Earlier this week, we learned that BBC4 is set to release its own take on the doomed romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — and fans are already complaining that Helena Bonham Carter, whose been cast as Liz, doesn’t look enough like her. But that doesn’t mean the six-time Golden Globe nominee and winner of Emmy, SAG, and BAFTA awards is doomed to fail at capturing the screen vixen’s famous fire. In fact, there’s plenty of precedent for actors who looked nothing like the real-life icons they portrayed nonetheless managing to convince us. These 15 actors may have presented a challenge for their films’ makeup departments, but they also turned in performances no lookalike could have matched.
Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham as Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus
Paintings of the 18th- and 19th-century composers depict Mozart as a strong-jawed, regal man and Antonio Salieri as a thin-lipped, light-eyed figure with a mop of silver hair. So it was a great surprise to see Tom Hulce portray Mozart as a lanky goofball with the most irritatingly contagious giggle on the planet, and Abraham play Salieri with an impeccable combination of desperation and pride, roles that earned Hulce an Oscar nom and Abraham a little gold statue.
Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator
We wouldn’t want to be the casting director in charge of finding an A-list actress of today to portray an A-list actress from 60 years ago. But Cate Blanchett’s role as the real-life love interest of Howard Hughes earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, despite her lack of resemblance to the Hollywood icon.
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk
This is what Harvey Milk looks like. Yeah. But Sean Penn’s reverence for Milk shone through his performance as California’s first openly gay politician, and the two Oscars the film won (including Best Actor) were just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the movie’s impact on shifting public opinion about LGBTQ issues in this country.
Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde
The real Bonnie Parker was far less dainty than Dunaway, with a penchant for smoking thick cigars and tucking her hair severely into her beret, rather than letting her tresses dangle neatly out of it. But Faye’s portrayal of the notorious American outlaw not only revived Parker’s legend — it made her a fashion icon, too.
Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi
By no stretch of the imagination does half-Indian actor Ben Kingsley resemble the leader of India’s nonviolent revolution. But if the epic was going to take 18 years to make, the lead had to be a pro, and Kingsley fit the bill, earning an Oscar for his performance, alongside the other seven the film won.
Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy
Appearance-wise, Sid Vicious was known for looking emaciated and wildly intense, matching his infamous personality; Gary Oldman, when given the role, was a big-eyed actor making his way to fame via the theater. Luckily, Oldman proved to be a chameleon, delving into dark emotions to embody the tragic, deranged punk rocker.
Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich
The film made lawyer/activist Erin Brockovich a household name, and fans of the movie learned that the real Brockovich isn’t exactly a carbon copy of Julia Roberts. But that must not have mattered much, because the actress wowed audiences and racked up Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for the part.
Kevin Kline as Cole Porter in De-Lovely
Cole Porter was a dark-eyed, dark-haired man with a “passable voice”; Kevin Kline is a light-eyed, light-haired two-time Tony winner who had to limit his vocal range to stay accurate. While the film received mixed reviews, Kline’s performance was dubbed perfect “in voice, manner, patrician charm and private torment” by Rolling Stone.
Josh Brolin as George W. Bush in W.
Oliver Stone was originally considering Harrison Ford for the role of Dubya because of his resemblance to the president before “settling” on Josh Brolin. Faced with the challenge, the actor immediately went to work watching footage and learning to mimic Bush, from the way he talked to the way he walked, noting that “it changes over the years, how he walks in his 30s, how he walks in foreign lands, before 9/11 and afterward. People hold their emotions in their bodies. They can’t fake it. Especially him.”
Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in A Cry in the Dark
Nowadays, if Meryl Streep is slated to play Margaret Thatcher, no one blinks an eye — after all, she may well be our best living actor. But back in 1988, when A Cry in the Dark was made, Streep had to work to be convincing as the infamous Lindy Chamberlain, who was wrongly accused of murdering her baby when she reported that the infant had been killed by a dingo. But she carried the role brilliantly, picking up on the complex, standoffish mannerisms that made Lindy seem unstable and guilty.
Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in Nixon
Oliver Stone had considered Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Robin Williams, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, and Warren Beatty before he found Anthony Hopkins. The studio was skeptical of the casting, which would require tricky makeup work. But Stone was drawn to “the isolation of Tony… the loneliness” and, as the film was meant to portray Nixon as fairly as possible, Hopkins was a perfect fit.
Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams
Long before Jessica Lange was reborn as American Horror Story‘s campy star, the two-time Oscar winner proved to be on of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses. One of her greatest feats was portraying Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams — a singer who, you guessed it, bore little resemblance to Lange. Her role as the struggling country star earned her an Oscar nomination and cemented her as a true talent.
Julianne Moore and Ed Harris as Sarah Palin and John McCain in Game Change
Both Golden Globe winners for their respective parts, Julianne Moore and Ed Harris so accurately portray their characters that it’s almost chilling to watch. Harris had to cake on the makeup to even remotely evoke McCain, and Moore had to tan up and dye her famous red hair a more neutral brown to get the looks right, but once the movie starts, any physical discrepancies fade into the background.