Nonfiction roles get reprised regularly

Blanchett, Sheen find rewards in repeats

Actors inhabit the lives of others; it’s what they do. At their best — Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan — these performances acquire indelibility, as well as Oscars.

Sometimes, the associations are great enough for an actor to reprise such a part, an unusual but not exactly rare phenomenon. Indeed, Cate Blanchett has just done so in revisiting the life of England’s Queen Elizabeth I in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” marking her return to a role that earned her an Oscar nom for lead actress almost 10 years ago, in “Elizabeth.”

Not that Blanchett considers playing the Virgin Queen a homecoming. “The appeal wasn’t necessarily in reprising anything,” she says. “It was in starting again.”

And though re-inhabiting such a role allows a thesp to deepen an already acclaimed portrayal, Blanchett suggests there are pitfalls, too.

“Any reticence I had initially was just that I’d played her before,” says Blanchett, “and what else did I have to offer? Accepting to do it again was quite a virginal experience in the sense that I wanted this to have its own integrity.”

Moviegoers have found that Blanchett does offer another potent portrait of Elizabeth, this time in middle age. Other thesps have found similar success.

Flora Robson springs to mind because of Blanchett’s triumphs. Robson also played Elizabeth I twice — seven decades ago. Having impressed trans-Atlantic auds with her regal bearing and sly smile in “Fire Over England” (1937), starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Robson was brought across the Pond by Warners for the Errol Flynn swashbuckler “The Sea Hawk” (1940), where she refined her characterization to one as pointed as Flynn’s sword tip.

James Mason also honed and owned a role. He first played German field marshal Erwin Rommel in “The Desert Fox” (1951) so eloquently that when Darryl F. Zanuck decided to make “The Desert Rats” (1953), a film about the Allied defense of Tobruk, he recast Mason as Rommel. This time, the role was supporting, but the Yorkshire native upped the ante by delivering his lines almost entirely in German.

Conversely, Henry Fonda turned a supporting role into a starring one by first playing Frank James to Tyrone Power’s Jesse in “Jesse James” (1939) and then taking the lead in “The Return of Frank James” (1940).

More recently, Welsh thesp Michael Sheen has turned playing Tony Blair into a cottage industry, most famously in last year’s Helen Mirren starrer “The Queen.” Sheen had been Blighty’s former P.M. three years earlier in “The Deal,” a TV movie that, like “The Queen,” was written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.

Now Morgan has started work on a pic that will probe Blair’s relationships with U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, with Sheen again expected to play Blair.

Nor was Sheen the first to take a smallscreen role and parlay it into a bigscreen part. Edward Herrmann earned two Emmy noms in the mid-1970s for embodying Franklin Roosevelt in two minis, “Eleanor and Franklin” and “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years.” Then John Huston tapped him as a singing FDR for his film version of the Broadway hit “Annie” (1982).

And speaking of that war-time chief exec, Ralph Bellamy played the pre-presidential Roosevelt in a bigscreen version of the play “Sunrise at Campobello” (1960) before twice portraying him as commander in chief on TV, in “The Winds of War” (1983) and “War and Remembrance” (1988).

Of course, not all reprisals are successful. Just look what happened when Barbra Streisand revisited the role of Fanny Brice. The first time out, “Funny Girl” (1968), Streisand won an actress Oscar. But by the second time, “Funny Lady” (1975), the bloom was off the rose.

For Blanchett, spending time with old colleagues helped lure her into reprising Elizabeth.

“The joy of it was that you don’t often get to work with the same designer, cinematographer and director all at once after 10 years or however long,” she says.

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