Arts Review

Historical Characters Portrayed

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend a Screen Actors Guild screening of Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman present for a Q&A after the film. He immediately deflected the crowd’s adulation of his performance in order to credit one of his most important collaborators: the great Japanese make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji. “When I was offered the role of Winston Churchill,” he told us, “I knew that there was only one way I could accept; if Kazu would agree to do it. No one else could make the transformation look real. I didn’t want to be the man in the rubber face.”

The transformation of Oldman into Churchill was, indeed, quite a challenge. Now sixty, Oldman is not so many years younger than Churchill was in 1940, but he looks infinitely more youthful, and at a svelte 150 pounds or so, he presents a very different silhouette from Churchill’s porcine one. (Clementine Churchill’s pet name for her husband, we learn in the film, was “Pig.”) And then there is the demeanor, the accent. Oldman is the son of a welder from Southeast London; he left school at sixteen and went to work in a sports shop before finding his way into acting; early in his career he made some­thing of a specialty of slightly rough trade sex symbols, standing out as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, and as a working-class young married man sleeping with the character based on J. R. Ackerley (played by Alan Bates) in Ackerley’s unjustly forgotten We Think the World of You. Oldman’s own film, Nil by Mouth (the only one he has yet directed), unflinchingly depicts his own rough South London neighborhood and a family that bears a distinct resemblance to his own. Sir Winston Churchill, by contrast, was the doughtiest of aristocrats; born in Blenheim Palace, he was the grandson of a Duke and the descendant of another of Britain’s greatest war leaders: John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. Unlike more recent politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, Churchill was unashamed of his “privi­lege” and made no effort to play down his patrician mannerisms—indeed, he played them up. Could a Gary Oldman become a Winston Churchill, even with the best make-up and the most lavish use of latex in the world?

A final challenge for Oldman in taking on Churchill was more daunting than all the rest. For Churchill was much more than a politi­cian, a mere public figure; he was a star, a major star, one of the great showmen of the last hundred years. I can remember Britons of my parents’ age and older, who had lived through what they called “The War,” possessing LP records of Churchill delivering his war speeches; they would play these in the evenings, in their cups, at sentimental moments.

One of the greatest challenges for an actor, then: to play a renowned public figure without impersonating him. How far do you take the imitation? When do you let your own acting choices override sounds or gestures your subject more probably would have made? It seems clear that the actor must have a complete command of his subject’s vocal and physical peculiarities so that he can play freely with the possibilities. In this spirit, Oldman listened to Churchill’s speeches along with a vocal coach and they scored them like music, so that the actor could modulate his voice with Churchillian notes and cadences.

The results were triumphant, and both Oldman and Tsuji richly deserved their Oscars. The remarkable care with which director Joe Wright and his design team re-created Churchill’s Westminster and its denizens is also notable. The clothes, voices, and demeanor of 1940 London seem as removed in time and spirit from us as those of Ancient Rome, and even within that world Churchill was an anachronism, a relic of the far more ceremonious Edwardian era. The scenes in the House of Commons are particularly striking. Wright, in search of total accuracy, refused to do any computer modification and insisted on 600 extras to play the MPs. The sight of these 600, along with the principal actors playing the cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers, reminds us just how much has changed. All are male; all are white; all are clad in heavy wool suits; all on average are older than today’s MPs, or perhaps they merely appear to be so due to the dignity accorded them by the wool suits and the scorn such statesmen would feel for the idea of trying to look young or, God forbid, “cool.” (A look at the actors’ real personae, in their headshots on IMDB, is a startling reminder of how the ideas of appropriate attire and hairstyles for older men have changed in a couple of generations.) The gravitas assumed by these politicians, of course, only sets Churchill’s frisky puckishness in greater relief.

