If the Academy Awards included television, Darrell Hammond could take home more hardware than... a hardware thief, I don't know. It seems impersonations count for more than creating a fictional character from nothing. Consider that recent impressions of Margaret Thatcher, Ray Charles, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Cash, Julia Child, and Queen Elizabeth all won critical acclaim, several awards, and side-by-side photos of the original icon and Meryl Streep. Tackling a public figure so well known is surely difficult, but we even crap ourselves when actors take on far less recognizable yet still real people like Harvey Milk, Aileen Wuernos, Nelson Mandela, Mark Zuckerberg, King George VI, Edward R. Murrow, Idi Amin, Edith Piaf, Truman Capote and Mr. Moneyball (my assumed character name of Brad Pitt in Moneyball).
I think maybe the reason this impresses us so much is that we can “see” the acting. If someone alters their voice, manner and appearance and we know both the actor and the character they're portraying, we go, “Garsh, that there person from real life is different on the tv!” It's interesting, and I'm sure devastating to those actors who change a great deal of their external selves in service of a character who heretofore had only existed on the page. For instance, did Paul Giamatti tear his hair out in '05 when he wasn't nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his neurotic nebbish Miles Raymond in Sideways, and had to watch Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes – The Aviator), Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn – Million Dollar Baby), Johnny Depp (J.M. Barrie – Finding Neverland) and Don Cheadle (Paul Rusesabagina – Hotel Rwanda) battle it out with Jamie Foxx (Ray Charles – Ray)? All the nominees that year were real guys (though Clint Eastwood is iffy, Million Dollar Baby is a screenplay “inspired by” a memoir about a real guy), which suggests our most honoured actors are good mimics, and Hollywood writers are all out of ideas.
And how strange that we love performances in biopics, but seem to dismiss them on television. I just finished reading Darrell Hammond's super weird and disturbing memoir, and while I can't say I'd go back and re-read chapters detailing his abuse at the hands of his sadistic mother, or plumbing the depths of his cocaine addiction, it was fascinating to read about his process of putting together a good impression. Over the years, his uncanny takes on Clinton, Gore, Cheney, Rumsfeld, John McCain, Donald Trump, Chris Matthews, Ted Koppell, and Jesse Jackson have ruled the infamous Saturday Night Live cold open, but to my knowledge he never won, nor was he nominated, for any acting awards.
Impersonations, impressions, the mockery of mimicry, it's all fascinating to me. I love trolling tv and YouTube for footage of somebody “doing” a great somebody else, particularly when they are rendered with just a few tics and mannerisms. How I would love to turn around, bury my face in my hands, and turn back around, transformed.
Dream: Be a good impressionist (one who performs impressions, for lack of a better term).
Goal: Unachievable. It's the sad truth that whatever meagre acting skills I might possess, nailing an impression is not among them. A few years ago, I tried out for a sketch troupe that required you to bring a series of characters to the audition including, if you had one, a celebrity impression. I put together a lousy cabaret of stock characters (British swearing man! Redneck baby photographer!) and wracked my brain for a celebrity. I don't think I look like anybody famous, but the only time anyone has ever said, “You know who you kind of look like...” they've said I vaguely resemble weird character actor John Malkovich. I don't know whether to be flattered or horrified at the comparison, but he's such a unique personality with a distinct vocal cadence that goes from whispers to screams, a big, open, expressive face, and a quickness to anger that should have made him ripe for parody. I wrote a terrible sketch for me as Malkovich where he's trying to record the outgoing message on his answering machine, but a bee keeps flying into the room and wrecking every “take”, making him madder and madder. I studied every Malkovichian thing I could find, to absolutely no success. I was terrible.
Plan: Despite the setback of being no good, determine the qualities one must capture to really nail an impersonation, like:
A weird expression or turn of phrase. Having hardly seen Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, I couldn't say whether or not he observed a great deal of “wacky, wild stuff”, but impressions of him rely on that so heavily, I imagine that's all he said to become the King of Late Night. Similarly, did Reagan say “Well” that much? Did Lucille Ball go “Waaaaah!” all the time? Was Jimmy Stewart functionally retarded?
A distinctive physical characteristic. Despite the downer of being born with gap teeth, you'd always have a Lauren Hutton, David Letterman, or 90's Madonna at the ready. Anyone with poufy ginger hair could pull off a Trump. If SNL has taught us anything, every black person should try an Oprah in their lives, white folks will love it.
An accent. Despite the tragedy of his untimely death, do you think Steve Irwin's gradual disappearance from popular culture kind of delights Aussies? It has to. I work with an Australian, and he says whenever he meets someone at a party, or goes into a store and starts speaking, he has countless bad Steve Irwin's parroted back to him, rife with “Crikey's!”
Power. Maybe the reason we love a good celebrity impression is that it's usually mean spirited and takes the intended down a few pegs. Surely America was helped through eight years of Bush thanks to Will Ferrell's bumbling, blinking “strateegery.” An impression that received loads of attention, may have turned an election, or at least given solid ratings, was Tina Fey's Sarah Palin. The resemblance was no stronger than dark hair and glasses, but something about liberal, snarky Fey taking a stab at folksy, misinformed Palin was amazing. Maybe it was because Sarah Palin was virtually unknown prior to her nomination for VP, so for a time there were just as many Fey as Palin soundbites floating around as the genuine article. In any case, I hope Sarah sticks around on the lunatic fringe, not enough to yield any actual political power, but enough to ensure continuing Feyppearances on Saturday Night Live.
Isn't it such a weird experience watching someone do an impression of you? Usually it's just someone imitating you to make a point in an argument, which is pretty bad, but you don't mention it because you're in the midst of an argument and don't want to lose steam. But they say something like, “You're always, 'Oh I'm James! Blah blah blah!'” And I don't think I've ever said that. My brother does an impression of me where he rubs his hands together and says, “Let's proceed to the observatory.” I'm not sure I sound like that, but every time I do my impression of his impression of me, people go, “Yes! You're exactly like that!” So what do I know? My point is, whether directed at you or not, a scathing imitation, or loving homage, there's something remarkable about a great impression. It's just wacky, wild stuff.