Mannerisms Maketh Man

Casting choices can define the outcome of historical adaptations. When it comes to issues of appearance and performance, there’s a fine balance in achieving a convincing performance – which factors should be prioritized for authenticity?

By Daniel Rose & Serena Ypelaar

The Mindful Rambler was always going to feature dialogue posts – it was just a matter of time. And now here we are! This article was born halfway into a deep discussion the two of us were having about historical casting choices. Do actors need to look like their historical counterparts to convince an audience, or is it the performance that matters most? We each had some interesting – and mostly opposing – views, and you can read our discussion below. 

SVY: To get straight into our standpoints on this issue, I’ll come right out and say that while performance obviously matters to me, appearance matters just as much, if not more. I’m a very visual learner and I like to be fully absorbed into an adaptation – if an actor doesn’t really look like the person they’re meant to be portraying, I have trouble buying in. It places a bit of a barrier between myself and the film/show. But I know you have a fascinating and absolutely valid perspective on this topic too. 

DR: For the longest time, I shared the belief that actors should physically resemble the historic figures they have been cast to play. This changed with Frank Langella’s fantastic performance as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008). Even though Langella did not particularly look like Nixon, his uncanny portrayal of Nixon’s mannerisms and way of speaking was astonishingly accurate. As a viewer, I felt transported to 1977, with Langella’s performance pulling back the curtain on a person and period that I did not live through. To me, an actor’s ability to convey the intricacies of a figure’s mindset and historical context is just as important as “looking” the part when it comes to selling the viewer on an historic piece.  

Frank Langella (left) as Richard Nixon (right) in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Pinterest

SVY: For sure, I agree that without mannerisms and attention to detail, so much of the person’s essence is lost. I think it’s a fine balance – if an actor doesn’t already look like their subject, makeup is now so sophisticated that a lack of resemblance can be easily remedied. For instance, Christian Bale was transformed completely into Dick Cheney in VICE (2018). Some say heavy prosthetics hamper performance, and the same can be said for screenwriting: if a screenplay does a feeble job of interpreting a real-life person’s temperament, it might not always translate on-screen depending on what the actor has to work with. For instance, I previously wrote about Zac Efron’s uncanny casting as serial killer Ted Bundy; Efron’s performance was excellent but the script was weak. With many variables in historical adaptation and the complexity of human personalities, it’s challenging to get right. But viewing is a passive activity, so it can help when much of the interpretive work is done for me. How do you look past outward appearances when you’re watching things? 

Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in VICE. Photo: Through the Silver Screen

DR: I think you raise some good points – Bale’s transformation in VICE was astonishing, I’ll admit. That said, when I watch a movie about a real-life figure, or even any old period piece, I consider more than just how one character looks. Ideally, the setting and costumes paint a picture (pun intended) of the aesthetic of a time period. By including tiny details such as fashion choices and products that have since been discontinued, films draw on memories and shared experiences on a subconscious level. By creating an environment that “feels” familiar, the viewer is transported into a world that does not reflect the current era. A great example is the film First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling. The camera spends a great deal of time showcasing “space age” technology, including analog dials on flat steel machines, alongside more mainstream 1960’s design choices, such as wood panelling and garish wallpaper. I could almost feel some of the costumes through the screen, as actors eschewed polyester blend for scratchy wool and one-hundred percent cotton. I honestly could not tell you if any of the actors resembled the real-life Apollo 11 crew – but I was utterly convinced by how the film framed them. 

Colin Firth (left) and Jared Harris (right) respectively, both as King George VI. Photo: Slate

SVY: That’s worth noting too. Our familiarity with the figure being portrayed will influence our convictions in terms of whether the likeness and portrayal seems authentic. I’ll now bring in an example of a key struggle I face when I’ve seen a lot of pictures and/or constructed an aura of a historical figure in my mind. There have been a couple of portrayals of King George VI lately, in The King’s Speech (2010) and television series The Crown (2016-). Both actors, Colin Firth and Jared Harris respectively, look nothing like the late British monarch. Both conveyed aspects of his character through their performance, but to me their visual appearance separates me from complete absorption in the portrayal because I know irrevocably how Bertie actually looked. Similarly, I’ve delved so far into Jane Austen’s biography and world that seeing Anne Hathaway play her in Becoming Jane (2007) seemed a bit beyond belief. I can definitely still enjoy a production on these occasions, but I just can’t fully embrace the actor as a true embodiment of the figure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a highly visual learner, but something holds me back!