These supporting players are also strong. Especially good is Ronald Pickup as a rather heartbreaking Neville Chamberlain, saddened by his own failure and terrified at the warlike direction in which Churchill was pushing the country. Stephen Dillane as Churchill’s nemesis, Lord Halifax, is also impressive, as is the versatile Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn in the role of King George VI. (For some reason Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten elected not to include the king’s wife and daughters, possibly because their warm presence would make the king seem less isolated. Here, he is presented as a counterpart to Churchill, who eventually becomes an ally, a solitary presence who must come to his own decision about how to face the Nazi threat.) Kristin Scott Thomas is physically nothing like Clementine Churchill, but she does a characteristically crisp, polished job in bringing her back to life. Samuel West is an unfortunately bland Anthony Eden.

This got me thinking about The Crown, whose vain, weak and all-too-human Eden, brilliantly played by Jeremy Northam, is one of the glories of the series. Eden was of course a strikingly handsome man, Northam slightly less so, but it did not need much more than an enthusiastic cultivation of the moustache, a general graying, and an approximation of Eden’s manner (now available to be seen on YouTube) to turn him into a very credible representation of the fallen statesman. John Lithgow also did a fine job as Churchill in the same series. Larger and jowlier than Oldman, he did not need to rely on prostheses and was very recognizably his own famous self; nevertheless, the performance was greatly affecting, especially in the episode in which he sits for his portrait to Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane again, in another controlled and powerful performance).
This sort of careful interpretation-bordering-on-imitation, always trying to avoid caricature, is one way to approach the portrayal of actual people, both current and historical. It’s certainly not the only way, as demonstrated triumphantly by Armando Iannucci, the Scottish comedy director, in his dazzling film The Death of Stalin. I’ve truthfully never seen anything quite like this work; the only thing out there to which its spirit and comic technique can be compared is Dr. Strangelove, but the two are not close enough to be really comparable, except in their basic premise: take the unfunniest thing you can think of and play the black comedy for all it’s worth.

For Kubrick, the unfunniest thing was the terror of that historical moment, The Bomb. For Iannucci, it appears to be the horror of totalitarian regimes, and perhaps that is a natural subject to contemplate at this moment in history. Stalin, the worst monster (judging by the body count) of the twentieth century’s many monsters, died in 1953. There inevitably ensued a bitter power struggle among his henchmen on the Central Committee. He had been on top since the 1930s, murdering not only his political enemies, but his friends, his family, and a literally untold number of hapless characters who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the time of his death, he was steeped in paranoia, sowing terror even (especially?) among his closest associates. When he suffered his fatal stroke at his dacha outside of Moscow, he lay on the floor for hours, soaked in his own urine, simply because his guards and servants were too terrified of him to go into his room.

That’s the official story, at least. It is more complicated than that, and the fascinating and grotesque details can be found at (“The True Story of the Death of Stalin”). Iannucci and his co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin (their script is based on a graphic novel, a bande dessinée, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin) have started with the fatal stroke itself, the consternation—not to say panic—it sets off among Stalin’s subordinates, and their subsequent buffetings for power and survival. A director might approach the rich subject in many ways; Iannucci has done something completely original. First he has gathered together a peerless group of comedic masters: Steve Buscemi (Khru­shchev); Simon Russell Beale (Beria); Jeffrey Tambor (Malenkov); Michael Palin (Molotov); Paul Whitehouse (Mikoyan); Paul Chahidi (Bulganin); Dermot Crowley (Kaganovich); Jason Isaacs (Field Marshal Zhukov). Then he has directed them not to try to sound, or be, Russian, but for each to play his role in his own style and accent, and the stronger the better. The result is an absurd and glorious mishmash: Whitehouse’s broad Cockney, Isaacs’ equally broad Liverpudlian, Buscemi’s mild Brooklynese, Beale’s and Palin’s cultivated Oxbridge tones. And the acting styles are as diverse as the accents: Beale has specialized in Shakespearean villains, Palin in Monty Python twits, Whitehouse in lowbrow British farce. Beale confesses to having been intimidated at not having any experience in improv, as his co-stars did; “They were so much cleverer than I am,” he has said. Nevertheless, his manically diabolical Beria (and surely Beale’s celebrated performances as Richard III, Iago, and Malvolio have all contributed to this) is the most glorious thing in the film, evil incarnate but, in the end, as easily duped as the others.

