Celebrity Impersonation

I used to have a prejudice against plays and movies that were anchored in celebrity impersonation.  No, actually, I still have a prejudice against them.  Except when they are done so well that I have to give way.

Which happens rarely.

When volume three of Simon Callow’s multi-volume biography came out, he appeared at the Drama Book Shop to plug it and I got to chat a little with him.  I noted that Welles appeared as a character in a number of plays, movies and radio broadcasts (including one in which he was featured, Put Money in Thy Purse, an audio drama about the making of Welles’s Othello that played on BBC Radio), and I asked him whether he had ever seen someone play Welles in a way that rang true to him.  He said no, and the he never expected to.  And then Richard Linklater made the film Me and Orson Welles, casting Christian McKay as Welles.  People who knew Welles (like Norman Lloyd) said McKay got him.  It’s not just the physical and the vocal resemblance, it’s the sense of mischief.  If you don’t know this film, then it’s one of the best films you don’t know.  (I seem to remember reading the Callow admired the film and McKay.)

But mostly, I don’t see the point of celebrity impersonation.  It essentially undercuts the claim that the celebrity being depicted is so original and unique that God broke the mold after making him/her.  This thought occurs to me having spent the evening at The Cher Show, a musical in which three gifted actors try to invoke Cher at three different stages of her life and don’t quite pull it off.  And I’m reminded why using pop songs within a dramatic context so rarely works — real theater songs tend to leave the main point unarticulated so the audience can find the meaning for itself; pop songs tend to explicitly state what’s on their authors’ minds, so there’s no subtext to engage.  In this show, when Cher has her heart broken, she faces downstage and sings about how broken her heart is.  That’s not the way a real theater song works.

I’d be interested in hearing from folks about what celebrity impersonations onstage or screen you think are persuasive.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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