The casting of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz drew sharp criticism, but Kevin E G Perry argues there’s more to playing a real-life icon than simply looking like them
Long before anyone had seen a minute of Aaron Sorkin’s new film Being The Ricardos, knives were already being sharpened for its star Nicole Kidman. Back in April, tabloid photos of Kidman on set sparked an immediate backlash. Fans on social media didn’t believe she could convincingly pull off the task of playing Lucille Ball, the Queen of Fifties television who did as much as anyone to shape the modern idea of a sitcom with her ground-breaking hit show I Love Lucy. “Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball looks literally just like Nicole Kidman…” ran one typical tweet. “Very skeptical of this casting decision.”
To which the only reasonable response seems to be: well, yes, Nicole Kidman still looks like Nicole Kidman, but perhaps it’s best to reserve judgement on her performance until she’s actually given it? Nevertheless, the negative response was so severe that Kidman considered chucking it all in. “When the reality of playing her hit me, I went, ‘What I have said yes to?’” the actor said during a recent appearance on Live with Kelly and Ryan. “I then went, ‘Oh no, I’m not right. Everyone thinks I’m not right, so I’m going to try to sidestep this.’” It was left to writer-director Sorkin and the film’s producer Todd Black to talk her down. As Sorkin put it to The Hollywood Reporter, he took pains to reassure Kidman and her co-star Javier Bardem that he was “not looking for a physical or vocal impersonation of these people”.
Bardem’s casting as Ball’s on-and-off-screen husband Desi Arnaz drew just as much ire, with the added question of whether it’s acceptable in 2021 for a Spaniard to play a Cuban. Bardem, who had already played the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas to great acclaim in 2000’s Before Night Falls, has pushed back against this criticism and pointed out that this particular question seems to be disproportionately levelled at actors for whom English is a second language. “I’m an actor, and that’s what I do for a living: try to be people that I’m not,” Bardem told The Hollywood Reporter. “What do we do with Marlon Brando playing Vito Corleone? What do we do with Margaret Thatcher played by Meryl Streep? Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln? Why does this conversation happen with people with accents?… What I mean is, if we want to open the can of worms, let’s open it for everyone.” Following the interview, Bardem evidently reflected further on the question of representation, later adding in an email: “I do recognise that there are many underrepresented voices and stories that need to be told, and we should collectively do better to provide access and opportunities for more American Latino stories and storytellers.”
Bardem, it has to be said, looks very little like Desi Arnaz. His distinctively craggy features and deep, sonorous voice aren’t a natural fit for the boyishly handsome Arnaz, but his compelling and entertaining performance in Being The Ricardos doesn’t suffer for that. In fact, he succeeds in capturing an essence of the character in a way a lookalike may have struggled to, as a reviewer from Uproxx noted: “Bardem’s expressive face is oddly suited for externalising Desi’s feelings… Bardem shows what stories about Desi would otherwise probably have to tell: that he was this incredibly charismatic masculine sex symbol.”
Capturing this essence is exactly what an actor’s job is supposed to be, regardless of whether you’d be able to pick them out of a line up of impersonators. Take for example one of the year’s best and boldest casting decisions: Jodie Turner-Smith playing the titular doomed Queen in Anne Boleyn. During an appearance on The Daily Show this month, Turner-Smith discussed the backlash she had received as a Black actor taking on the role. “It’s intense, but the hope is that there are some people who it makes uncomfortable who will watch it anyway, and watch it for the human story that we were trying to tell, and see what resonates differently for them,” she explained, adding that viewers of the series are “looking at it out of the frame of reference of race, and more just about, like, this is a human woman. We all share these experiences in life. As human beings, there is no divide between emotion. We’ve all experienced hurt and fear and loss and pain and ambition and desire and love. It’s really just trying to tell a story about that.”
Turner-Smith’s point should remind us why the high watermark of drama is not mimicry or impersonation. Great acting isn’t just doing an impression of another person, but revealing through performance the shared humanity that binds every single one of us. A similar view has been expressed by Sarah Paulson, who earlier this year was heavily criticised for playing former White House employee Linda Tripp in Impeachment: American Crime Story while wearing prosthetics and padding that’s widely been referred to as a ‘fat suit’. Many commenters online argued the role should have been played by an actor who more closely physically resembled Tripp, which seems cavalierly dismissive of the other attributes Paulson could bring to her performance. “I do think to imagine that the only thing any actor called upon to play this part would have to offer is their physical self is a real reduction of the offering the actor has to make,” Paulson told the LA Times. “I would like to believe that there is something in my being that makes me right to play this part.” Reviewers of Impeachment tended to agree. Gold Derby opined that: “Sarah Paulson’s performance as Linda Tripp is more than just makeup”, while a Guardian critic wrote that Paulson’s “never-better” performance as Tripp is: “so much more intricately developed than the collection of studied tics it could have been.”
An obsession with biopics only featuring direct lookalikes suggests a troubling road ahead. Given that we’ve all seen those creepy deepfake Tom Cruise videos doing the rounds on social media, it’s already possible to imagine biopics of the future starring actors effectively wearing the skin of whoever it is they’re supposed to be playing. It might make the trolls happy, but it’s hard to believe that watching a bunch of digital Ed Geins dance through the Uncanny Valley would actually result in films that get closer to the essential truth of a person. Until then, if you really want to see Ball’s inimitable facial contortions light up the screen, there is always I Love Lucy.