Buscemi’s Khrushchev, too, is a masterpiece. At the beginning of the film he is as bumbling as any of his fellows and perhaps more so, appearing at the deathbed in his pyjamas; he’s enough like his most famous role, Donny in The Big Lebowski, that we almost like the guy. He even looks a bit like Khrushchev, who himself could be rather bumbling. In the movie, Khrushchev’s low point comes when he has to trail around after Stalin’s fey, bossy funeral planner and decide on whether various fabrics should be hung ruched or not ruched. You feel sorry for him. But the film describes a sort of crisscross; Khrushchev starts out as apparently the least likely to succeed and Beria the most terrifying, but just as in life these storylines work out quite differently than one might have thought.

As in so many comedies, it can be hard to make the parody funnier than the real thing. The choice of Jeffrey Tambor, who will forever be dear to me as Hank Kingsley, the Ted Baxter character in The Larry Sanders Show, to play the nervous, doomed Malenkov, might seem to be even more farcical than the other casting decisions. With a bizarre wig perched on the top of his head, his tall frame sheathed in a white concoction that looks vaguely Nehruvian, his love handles squeezed in with corsets, Tambor looks completely ridiculous. But then so did Malenkov, as any number of YouTube clips will attest. No wonder Stalin chose him as his right hand; he was so clearly a sheep in sheep’s clothing.
Which is what Ted Kennedy must have appeared to be in 1969, just before his disgrace at Chappaquiddick. The new film Chappaquiddick, written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan and directed by John Curran, is a serious historical film that tries to tell the truth about its subject, insofar as we will ever know that truth. It also tries to do right by Ted Kennedy himself. In 1969 Kennedy’s weaknesses were all too evident, his strengths practically untapped. He was regarded as the least likely of his family to succeed, a sort of Fredo Corleone in the shadow of impossibly talented brothers and father. Chubby, baby-faced, undisciplined—a womanizer and a boozer—he wouldn’t have been where he was, it was surmised, if his Daddy hadn’t bought him his Senate seat.

Jason Clarke, an Australian actor who has mastered Ted’s Massachu­ssetts accent and echt-American mannerisms and demeanor, does a lovely job bringing the awkward, youthful Teddy back to life. Pudgy, his Izod shirts a little too close-fitting around the middle, soft-featured, Clarke’s Ted is clearly under emotional strain even before the accident: little grimaces of distress flit across his face even as he banters with his cousin/lawyer/best friend, Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms), Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), and the “Boiler Room Girls” for whom the party on Chappaquiddick had been given—the dedicated female staff members who had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign. And why shouldn’t he be in emotional distress? Bobby had been murdered only a year before, Jack five years before that. Ted’s marriage was already faltering, and he himself must have lived in continual fear of an assassin’s bullet. (I can remember being at a party where he was a fellow guest, in the 1970s, and when there was sudden a loud noise from outside he hit the floor.)

There are, of course, unanswered questions, and the filmmakers do an elegant job of constructing their plot without actually answering those questions or even presuming to guess. Was Ted sleeping with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), or planning to? Or neither? What actually happened immediately after the accident? Why did Ted not report the accident until many hours later? Inevitably, Ted himself becomes an enigmatic figure. There are facts he won’t share with Gargan, won’t share with his wife Joan (Andria Blackman) or his father, Joe Sr. (Bruce Dern), paralyzed and all but speechless in a wheelchair but still painfully aware of what’s going on.

What is not disputed is the speed with which the Kennedy machine closed ranks around Teddy, protecting him from the law, the media, the public. And this, perhaps, is the central point of the movie, lifting it well above the sort of scandalmongering that has dogged all things Kennedy for so long. The cover-up (or, since a cover-up was impossible, the relatively soft landing provided for Ted) was engineered by Kennedy family fixers like Gargan and Markham, and by cronies like Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) and Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols), all of them in thrall to patriarch Joe. They write the script, but the Kennedy aura, the mystique, does its work on the supporting players, too. Edgartown Police Chief James Arena (John Fiore), trying to do an honest job in an impossible situation, unquestioningly accords special treatment to Ted and his entourage. (There is a brilliant scene in which Arena retreats to his office after grappling with hordes of screaming reporters, only to find Tedddy seated at his desk, directing operations and giving him orders; the expression on the chief’s face is a study in confoundment.) Mary Jo Kopechne’s grieving parents, movingly played by Charlotte Anne Dore and Tim Jackson, hardly think to blame Ted at all. Observant Catholics who stoically accept this unthinkable tragedy with the support of their religion, they honor the Kennedys as the most visible American representatives of their faith, and as the family of martyrs. Teddy’s presidential hopes are hardly questioned, even by the hardheaded politicians who nurse a not-so-secret contempt for him: it is a dynastic question, after all. He is the “inevitable” candidate, much as Hillary Clinton was.

