But is what Streep is doing acting? Isn't it closer to performing an impression? If it is, why is it never presented like this? And what's the difference between the two anyway? It was time to consult good old friend, the dictionary;
This seems clear enough. Streep is not 'acting' because the role she is taking on is not fictional. She is doing an impression: an imitation of Thatcher's traits and mannerisms.
Of course, it's not as simple as that. Streep is doing her impression within the confines of a film, a film that - no matter how based on fact it may be - will have fictional constructs; a script, characters, locations. It exists within the fictional world of the sound stage it is set on and Streep will not be considered as Streep for a time but as Thatcher: a disconnect with reality that can be only be labelled a fiction.
The two words though feel remarkably different. 'Impressionist' carries the connotation of a children's entertainer or stand-up comedian, perhaps someone in a variety show. 'Actor' is much more indelibly linked with Shakespearean drama, the stage and the razzle-dazzle'em lights of Hollywood, awards and big budgets.
|Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. An Oscar winning performance?|
Michael Sheen has made a career out of performing impressions (Tony Blair three times, David Frost once, Brian Clough once, Kenneth Williams once), yet is known as an actor. Sheen, like Streep in The Iron Lady, takes the famous ticks of a real person (Clough's accent, doggedness, bravado, hairline and self-confidence) and allows them to fall out on screen around the delivery of his scripted lines. This, for me, has never been as engaging as watching someone portray a fictional character. It is not as engaging as watching an actor act.
I know what Brian Clough was like. I've seen countless videos of him. I've seen him in interviews, on the football pitch sidelines, in candid snapshots of brilliance. When I watch The Damned United I see Michael Sheen and I see him trying to be Brian Clough. As Clough himself would probably say 'there's only one Brian Clough and it isn't Michael Sheen'.
The effect diminishes when either we, the audience, or they, the actors, aren't familiar with the subject of the impression. Hands up who'd seen video (or heard audio) of King George VI, before walking in to The King's Speech. How many people were honestly familiar with Aron Ralston before James Franco portrayed him in 127 Hours? The effect will be different for different people watching different films but it seems clear that the awareness of watching an impressionist perform is less prevalent when we do not know the person the impression is of. It ceases to be an impression and becomes an act again.
As such, each audience member will find different parts in different films producing the 'Brian Clough effect' but nevertheless, that effect will be there for some people, at some time and the illusion of watching an act will be spoilt by the reality of watching an impression. Unless, it seems, you're a member of The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences.
|Phillip Seymour Hoffman is one of many actors to have won an Oscar for doing an 'impression' of a real person.|
The Academy's treatment of impressionists seems to never fall into the territory where familiarity might breed contempt. People who portray real-life individuals often get called Best Actor or Best Actress. The Academy, collectively, never seem to feel like they are watching a cheap stand-up act or a piece of Children's entertainment.
Meryl Streep's impression of Margaret Thatcher is currently the favourite to win Best Actress at the 2012 Oscars. Last year, Colin Firth won Best Actor for his King George VI portrayal. The same award was presented to an actor portraying a real person in 2008, 2006, 2005 and 2004. The Academy, rather than being immune to impressions, seems to actively embrace them.
If the members of The Academy don't experience the same feeling that I do when I see Bria... Michael Sheen and others, then this can be explained away. If they do however (and surely they do, with some roles, if not all of them), then it must be questioned further. Why is Streep apparently favourite based on the sole factor that she is portraying a real person? Shouldn't the fact that she has so much material to base her role on make her job easier? Doesn't the fact that her job is easier make her performance less awards worthy? Why do they automatically and, apparently pro-actively, seek to reward impressionists?
Difficult questions which we'll probably never know the answers to. The Academy, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others, just seems to love actors who do good impressions. Maybe it's the very essence of the craft. Maybe it's to do with being star struck. Maybe it's to do with complicated, subconscious reasoning. Either way, I know who my money's going on come Oscar night.