The Ethics of Portraying Famous People Onscreen

By Caryl Casson

16/1/2021

Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

Drama has always depicted real people and events. Plays, films, and tv shows are often people’s main source of knowledge about a forgotten past. Mostly this is fairly benign. After all, who cares what Brutus actually said before plunging a knife into Caesar’s back? But recent reassessments of films like Birth of a Nation (1915), which mythologized racism in the American South, remind us that not all entertainment is created equal.

 

More benign is David Fincher’s Mank (2020), in which Hollywood screenwriter Joseph Mankiewicz is tasked by a young Orson Welles to write a screenplay that would become Citizen Kane. The screenplay’s subject is a media mogul, who closely resembles William Randolph Hearst, and the mogul’s long-time lover, a thinly disguised Marion Davies. Of these four people, the only one who remains universally familiar is Welles. If we know about Hearst at all, our image of him is probably based on Citizen Kane. Ditto Davies.

 

Welles’ persona has proven durable, lasting for almost 80 years, despite a spotty record after his stunning debut. With Citizen Kane, the 25-year-old wunderkind did it all. He acted the part of Kane. He directed what is often said to be the best film ever made. He even wrote the screenplay. (Or did he? Mank suggests otherwise, slightly dulling the boy-wonder’s sheen.) Now this generation of film fans, or at least the ones who’ve seen Mank, has rediscovered Mankiewicz and reassessed Welles – just as many who saw Citizen Kane when it first came out in 1941 discovered Welles and left the cinema with altered perceptions of Hearst and Davies. Who knows what these people were really like? Today, who really cares? Back then, though, Hearst did everything he could to destroy Welles and his film. As a media manipulator, he was acutely aware that not all publicity is good publicity.

Orson Welles as the eponymous media mogul in Citizen Kane

On-screen portrayals of real people and events affect the way we think about them, yet there’s no burden on the filmmaker to get things right. Sometimes they don’t even try. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009), for instance, has Jewish-American soldiers team up with the French Resistance to take out Hitler a year before he ended it all in his bunker. Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) gives the Tate/LaBianca incident a happy ending. It’s hard to imagine anyone left the cinema after watching the first movie with a revised idea of how WWII ended. However, people are less familiar with the events depicted in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, so it’s likely some people wondered what Sharon Tate’s baby grew up to do or didn’t know it was about real people at all. But Tarantino, for all his liberty with the truth, is consistent about who the bad guys are. There is no doubt Hitler and Charles Manson belong in the worst possible category of people. If the Nazis hadn’t been defeated in real life, Third Reich filmmakers might have rewritten the war in a much more pernicious way. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, so instead we get to live vicariously through Tarantino’s characters as they take flame throwers to Nazis and the Manson Family.

On-screen portrayals of real people and events affect the way we think about them, yet there’s no burden on the filmmaker to get things right. Sometimes they don’t even try.

Drama can also boost the good guys. When Sam Shepard played the pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983), Yeager, who previously was probably only well known to flying enthusiasts, became a symbol of manliness and daring that will likely endure long after his recent death. And Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as the ultimate heroic president has been enhanced over the years by various films. To modern viewers, he will forever be the character Daniel Day-Lewis created in Lincoln (2012). Day-Lewis’ Lincoln was every bit as impressive as we’ve been taught the real man was. But the film breathed new life into him, making him relatable to the modern audience. We left the theater comforted and inspired by what we saw…and, perhaps, surprised by how sexy Lincoln was.

 

But what about a more recently dead politician, whose legacy is very much alive and far more complicated than Honest Abe’s. Meryl Streep became Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011), with a fairly sympathetic portrayal that earned her an Oscar and universal acclaim. In the most recent season of The Crown, Gillian Anderson gave us a less nuanced but equally sympathetic Thatcher, this time generating a rash of criticism. Perhaps this is because in the decade that separates the two performances Thatcher’s appeal has unnerved her detractors. A recent poll of 18-24-year-olds judged Thatcher the most popular former British prime minister. These young voters likely know her through on-screen portrayals rather than scholarly histories, and while there have been plenty of negative takes on Thatcher in the media, The Iron Lady and The Crown easily eclipses them. This matters because Thatcherism is alive and well in today’s politicians, making her onscreen depiction a political act, whichever side you’re on.

Thatcherism is alive and well in today’s politicians, making Thatcher’s onscreen depiction a political act, whichever side you’re on.

And then there are the portrayals of real people who are still alive and kicking. Sometimes a great performance can be cathartic for an audience that remembers clearly, but remains frustrated by, the actual events. Cuba Gooding Jr went against type to successfully portray evil in The People v. O. J. Simpson (2016), digging beneath his own charm and that of O. J. Simpson to reveal a psychopath who murdered his wife and a waiter in the wrong place at the wrong time, showing viewers how The Juice could be a killer…and how he could have gotten away with it.

Cuba Gooding Jr plays O. J. in The People v. O. J. Simpson

The opposite happens with Jesse Eisenberg’s humanization of affectless Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010). According to the documentary The Social Dilemma (2020), Zuckerberg is currently an algorithm or two away from destroying democracy and maybe the world. Whether or not the doc’s dire warnings are accurate, there seems little doubt that Facebook, which grew out of young Zuck’s boredom and dating frustrations, is now tearing at the fabric of our society, providing echo chambers for extremists. And yet, it’s hard for film buffs to see Zuckerberg as dangerous. That’s because competing with real Zuck’s appalling haircut, pasty skin, and megalomania is adorable Jesse Eisenberg. Obviously, he wouldn’t do anything to harm us. So, we just carry on scrolling as if nothing is the matter.

Jesse Eisenberg as a strangely charismatic Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

But what about portraying living people when the stakes are even higher? When Saturday Night Live (SNL) tapped Kate McKinnon to play Hillary Clinton during the run-up to the 2016 election, people were excited by the choice. McKinnon’s talent is undeniable. The problem was that McKinnon was too pointy and assertive to be likable. And with Hillary running against, not just Donald Trump, but the somewhat hysterical dislike of her amongst half the country, her doppelgänger’s weekly appearances on SNL didn’t exactly help. This was highlighted on the show when Hillary, herself, did a skit with McKinnon. We could see that Hillary was actually pretty warm, with an engaging laugh and a good sense of humor. Next to McKinnon’s portrayal of her, she looked positively charming. Juxtapose this with Trump being caricatured by the eminently likable Alec Baldwin. Sure, Baldwin’s turns on SNL made fun of Trump’s terrible traits – although rarely his most dangerous ones – but, at the end of the day, he was still a Baldwin. Trump, the vainest of them all, must have been secretly pleased. How much this affected the election is impossible to know – probably not that much, but maybe just a little. Maybe a few thousand people in Wisconsin stayed home.

Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon playing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on SNL in 2016

And here we are, moments from swearing-in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as our new President and Vice President. On SNL, Joe survived Jim Carrey’s weirdness and won the election. Alex Moffat promises to portray him as the dull old dude we’re all craving right now. Kamala has hit the jackpot, though. Maya Rudolph is as delightful as they come. Most women would choose her as a buddy for a girls’ night out. Will her buffing of Kamala’s rougher edges be enough to propel the VP one more rung up the ladder? Or will SNL give a similar boost to a female Trump acolyte or worse by having lovely Cecily Strong play her? Time will tell. It took us decades to recognize the damage that D. W. Griffith did with Birth of a Nation’s glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Producers of entertainment who care about the future of democracy should realize that depicting influential politicians and their challengers isn’t just fun and games. Hopefully, fears about Zuckerberg will prove unfounded, but to be safe, we might add media moguls to the list.

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