Does it capture the mood of the time? I would say yes. David Nasaw, Joseph Kennedy, Sr.’s biographer, saw the film and informed me that the patriarch would not have hit Ted, as he does in the movie, and would not have threatened to withhold love: he maintained the family solidarity with almost religious fervor. Still, the malaise at the Hyannis Port compound is palpable, centered in the unhappy Teddy himself. Clarke is one of those actors we have all seen without really registering: he has appeared in Zero Dark Thirty, White House Down, Everest. But this time he will not be forgotten. He has pulled off the delicate trick of making Ted contemptible (stupefyingly entitled and self-involved) and yet deeply sympathetic—rather as Matt Smith did so brilliantly as Prince Philip in The Crown. Neither Ted nor Philip, after all, chose their roles in life; and yet neither of them had the nerve to break away from them. And in the end it all worked out rather well. For history is the greatest of ironists: who could have foreseen, in 1969, that Ted’s career would arguably be more important to the country than those of his brothers, and that half a century on we would look at his Senate career as a model of probity, efficiency, and bipartisan cooperation of the sort that disappeared from Washington immediately after his death? The obviously flawed Ted proved, in the end, not to be fatally flawed after all, and the real tragedy is that there are so few legislators of his caliber left in our Congress.
A couple of other recent portrayals of historical characters deserve notice. The Post, which has already been reviewed in these pages, is worth looking at not only for its political relevance to our own time, but for the performances of its stars. Of its three major actors (Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara), Streep has the easiest task: Graham, after all, was a private and rather shy woman who in spite of being a tireless political hostess tended to avoid the national limelight. Streep does admirably, though she looks rather more glamorous and spiffy than the buttoned-down Graham. When a performer is as much of an icon as Streep has become, it is very hard for her to shed her own famous persona and take on the identity of another. Indeed, Streep has never been one of those chameleon-type actors: her Isak Dinesen, her Julia Child, her Karen Silkwood, even her Margaret Thatcher have always been very much she. Here, she is muted and controlled enough to pull it off. Both she and Hanks, her co-star, labor under the handicap of being considerably older than the characters they are called on to play; as a viewer, I was made uncomfortable by the obvious lengths to which cinematographers, costumers and make-up artists had gone to shave off the requisite ten or fifteen years. Hanks had the more difficult acting job, for he was in competition not only with the famously attractive and charismatic Bradlee himself, whom many remember, but also with Jason Robards, whose brilliant performance as Bradlee in All the President’s Men won him an Oscar. Hanks is still, at over sixty, a boy-next-door type, and he seemed to be trying awfully hard—too hard—to lay on the panache and the sex appeal. He even appeared to be wearing a corset.

Bruce Greenwood is particularly fine as McNamara, and also has the best scene in the movie: the one in which Graham, his dearest friend, confronts him with having hidden the results of his investigation into the Vietnam War and tells him that in future, as a responsible newspaper publisher, she must distance herself more from important Washington players like him. Bradlee, who has very much enjoyed cavorting with the Kennedys, agrees to do likewise. This is all very well, and it provides the kind of moral uplift to which we have become accustomed in Spielberg movies. But of course the reality was rather different. Graham’s dining table continued to be star-studded, and as the 1970s progressed no one was a more frequent visitor there than Henry Kissinger, probably the most divisive figure in Washington at that time. And in the 1980s, she caved to the Reagans’ demands to control their media coverage in exchange for access to their regal presence. The Post’s Graham, then, as interpreted by Streep, is well done—but a little too good to be true.