Should Actors Look Like Historical Figures They Portray in Films?

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Controversial opinion ahead: No, I don’t always care if an actor looks exactly like the historical figure she or he is portraying in a frock flick. That’s what the costume is for. I don’t need the actor to be X feet tall or have the same shape of nose or the exact color of hair. A general verisimilitude is all I require from the physical person, and a lot can be achieved through clothing, wigs, padding, makeup, and attitude.

Certainly there are some historical figures who are iconic for looking a certain way, so actors will have to both work on mannerisms of the person and be made-up to appear like them. Think of Gary Oldman as Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017) and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (2012) and Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown (1997) and Victoria and Abdul (2017). This is not to say that someone who doesn’t look like Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, or Queen Victoria could ever play those roles, but it would be harder for the audience to accept and would take more work on the part of the actor because the physical images of those historical figures are so well-known.

But often, the physical attributes of a historical person aren’t essential to the plot. Could most people pick Marie Curie out of a lineup? Does everyone know exactly what Alexander the Great looked like? Yeah, not really. So there’s plenty of leeway for casting actors regardless of appearance.

But what about race and ethnicity? Sometimes it is essential to the storyline, and then, yes, the film or TV show should cast an appropriate actor. The days when blackface or yellowface go uncriticized onscreen are behind us (I hope). But conversely, if race / ethnicity are not crucial to the plot, then it shouldn’t matter to casting actors either. Yeah, that’s probably a controversial opinion too, as evidenced by some Snark Week comments on my non-issue with Gemma Chan being cast as Bess of Hardwick in the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots (2018).

One commenter asked why it’s not OK for English actress Flora Robson to play Chinese Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi in 55 Days at Peking (1963), but an Asian actress can play a white historical figure. The example of Flora Robson was a movie about the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against foreigners in China, where ethnicity and issues of colonialism play an important part in the story. Having white actors in all the lead roles reinforces the ethnic hegemony, and that’s not a nice look.

55 Days at Peking (1963), Flora Robson & Robert Helpmann

It’s also offensive how Robert Helpmann is playing Prince Tuan here as an Asian nosferatu.

In contrast, telling the story of Mary Queen of Scots’ imprisonment by Bess of Hardwick would not be enhanced or changed at all if Bess was strictly of English descent with perfectly white skin. Ethnicity is not a critical element of that tale. I can’t see where race relations are going to affect the character development, narrative structure, or world-building of the actors or director in this production.

Now, she could have more accurate costumes to better look the part, that would help a whole hell of a lot. But her being not-Asian isn’t going to make the film oh-so-perfectly accurate by default. The actors could be black, brown, frickin’ blue-skinned Andorians from Star Trek, and it wouldn’t matter because this new Mary Queen of Scots movie is going to be a trainwreck in terms of historical accuracy based on the costumes alone, so don’t even start complaining about one actress of Asian heritage (besides, Gemma Chan was born in London, England, folks).

Gemma Chan, Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

I look at this and am annoyed by the Mickey-Mouse-ears hair, the crop-top partlet, the random pleats in the center of the bodice, the WTF-is-that-denim? for the whole gown, and apparently a sleeping bag for a farthingale. Yeah, IDGAF that she’s Asian.

When we nitpick costumes for historical accuracy, that’s because they are being purposefully made for a production. The designer, director, producers, and Powers That Be are making conscious choices about how to dress the people and how visual story will be told.

Someone is making a choice about the actors too, but in Hollywood (and the rest of the movie/TV industry) the default setting is “white Euro-centric,” also “tall, thin, young,” and “unnaturally pretty by conventional standards” along with “able-bodied” and “heterosexual.” So those choices are all very obvious, and none of them have much to do with historical accuracy. Because many famous historical figures were were not as conventionally beautiful, tall, thin, able-bodied, or heterosexual as Hollywood forces actors and actresses to be. For just one small example, with her Hapsburg chin, Marie-Antoinette was nowhere near as pretty as Kirsten Dunst, but we buy into Dunst’s portrayal of the queen in 2006 because of Sophia Coppola’s excellent script and direction, combined with Milena Canonero’s stunning costumes.

Portrait of Marie-Antoinette, 1785, by Joseph Boze, compared to Kirsten Dunst.

Portrait of Marie-Antoinette, 1785, by Joseph Boze, compared to Kirsten Dunst.

So when people fall back on “historical accuracy” as an excuse for why people of various races/ethnicities shouldn’t be cast in certain historical roles, well then, neither should only beautiful people or thin people or tall people. The point is, it’s ridiculous to ask for exact reproductions of human beings. Sometimes we don’t know what they exactly looked like, and sometimes we just don’t appreciate the reality of what they looked like. And most of the time, it simply doesn’t matter if an actor’s nose shape, skin color, height, or hair is precisely the same as the historical person he or she is portraying.

