Acting Or Doing An Impression? When It Matters And Who It Matters To

Last week saw the arrival of the trailer for The Iron Lady, the forthcoming Margaret Thatcher biopic which, if initial signs are to be believed, is being backed by The Weinstein Company as their big 2012 Academy Award contender. The trailer is a sparse tease of what's to come but it does show a glimpse of Meryl Streep as Thatcher, all prim and proper, discussing her reluctance to remove her dressy pearls from her outfit.

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.


  1. Interesting editorial!

    I can't I've ever give the matter much (if any thought), i've felt that if the performance, whether its an imitation or a completely fictional, was outstanding enough then it should receive whatever plaudits come its way. I doubt that Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg was a dead on imitation but he served what the script and story required., the same with Colin Firth.

    I guess what I'm saying I wouldn't concentrate on the similarities between the actor and the real-life persona and just judge it on whether the performance was true to what the story required.

  2. A good point but on that basis I still think there's a problem with the way certain actors tackle real-life roles. Sheen as Clough for example (and I'm aware I'm picking on him slightly) went after all of Clough's very public affectations and foibles. There was very little in that film that wasn't regarded as 'Clough-like'. On that basis I think Sheen's performance was, as you point out above, 'true to what the story required' but because he only went out there to do an imitation of Clough's traits I didn't feel like he got to the heart of the character/person. Sheen was Clough-like as we knew him but that was all that he was. The role and the film added little to our understanding of Clough as a man.

    Be interesting to see how much Streep's performance adds to our understanding of Thatcher!

  3. really interesting. i liked hoffman actually, but i would also file meryl streep's performance in julie & julia under this category of imitation.

  4. She's done a couple I think although I must admit to a) not seeing that and b) not really knowing who Julia is but yes, as in the article, if you know the real-life character then the effect is definitely increased.

  5. Great read and some very valid points! I've always thought of an actor posing as a real person as doing an interpertation of the person, so I suppose impression is very much the same thing.
    There is no other actress going today who could be Maggie but Streep. Not only has she the age but the sheer skills to become an 'impression' of Thatcher. Hopefully the script is a good one and historically accurate.
    I personally loved Frost/Nixon as a film as I'm quite interested in Nixon himself. I thought Frank Langella was outstanding as Nixon and dreadfully overlooked for an Oscar for the performance. It should have been another one to the list of actors winning for 'impersonting ' someone else!

  6. Perhaps at risk of contradicting myself but I agree with the fact that Streep is a shoe-in for Maggie. That said, that again leaves open my question about whether that should mean she receives Oscar attention. If she is a natural fit for Maggie then why is her's the assumed 'best' performance of the year?

    I enjoyed Frost/Nixon but I think the two main leads typify the point perfectly. I didn't enjoy watching Sheen because he tried to imitate Frost. I really enjoyed watching Langella because he did a version of Nixon; his Nixon. He put his own stamp on it that was different from the person we all know but recognisable all the same.