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. Photo: Film Affinity

DR: I think we’ve identified some ways in which an actor looking or not looking like an historic figure can either help or hinder an audience member’s engagement with the subject matter. Regarding my stance, I want to echo the sentiments of Chernobyl (2019) stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård. Flummoxed that they were cast to play figures they bore no resemblance to, both actors concluded that stripping the focus away from physical similarities allowed director Johan Renck to hire performers whose talents could help construct a portrait of life as it was in the Soviet Union. The success of the series changed my entire perspective, and allowed me to re-evaluate how other historic films draw the viewer into the paradigm on display. All that said, as someone who agreed with you until recently, Serena, I respect your position!

SVY: Same to you, Dan! It’s been fun bandying about, and I can definitely say that while I’m attached to the idea of resemblance, I do agree that poor acting is by no means a satisfactory trade-off for the elusive goal of physical likeness. In terms of historical interpretation, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does next so we can keep discussing these principles.

Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Last week Bretton and Serena attended an advanced screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. Your friendly neighbourhood Ramblers discuss their impressions of the film below.

By Bretton Weir & Serena Ypelaar

Bretton

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) isn’t just a biopic of one of the greatest personalities of many of our childhoods, but a continued learning opportunity, especially for those of us who grew up with the show, to reflect on how times have changed, how we have changed, and the transcendence of kindness, compassion, forgiveness and understanding. True to its source content, the delightful, formative and accessible children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the film tackles questions around family and relationships — and how we manage relationships as they become more complex — into our adulthoods. 

Released in the wake of the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which chronicles the trials and triumphs of the real-life Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes a different narrative approach. Focusing instead on writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) as he struggles to write a magazine profile about Mister Rogers, Lloyd must also deal with personal relational baggage that comes with being an adult. True to form, Mister Rogers acts as a guiding force and helps Lloyd embrace his inner demons and become a better human being.

Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers was a delightful homage to the kind and caring personality that is Mister Rogers. Hanks’ vocal cadence was masterful. He had the listless soothing quality that Mister Rogers came by so naturally.

What could have been a very standard, cookie cutter biographical feature film proved to be an exciting and, at times, surreal ride. The story isn’t about Mister Rogers, proper, but the universality and long-lasting effect Mister Rogers, his program, and his life-lessons have on us all these years later.

Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). Photo: Lacey Terrell

Serena

“If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”

One of the most memorable lines from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also comes from the real Mister Rogers himself and still holds relevance today. Societal conventions seem almost to promote the suppression of emotions, but Mister Rogers proves that it’s possible to be both rational and emotional — at the same time. Tom Hanks’ Rogers drives that point home through his calm affirmations and bald statements of fact, which he delivers during moments of earnest emotional reflection.

The film is not what I expected. In place of a syrupy timeline of Mister Rogers’ rise to popularity, we instead glimpse the career of an established Mister Rogers and his effect on those around him. The best quality of the film is its simplicity — it doesn’t ask for anything except our undivided attention, which is what the real Fred Rogers always had to offer. The result of this ever-present mindfulness is that the viewer must turn inward to their own experiences and emotions, just like Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel. When was the last time we felt angry? What did we do about it? In those moments of honesty we become Lloyd, and it feels like we are being counselled by Hanks-as-Rogers.

Given the subject matter, it’s fitting that we saw the film on International Kindness Day. The script excels in that it doesn’t try to be over the top; its message is quiet but marked by conviction. There were moments when I could hear a pin drop in the cinema, as well as moments when I couldn’t help but shed tears. The fact that my expectations were so divergent from what we actually got was a highlight; it felt almost like a raw therapy session. “The most important thing to me in the world right now is my conversation with Lloyd Vogel,” Hanks-as-Rogers says in one scene where the two are on a phone call. That statement captured the essence of Mister Rogers so well that it sparked memories of why we found (and continue to find) his show so comforting. He accepts us as we are.

While certainly comforting, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood dives deeper than nostalgia. It celebrates the legacy of a caring and understanding man while promoting the emotional intelligence that is healthy for people of any age.

A Tale of Two Biopics

Elton John’s biopic Rocketman is out (pun intended) and as expected, people are comparing it with Bohemian Rhapsody. But the difference in vantage points precludes direct comparison, instead highlighting the nuances of how the biographer affects the biography. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Let’s get one thing straight before we dive back into biopics: I don’t want to compare Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019) as overall films. To do so would be to confine each by relating them too much to one another, when in fact I find they’re pretty different in tone. But that leads me to this article, in which I’ll analyze just one aspect of the films: voice. (Surprisingly not in the context of singing.) How does authorship of a biography, specifically in the biopic film genre, affect how a story is told? 