If an actor is wearing a historically accurate costume, and he or she is a good actor with a good script, that’s what really matters, IMNSHO.

 

What’s your take on actors resembling historical figures?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

27 Responses

  1. eadon216

    Exactly. It’s not like any of these movies are documentaries. Heck, even a lot of documentaries I’ve seen still can’t get costuming and general appearance correct!

    Reply
  2. Kate D

    Good script, good acting, and good costumes all help make a movie for me.

    “Ethnicity is not a critical element of that tale. I can’t see where race relations are going to affect the character development, narrative structure, or world-building of the actors or director…” I agree. If it’s not a critical element of the story telling, I don’t really have an opinion about ethnicity in casting.

    Still, one thing I’d love to see more of is different body shapes that match the historical person or ideal of beauty of that time. Even if Hollywood actors are often stick skinny, they could pad them out -like Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul.

    Maybe filmmakers are concerned that not using stick skinny actresses would lower the sexiness of their movie, but I think it would be great to see different bodies that were more representative of ideals of beauty in different time periods. If the other characters treat them as gorgeous, by the end of the movie, if everyone has done their job, we’ll believe it.

    Reply
  3. Barb D

    Asian nosferatu. LMAO! That’s exactly what I thought when I scrolled down to that picture.

    Reply
  4. Al Don

    I wouldn’t say I always care, but I actually do applaud productions when they go through the trouble of finding someone very close to the character. Albert Dieudonné and Daniel Mesguich both looked eerily like the young Napoléon to the point where you were watching the man himself; there’s no mental stretch. In my opinion it does raise the bar.

    On the other hand I agree that capturing the idea of a character can work. Bruno S. did not in any wise resemble the young Kaspar Hauser and yet gave a brilliant, totally believable performance. He sold that dynamic.

    Unfortunately I have to disagree on Marie Antoinette (2006) (unpopular opinion here I’m sure). For me it tried too hard to be relatable – calling to mind Frock Flick’s article on the subject – at the complete and utter cost of verisimilitude. Talented actress that she is, I felt like I was watching Kirsten Dunst play Kirsten Dunst. Nothing felt honest to me. I thought La Révolution française, which didn’t give the doomed Queen as much screen time, still made her character smarter, adaptable, and more believable.

    Side note at split/second glance I thought that really was a picture of a Nosferatu character.

    Reply
  5. mmcquown

    If it’s someone like Churchill, whose face is well-known, the closer the resemblance, the better. But otherwise, no. We have a pretty good idea of what the Stuart kings looked like from portraiture, but portraits aren’t photographs, so a close approximation is sufficient to carry the sense of reality. What’s more important is the portrayal of the inner man.

    Reply
  6. Christine L Redding

    Don’t get me started… Oops, too late…

    If there is no effort to be historically accurate, a thing should not be billed as history. Historical speculation, maybe, or history-inspired fantasy.

    I hate when a certain physique is well-known, eg Henry VIII, and they cast a lean guy in the role, especially one who has none of his other known and recognizable physical attributes. I don’t care how good an actor is, his or her appearance is relevant to an actual historic figure, because physical presence was part of who the person was, and it affected his/her relationships. Casting a lovely young bit of eye-candy as Anne of Cleves is as smart a casting as, say, James Cagney as Lincoln.

    Shows like VERSAILLES and REIGN are historical fantasies made to indulge an audience that doesn’t know any better or care, and these two should have been billed as fiction, rather than riding on the coat-tails of actual history. Make up new names, make new maps, own what you’re making as make-believe!

    It isn’t as if real history isn’t rich with drama and visual delights. Sure, much of history is open to interpretation, like what kind of person Anne Boleyn really was, or Elizabeth the First or Mary of Scots. But there is also ample information readily available in the historic records from Tudor times to know how they looked and dressed, how they expressed themselves in poetry and letters, what they said in speeches.

    Yes, yes, I know these kinds of movies and shows are made to entertain, not to educate. But what would be so wrong with a little education?

    Reply
    • Erica

      “If there is no effort to be historically accurate, a thing should not be billed as history.”

      I so agree! I know it isn’t a documentary, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put some effort into accuracy. I’m definitely going to start calling period films that don’t try “history-inspired fantasy”.

      Reply
    • laBelleNoire

      “I hate when a certain physique is well-known, eg Henry VIII, and they cast a lean guy in the role, especially one who has none of his other known and recognizable physical attributes.”

      THIS!!!

      Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the role of Henry VIII baffled me the entire run of the series. (Didn’t stop me from watching the entire series to the end and being sad when it was over, total, inaccurate trash that it was, dammit.) It was especially annoying that they had an actor in the first couple of episodes who was a much better match for the physicality and coloring of Henry.

