What Happens When an Icon Plays an Icon?

With the news that Bette Midler will be playing Mae West in an HBO biopic, we've got another case of one Hollywood legend taking on the role of another. 

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Last night, it was revealed that Bette Midler would be playing Mae West in an HBO biopic—a rare case of an icon, known as much for his or her own personality, taking on the role of another indelible figure.

It goes without saying that Midler is a great choice to play Mae West. Not only do they look alike, but they both made their names by being brash and bawdy. Still, no matter how good the film is—it's being written by Harvey Fierstein and directed by William Friedkin—it's going to be hard for the audience to put away the fact that they're watching The Divine Miss M, even as she speaks signature lines like, "why don't you come up sometime and see me?"

This, of course, has happened before. In 1972,  Motown icon Diana Ross played jazz icon Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Roger Ebert wrote in his review that, though he initially doubted the casting, Ross won him over: "The opening scene is one of total and unrelieved anguish; Billie Holiday is locked into prison, destitute and nearly friendless, and desperately needing a fix of heroin. The high, lonely shriek which escapes from Ross in this scene is a call from the soul, and we know this isn't any "screen debut" by a Top 40 star; this is acting."

[It could also be noted that, in 2006, current reigning Icon of Our Times, Beyonce, played a very, very thin gloss on Diana Ross herself, in Dreamgirls.]

In the 1999 movie Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey, already something of a comedy luminary following his nutty performances in movies like Dumb & DumberAce Ventura: Pet Detective, and Liar Liar, took on the part of Andy Kaufman, the bizarre performance artist and star of Taxi. Though the movie received mixed reviews, Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly called Carrey's performance "an impersonation on the level of genius."

There are of course the people who played icons when they were just starting out whose performances, in turn made them icons in a similar genre. Though it's hard to remember, Jennifer Lopez wasn't a star when she played Selena in the movie of the same title. Similarly, Barbra Streisand's breakout performance as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl is now so iconic that it's hard to disassociate the two equally famous women.

And then, perhaps, there's the nadir of icons playing icons: cheap stunt casting. We're looking at you Liz & Dick. Lindsay Lohan is an icon less for her acting than for her erratic behavior. Elizabeth Taylor, despite her fraught personal life, will always be remembered for her performances. Yeah, this one doesn't work. 

So what about when a very well known actor steps into a famous-person role—say Meryl Streep as Julia Child or Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. But Meryl and Tom are already known for their portrayals of other people. Sure, Jim Carrey wasn't playing himself in his early comedies, but he was perpetuating his own brand of comedy. The likes of Diana Ross and Better Midler are arguably best known for simply performing as themselves. We're accustomed to watching Streep and Hanks lose themselves in their roles. Madonna losing herself in the role of Eva Peron (and the challenges inherent in that) is something else entirely.

Casting an icon to play an icons will likely never not be distracting, but it can be magic when it's the right combination of talent. We're betting on Miss M.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.