Take Bohemian Rhapsody, for starters. It was produced and released long after Freddie Mercury’s death but chronicles his rise to fame and his artistic legacy in what I feel is a tasteful tribute. It’s been criticized by fans for simplifying the LGBTQ2+ narrative and Freddie’s diagnosis with AIDS, as well as for some sequential inaccuracies – but as a casual Queen listener myself, I do favour a cohesive story flow over pinpoint accuracy. Some other stories always make me foam at the mouth in the name of authenticity (*ahemPrideandPrejudice*), but I can appreciate a solid, tightened-up story especially where distilling someone’s life into a consumable, 2-hour flick is concerned. BoRhap delivers on that front. 

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury of Queen, in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo: NME / Alamy

But it’s fascinating, with the recent release of Elton John biopic Rocketman, to behold the variance in tone thanks to its vantage point. This biopic doesn’t tell the story about Sir Elton John. Elton John tells you his story himself (also condensed but mostly accurate), since he’s still living and was personally involved in the project as an executive producer alongside his husband David Furnish. Knowing this, I felt while watching the movie that I could pick up the difference between the two films in terms of voice. Rocketman is bolder when it comes to the personal trials of its subject, tackling issues such as substance abuse, LGBTQ2+ experiences and homophobia, mental health, and the burdens of fame. 

Taron Egerton as Elton John and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Bohemian Rhapsody definitely touched on a number of these topics too, but seemed to handle them much more cautiously in terms of Mercury’s experiences within them. I felt that there was a more reverent tone toward Mercury and a distance from the grittier parts of his story – understandably. Producing a legacy biopic means celebrating an artist’s achievements – and as Mercury is no longer present to have agency over his story, writers and producers took the utmost care, perhaps scaling down difficult topics a bit to avoid making any controversial statements. Getting inside Mercury’s head and obtaining an insider perspective of his emotions in each scene is no longer possible, so his life had to be interpreted more from the outside. It makes perfect sense, especially when loved ones and former Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were film consultants, are watching the film – their approval matters, as does the feeling that the film does justice to Mercury’s life and experiences. 

On the other hand, Rocketman pulled out all the stops, no holds barred. John and Furnish didn’t quail when it came to plunging into the darker underbelly of John’s lowest moments – the result was an intensely honest human experience, as John and his deepest insecurities and struggles are laid bare for viewers. Again, it’s not surprising that Rocketman‘s perspective is more internally oriented – it’s John’s story to tell. He has direct ownership over his life and how he presents it to others, and he’s fearlessly made use of it. 

The real Freddie Mercury and Elton John hanging out. Photo: Pinterest

You could say, then, that Bohemian Rhapsody is more of a biography while Rocketman is an autobiography. The two modes of storytelling vary from one another, and the products of each come through in their respective films. BoRhap is a glossy, uplifting vignette of Freddie Mercury’s genius from the perspective of those who remember him fondly, and Rocketman is an extremely self-aware, moodier take on fame and collaboration, Elton John’s way of thanking (and alternately, condemning) those who were a part of his journey, depending on their roles in his life. 

Both films are intriguing, with common themes of artistic talent, loneliness, and love. Yet each has its own priorities for preserving the story of its subject. Although I said I resent too much direct comparison of these two films (they both offer their own merits), the inevitability of it within the genre has enabled me to really ponder creatorship and how it shapes narrative. Next time you’re watching a biopic, ask yourself who’s telling the story and how that affects its portrayal. I’d bet it’ll help you appreciate the subject’s life even more.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Though Shakespeare has been dead for over 400 years, modern renditions of his plays are still alive and well. BBC’s The Hollow Crown adapts Shakespeare’s history plays, which prompt us to examine the Bard as not only playwright, but historical interpreter.

By Serena Ypelaar

As we approach William Shakespeare’s 455th birthday – thought to be April 23, the same day as his death – one can’t deny his unparalleled legacy. Shakespeare is still studied in schools worldwide. His words and idioms still pervade the English language. And people are still adapting his works on stage and screen.

As a self-professed Shakespeare devotee, I’ve seen several productions, personal highlights being Hamlet at the Globe Theatre in London; Colm Feore in Macbeth at the Stratford Festival in Ontario; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare in High Park. I have yet to see King Lear and Richard III (my favourites) on stage, but thanks to Shakespeare’s robust canon, we’re also blessed with film and television adaptations – like The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V in The Hollow Crown. Photo: BBC

Most of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays are his comedies and tragedies. When I first heard about The Hollow Crown, which adapts Shakespeare’s tetralogies, I knew I had to see it. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irons, Tom Sturridge, Sophie Okonedo, and Dame Judi Dench, The Hollow Crown covers Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V in the first cycle; and Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and Richard III in the second cycle.

