On film or on the stage, actors have always attempted to embody real people, many of them still living. The biggest challenge they face is being seen as only an impersonator as opposed to getting to the heart of the character. Jamie Foxx's dead-on take of Ray Charles earned him an Oscar, but he rarely rose above the tics, the raucous laughter of the beloved genius of soul. Some actors have pulled back a bit and infused their own personalities into famous personalities. The Australian actor Judy Davis has tackled three of the most famous personalities of the 20th century: Judy Garland, Nancy Reagan, and George Sand. With both Sand, Chopin's lover for 10 years, and Nancy Reagan, Davis doesn't attempt to look like them; instead she infuses her own strong personality into these women, therefore making them even larger than they may have been in real life. The most difficult attempt is to both look like the person as well as inhabit that person. As the adult Judy Garland in the television series based on her life, Davis has all of the star's mannerisms, both endearing and annoying, on display. But she digs deeper into the Garland mystique and her indomitable need to entertain, to please. Whether fighting her addictions or attempting another comeback, Davis' Garland is a creation of anguish but admirable spirit. Fortunately, Garland's recordings are used and synched perfectly with Davis' superb performance.
But perhaps the finest performance of a real person on film came with Marion Cotillard's creation of the legendary Edith Piaf. Again the original recordings are used. LA VIE EN ROSE is a traditional biographical filmed in France with English subtitles. What's amazing about this film is the total immersion of actress Cotillard into the difficult, unpredictable woman who remains France's most popular entertainer. She seems to have shrunk herself into "the little sparrow" at different times in her life. Piaf came from the streets and during her meteoric rise she suffered tragic romantic losses and became addicted to drugs. Cotillard embodies Piaf's sufferings with incredible sensitivity and shocking realism. One scene shows Piaf in rehab on the California coast. She looks almost deathly ill, her body shrunk to that of a waif, her hair falling out, her voice breaking. Like Garland, Piaf attempted to continue entertaining, as if her singing was her life's blood. When I saw Marion Cotillard on the Oscars, I was stunned. She is a radiant beauty, but, unlike some actors, she did not use a prosthetic nose (Nicole Kidman in THE HOURS) or radical make-up (Charlize Theron in MONSTER). She acted.