      Ok, that rant over, I agree that the right talented actor, even if they don’t closely resemble the historical figure they are portraying, can bring them to life, with help from good direction, script, and costuming.

      Reply
  7. Fogbraider

    I may be getting old, but I stick to the unfashionable view that all men should be equal before the law, and likewise in civil society, rules should apply equally to all. It is not a very inspiring sight to see otherwise intelligent people tying themselves in knots to justify reverse racism. Either any qualified and available actor can attempt a part, or not.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Sorry, there’s no such thing as ‘reverse racism’ — that’s a white supremacist dogwhistle. Please don’t bring such things into our site or we’ll have to ban you.

      Reply
  8. minette

    When people of some of the other ethnicity play people who originally had a different one, I am not annoyed because of its relation to plot or even any kind of race issues. It’s because it tests my suspension of disbelief, which is not something I could tolerate in a historical flick – unless the costumes and tone are stylized too. I would protest Gemma Chan playing a European renessaince noble lady (I mean, fuck, Charlotte Salt needs a job too!), if costumes weren’t even more enfuriating. Similarly, The Musketeers BBC (which you absolutely must review) have quite a lot of black actors for 17th century Paris, but whatever, it’s not like anything else is historically accurate (the costumes, especially in seasons 2 and 3 are gorgeous, but anachronisms in them would give y’all an aneurysm).

    Reply
    • minette

      I also recognize the lack of roles for actors and actresses who are not of classical European (“white”) appearance in historical movies and television, which is caused by the sad truth that as far as Hollywood is concerned, there is no other history than European and American (sometimes they take inspiration from Ancient Egypt too, obviously casting quite a lot of blue-eyed and fair-haired people, because those were common in Ancient Egypt). Not that cultures and nations outside of Europe didn’t have history, but it seems somewhat out of Hollywood’s comfort zone. There are a lot of period pieces from Asian countries (mostly India, South Korea and China, which always have gorgeous costumes), but Africa, South America and others are still uncovered and many major studios have resources and talented people who would also look the part, but seem to lack guts to tack such “exotic” historical stories. And when they do so, it ends up like 42 ronin with Keanu Reeves.

      Reply
      • Christine L Redding

        I have lately been enjoying non-Hollywood, non-British productions that fill in that gap in world history, and can highly recommend for acting, set design, costuming, and historical accuracy–because I did some research after watching the whole thing–a gem out of China called KING’S WAR. Perfect for binge-watching, too: only one season (80 episodes). And it is subtitled, so you can learn ~six different ways to say Yes!

        Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      What tests your suspension of disbelief more — a different skin color or bad costumes? In Frock Flicks view, it’s bad costumes (which is why we’ve mocked The Musketeers BBC every Snark Week & that MQoS movie). As I said above, an Asian actress is the very least of that movie’s problems. Why are you putting race/ethnicity so much higher?

      Reply
    • Kendra

      I admit to thinking someone along the same lines as Minette, although I would argue that there were Black people in 17th century France and I’m not so concerned with ratio (better to over-represent than under, given how much history has been whitewashed). But yeah, Gemma Chan is challenging my suspension-of-disbelief. I do like casting like Sophie Okenedo as Nancy in a version of Oliver Twist (http://www.frockflicks.com/oliver-twist-2007/), because there WERE Black people in 1830s London and there’s nothing in Dickens’ work that means that having Nancy be Black wouldn’t work. But it felt like that was plausible. Having an upper class Asian-appearing woman in 16th century England feels like more of a stretch, and something that I would want the plot to address. It would be fascinating, don’t get me wrong!

      Reply
      • Kendra

        And for sure, shitty costumes definitely outweigh casting choices (assuming Chan’s performance is believable).

        Reply
      • Kendra

        Although I would totally be down for a completely-color-blind cast movie, where there were multiple people of different ethnicities (or genders etc.) playing the parts. I guess I just am thinking that having only the one role will stick out, but then, I haven’t yet seen the film!

        Reply
        • minette

          That is, of course, if a movie is a super-serious drama; of course one would be more forgiving of both bad costumes and actors plain not looking the part in goofy comedy or something artsy and heavily stylized than in something like The Tudors which seems to take itself damn seriously, and then includes things like your unfortunate cold shoulders.

          Reply
  9. Stella van Ginkel

    I think part of the problem is that every century had its ideal look, which is reflected in paintings of the time; even though you can tell different historical figures apart from their portraits, I always feel like people of the same era somehow magically share some features that makes it easy to recognize them as being ‘Xth century people’. Because of this, it’s hard to look at a crowd of people that we find attractive nowadays -actors- and pick one with a double chin/a high forehead/a really slender nose or what have you. Still, I think sometimes a bit more effort could be done to cast people that at least have a little in common with the era they’re portraying; what comes to mind is the female cast of Versailles all having mad cheekbones instead of a softer look. And I do have a bit of a hair color hangup; if wigs exist, why on earth would you not put one on that resembles the historical figure? But at the end of the day, the overall air and charisma of the actor are definitely most important!