Shakespeare’s history plays don’t receive as much appreciation, but they’re fascinating because they demonstrate the playwright in action as a historical interpreter. Taking historical events and condensing them into dramatic plays is a sensitive act of storytelling, albeit heavily influenced by reigning powers at the time. Shakespeare composed his plays during the Tudor and Stuart eras, and his work thus appealed to Tudor and then Stuart sensibilities. Under Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare furthered the Tudor Myth, which essentially comprises propaganda that glorified the Tudors and sought to legitimize their claim to the throne – which meant historical figures like Richard III, the Plantagenet king slain by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) were heavily vilified. Shakespeare’s contribution is Richard III, a play depicting Richard as deformed and mercilessly evil.* 

The Bishop of Winchester (Samuel West), Henry VI (Tom Sturridge), Queen Margaret (Sophie Okonedo), and the Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) in The Hollow Crown’s adaptation of Henry VI. Photo: Robert Viglasky

Since Shakespeare’s history plays were political tools used to flatter and curry favour with kings and queens, their content is open to discussion. However, to those unfamiliar with early English monarchs, the plays can also familiarize audiences with important histories. I admittedly never could get Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI straight (so many Henrys!), but after watching The Hollow Crown, I’ve grasped enough of an overview to launch further research (of the Wikipedia variety for casual learning). Much of my medieval history knowledge has therefore been shaped by Shakespeare, for better or for worse.

Like any historical adaptation, it’s important to understand the changes Shakespeare made for the sake of drama (and political appeasement). A completely accurate account may not make for the best entertainment, especially on an Elizabethan or Jacobean stage. All the same, I admire how Shakespeare’s tetralogies are all interwoven. In The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, for instance, we see the future King Richard III witnessing his father Richard of York’s death at the hands of the Lancastrians; revenge is a major theme in the plays, which The Hollow Crown illustrates well. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.
Photo: Robert Viglasky

As a screen adaptation, the delivery differs from stage productions, but the performances are so excellent that the production is still effective. Most notably, Benedict Cumberbatch’s monologues as the dastardly Richard III gave me chills. In typical Shakespearean asides which break the fourth wall, Richard’s eye contact with the viewer fosters an unsettling connection, even through a television screen. Likewise, Tom Sturridge’s depiction of both compassion and weakness as Henry VI demonstrated complexity in a sympathetic way, and so I felt – from the comfort of my sofa – swept up into the dramatic interpretation of dynastic conflicts from centuries past.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s plays transcend entertainment because they are prominent accounts of history. Like any historian’s account of events, the Bard’s plays continue to inform our remembrance of English political history. The Hollow Crown is a reminder of this phenomenon and the weight that the legendary playwright’s voice carries. That leaves Shakespeare as not only a dramatist, but a historical interpreter shaping contemporary perceptions of history – both in the late 16th and early 17th century, but also as long as his plays continue to be performed and read.

*During the Book History and Print Culture part of my master’s degree I specialized in Richard III and how Shakespeare’s portrayal influences public memory of the Yorkist king, and I’ll be writing about him in detail in the future.

It’s Lit(erary)

By Serena Ypelaar

Hello again, dear readers, and thanks for visiting The Mindful Rambler! Last week, we talked about history and who writes our past. Collectively (though not without knowledge hierarchies), we shape our memory of historical events through storytelling. Now, let’s look at the second of our four themes: Literature.

When I speak broadly about literature, I mean fictional prose, poetry, literary essays, or the like. Literature may not necessarily reflect on actual events, but it does capture elements of the human experience for us to examine and reflect upon. Thus, literature is an instrument of storytelling.

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An extremely crammed bookshelf promises enough interpretation to last years. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Why is it important to look at literature in the field of interpretation? Because literature itself is an interpretation of the world around us. The creators of literature are absorbing what they see around them and reproducing (or subverting) it through the act of storytelling. Drawing upon shared experiences and portraying them, whether through realism or abstraction, allows us to understand each other, ourselves, and our environment.

daunt
Daunt Books, Hampstead, London, UK. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Literature uses the written word to tell us the truths the world doesn’t share openly – but it’s more than just that. Books, poems, pamphlets, essays, and other literature aren’t limited to just words. They give us imagery; they provoke our senses and prompt us to think critically in response to stimuli. We aren’t force-fed these images, nor is the meaning of a literary work meant to slap us in the face. There are nuances that we ourselves have to read into, which often means that we as individuals bring different perspectives to the literature we consume.

