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Real people, real problems

Actors embrace the challenge of a biopic

The majority of the year’s TV movies were biopic, posing unique challenges for thier cast. Here’s how the contenders handled it:

“The Diary of Anne Frank
BBC/PBS

Challenge: Anne Frank’s story has helped to launch careers (think Natalie Portman on Broadway), but it’s a well-known and often-retold tale that put newcomer Ellie Kendrick in the tough position of trying not to copy what had come before.

what they said: “I promised myself I wouldn’t watch any of the other films that had been made about her because it’d be too off-putting,” the actress told the BBC. Given the international celebrity Anne Frank has become, Kendrick says the hard part was “to think of the characters just as real, normal people.”

Critical response: Andrew Barker of Variety said: “Unafraid to play the famous diarist as a very ordinary teenager — prone to narcissism and occasional outright vindictiveness — Kendrick avoids the obvious growing-up signifiers as Anne subtly develops from bratty adolescent to soulful, sexually maturing young woman.”

“Georgia O’Keeffe
Lifetime

Challenge: Instead of focusing on O’Keeffe’s art, the film studies the painter’s relationship with photog Alfred Stieglitz (Jeremy Irons). As O’Keeffe Museum curator Barbara Buhler Lynes told USA Today, “Who’d be interested if it were just about art?”

what they said: “We know her as the strong solitary woman in the New Mexico desert,” star Joan Allen told the Associated Press, but she found the character’s private life to be far more of a mystery. “She kind of vacillated between being very, very strong and completely falling apart.”

Critical response: “Gifted actors, they are at the same time too contained to render the sexual havoc with much authenticity,” said the New York Times. “This is problematic for a film that hopes to be a nuanced love story and to portray its heroine, above all, as an independent visionary.”

“Temple Grandin”
HBO

Challenge: As Temple Grandin, Claire Danes had to portray high-functioning autism without veering into disease-of-the-week territory.

what they said: Danes took the role as husband Hugh Dancy was coming off the film “Adam,” about a man with Asperger’s Syndrome — that helped “because he had done all the research on my behalf,” Danes told the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “We spent a long time thinking about what it is to be autistic.”

Critical response: Brian Lowry of Variety said: “Dane’s searing performance is such that when Temple suffers as only she can … the experience is almost palpable.” Adds the real-life Grandin: “I just couldn’t believe how she played me. It was like going back in a weird time machine.”

“When Love is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story”
CBS

Challenge: Hallmark previously told the story of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson in “My Name Is Bill W.,” earning James Woods an Emmy for the role. This time around, they approach it from the point of view of his wife (Winona Ryder).

what they said: As Ryder explained to Lois Wilson’s website, “It was very much a challenge because she did internalize, and it’s hard to play something where you’re not saying what you’re feeling all the time.” The role had an inspirational twist however, as Lois launches Al-Anon to assist family members.

Critical response: Wrote Lowry: “The history behind AA isn’t as fascinating as it needs to be … leaving little to do but admire the central performances. (As Bill Wilson, Barry) Pepper enjoys the showier role, and he’s fine in it, (while Ryder) is somewhat handcuffed by Lois’ situation.”

“Who Is Clark Rockefeller?”
Lifetime

Challenge: How do you play a character whose own identity is a mystery? As con man Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, Eric McCormack had the added challenge of hitting all Lifetime’s housewifesploitation buttons.

what they said: Though he never met Gerhartsreiter, McCormack told People magazine he studied a prison interview with the felon (whom he calls “the ultimate Method actor”) to get his speech patterns right. “He looked in the mirror and he saw Clark Rockefeller,” says the thesp, who attempted to do the same.

Critical response: McCormack’s casting “adds an element of high camp to the proceedings,” Lowry suggested. “Perhaps the best one can say about the movie, finally, is that unlike its sleazy namesake, ‘Who Is Clark Rockefeller?’ doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not.”

“You Don’t Know Jack”
HBO

Challenge: Taking controversial figure Dr. Jack Kevorkian, known for assisting his patients’ euthanasia (and visible via TV and the “Right to Death” docu), and attempting to humanize the man without actually meeting him.

what they said: “From the beginning, I decided to put the blinders on and see where it took me,” Al Pacino told the New York Times. “I actually prefer playing a real character, someone who exists, because — and it sounds odd to say it — it gives a kind of credibility to what you are doing.”

Critical response: “Al Pacino disappears into a remarkable sound- and look-alike performance … capturing the strange cadence in Kevorkian’s voice and his irritating personality — rendering him, as more than one person suggests, perhaps the wrong spokesperson for a righteous cause,” Lowry opined.

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