    Reply
  10. Marcela Gorga

    I think when we consider the look of a certain age we should also remember that portraiture had its own limitations throughout history. For instance, at certain times there was a “fashionable” face, and men and women were painted to “look the part”. Take the pretty oval faces from Late Medieval painting for instance. There’s a conscious choice behind how painters painted to represent those who paid for their art. When historical figures from many different places look the same, it may be because they were painted thus to achieve certain desirable effects. They didn’t necessarily all look the same. There’s more about it in Gombrich and other Art Historians’ books, but I don’t have my “History of Art” in hand to quote from.

    Going further in time, Queen Elizabeth I for instance, has her iconic ageless mask. She looks the same in portraiture that spans pretty much the latter half of her reign. Since we all know there was no such thing as botox and plastic surgery back in ye olde 16th century, it’s obvious that she aged, and her administration chose not to show it. It was a political choice. Faithful representation and accuracy mattered more or less depending on time and place throughout history.

    Also, portraiture was expensive, and therefore, a privilege of the upper classes, which was, roughly less than 1/3 of the population anywhere in Europe at any given time from, say, the Late Medieval times to the French Revolution. So, portraits don’t give us an accurate look of an age at all. They tell us different things in different centuries, but roughly they tell us about the fashionable clothes, and about how the very rich and powerful looked like, or how it was desirable that they looked like for specific purposes depending on political and social factors of certain times and places. So, even if we can say that Marie Antoinette looked like her portraits – which may or may not have softened her features, I wouldn’t know – we cannot say that everyone in Austria (where she was born) looked like her.

    I’m sorry I’m being so general, but I really don’t have much time to comment with as many details as I wished. But my point is: I don’t care if an actor/actress looks like a portrait either. If the performance is good, I’ll happily go along, just like Trystan. Considering European history using portraits of its nobility and rich merchants as a starting point leads us to a misguided and whitewashed picture of Europe through different times. Casting people of color to roles in European history is period in spite of what portraits only may tell us. Even in portraiture we sometimes find exceptions, but there are posts here on FrockFlicks that demostrate the exceptions better than I can right now.

    That said, blackface and yellowface bother me to no end on so many levels… First: doing both things is going further than thinking Europe was all-white and therefore not casting people of color. It’s robbing people of color of roles which are theirs, and also robbing them of the right to tell their history and their stories. To add insult to the injury, the general attitude that comes with blackface and yellowface, best described by the “Chinese Nosferatu” picture above, is offensive and irritating and dumb. But it gets worse when you realize that that kind of interpretation is also political. It’s about ridiculing figures from different places, diminishing them and their thoughts for the sake of reinforcing the ethnic hegemony by painting people of color as dumb or leeching stereotypes. So very colonialist. Ugh.

    Thanks for your post Trystan! It is brilliant! Like you, I hope the days of blackface and yellowface are over, and that we can move on to showing people for who they were, neither idolising nor diminishing them for the sake of selling ugly old white supremacist ideas.

    Reply
    • pandorrah

      Though, from a casting standpoint…Not so much an issue in Hollywood, Broadway, or the West End, because there ARE plenty of Actors of Color available to be cast in Roles of Color…but, I would hate to see the drama club from a predominantly white high school discouraged from or criticized for putting on a production of a show like “West Side Story” or “The King and I”, simply because of the lack of Students of Color enrolled in the school.

      Reply
  11. M.E. Lawrence

    Well, I want the performer to at least suggest the historical figure. Best example, of course, are the two Henry VIIIs in “The Tudors” and “Wolf Hall.” Lewis can act, and Jonathan R.M. can’t. Neither looks the part, but Lewis at least has red hair.

    Reply
    • Stella van Ginkel

      Exactly! Lewis is still a long way from looking like HVIII, but I was thrilled to see the red hair, because it signals that they at least tried to go in the right direction, which helps sell the story.

      Reply
    • pandorrah

      I would have loved to see Liam Neeson play Henry VIII from around the time Henry was crowned all the way through to his death. Neeson could have pulled it off in the mid-90s.

      Reply
  12. Flying W

    What about Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone? She’s still a black woman, yes, but I think that’s a case where the casting did a disservice to the project. The fact that Nina Simone didn’t fall within conventional beauty standards was a big part of her life story. And the fact that she was dark complected likely contributed to the ways she thought about (and wrote songs about) race and racism. To cast someone with delicate features and light skin (and then plop a fake nose on her!) was really… well I’m not surprised it was widely criticized.

    Reply

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