In the act of reading, we’re interpreting. We process the messages that writers (who have interpreted before us) present to us, and our takeaway varies from one person to the next based on past experiences. Our own personalities and backstories define what stands out to us and what we think is worth considering.

So how do we find a definitive interpretation of literary texts?

We can’t.

We can choose to venerate the analyses of certain individuals – for instance, since I like Samuel Johnson, to whom this blog’s title pays homage, I’m more likely to embrace his opinions on Shakespeare. Conversely, if I love Jane Austen (and I do, most ardently), I will reject Mark Twain’s scathing criticisms of Pride and Prejudice. But you, or someone else, may like and respect Twain’s opinion and therefore lend it some credence. Our biases influence our perceptions, so interpreting literature is a constant decision-making process.

westminsterpoetscorner
Graves from the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, London, UK. Readers connect with different works/authors/themes as a result of their individual background – this diversity affects our interpretive processes. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Hence, once literature is published, its meaning lies in the hands of the recipient. Authors’ intentions are powerful and significant, and this column, “On Literature“, will explore those ethical concerns. However, we aren’t necessarily bound by them. No one can really police our response to literature because it’s a very personal interaction. As a former English major, I definitely learned how to pick up on people’s partiality and respond to that, but ultimately, we form our own relationships with the materials that are presented to us.

So literature as media is oddly empowering: we can choose what we read, how we read it, and how we respond to it. We can be mindful of the contexts in which a work was produced, or we can simply read it at face value – and is either interpretation wrong?

Tell Me a (Hi)story

ram·ble
/ˈrambəl/
Middle Dutch
verb
  1. walk for pleasure, typically without a definite route.
  2. talk or write at length, typically in a confused or inconsequential way.

Hi! My name is Serena, and I’m the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Mindful Rambler. I started this blog to explore questions of interpretation and the ways we communicate in the public sphere. As the definitions above suggest, there will be confusing moments during these “rambles” when we don’t know exactly where we’re going – but they’ll help us learn! To celebrate our official launch, I’d like to introduce you to one of our four key themes: History.

centraalstationamsterdam
History is all around us, with new additions embracing (or sometimes overpowering) the old. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

History is all around us. The present is influenced by our past and the way we remember it. History isn’t just “the past”, though – it’s not as objective as that. Rather, history represents the way we interpret and understand the past using material evidence.

Such evidence can come in the form of documents, photographs, artwork, audio, or even commonplace objects. We construct history from this evidence; it’s not always easy to process or understand, especially when we’re trying to synthesize multiple (sometimes conflicting) pieces of evidence into a coherent story.

What types of evidence are privileged? Which voices do we value? In placing emphasis on some forms of evidence over others, which perspectives do we identify as “more important” in the greater scheme of things?

sir winston churchill, churchill war rooms, london, WWII, history
Serena stands with Yousuf Karsh’s 1941 portrait of Sir Winston Churchill at the Churchill War Rooms, London, UK. We can interpret photographs like this one as historical evidence of a period in time. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

In this column, “On History“, we’ll delve deeper into these questions using specific case studies. It’s crucial to understand how we remember our past and why we remember it that way. By consciously exploring our interpretative processes, we can understand the methods we use to create bridges between the past, present, and future.

The name “The Mindful Rambler” is a tribute to Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century scholar and writer of the first English Dictionary. Published between 1750 and 1752, Johnson’s periodical The Rambler discussed contemporary societal issues such as politics, religion, morality, and literature. In coming up with a title for this blog, I enjoyed the idea of “rambling” like Dr. Johnson, but the connotations seemed a little more lackadaisical than the goal of this blog – hence the addition of mindfulness to our title.

samuel johnson, dr. johnson, stained glass, literature, england, london
Stained glass window commemorating Samuel Johnson’s life, located at Dr. Johnson’s House Museum in Gough Square, London, UK. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

We should definitely let our ideas unfold so we can learn new things from one another, but being mindful of how we interpret and communicate will ensure the ethical sharing of knowledge. Johnson had similar beliefs:

Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful. — Samuel Johnson

From reflecting on lessons learned, to contemplating ongoing mysteries, to questioning privileged knowledge structures, we owe it to our future to acknowledge and preserve our past – and to inform how we treat history going forward. It’s my hope that when considering issues of interpretation and communication, we always tread mindfully – and think before we ramble.