue by winning an Academy Award for his turn as Truman Capote, though he was neither movie-star handsome nor much of a twin to the writer. Still, the performance was of a piece with those by David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, all of whom got by without major facial alterations.

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