Tom Hollander’s phenomenal performance as Truman Capote in FX’s “Capote vs. the Swans” is hard to look away from. Even while his Capote is so uncomfortable in his body, so painfully driven to entertain with wit and cruelty, so desperate to deflect and self-medicate, Hollander makes every line, every gesture, intriguing. He conjures the real Capote so thoroughly and consistently, it’s like watching a magic trick, and it leaves you wondering how he did it. The actor disappears.
I kept looking for the seams, for signs of the effort Hollander must have been putting into his rigorously physical turn. But it was all so natural — the flamboyance just excessive enough, the need to regale with stories a constant, the worship of and contempt for elitism always at play in his eyes. As the celebrity author of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” betrays his wealthy Manhattan friends — his “swans” – with a barely fictionalized Esquire article about their lives, Hollander never telegraphs why Capote did it. He delivers the man so entirely that there are as many reasons for his disloyalty as there are facets to his personality.
Hollander’s Capote is one of a few dazzling recent portrayals on TV of real people — famous people of whom there is abundance of video footage in order to make comparisons. I still can’t shake Elizabeth Debicki’s take on Princess Diana, which gave the last two seasons of Netflix’s “The Crown” its most haunting element. In real life, the tall Debicki is not a ringer for Diana, but that didn’t prevent her, with the help of a wig and some iconic outfits, from eerily evoking the princess in all her private kindness and public discomfort.
Watching Debicki as Diana, it doesn’t matter that the images of Diana and the sounds of her voice are still fresh in the minds of many viewers. Like Hollander, she’s not doing an impression; she’s mastering the body language, the speech patterns, and the tonality of her subject and then letting go. Jason Isaacs pulls off the same thing in “Archie,” a four-part BritBox miniseries about Cary Grant’s rise from a poor youth in England to fame in Hollywood. The series is loaded with biopic clichés and poorly cast Hollywood icons such as Alfred Hitchcock and George Burns, but Isaacs is outstanding as he captures Grant’s charisma as solidly as his inner emptiness.
Hollander, Debicki, and Isaacs reach for and achieve authenticity in their performances, leaving you mesmerized by a kind of from-beyond-the-grave illusion. They play personalities we’re very familiar with — unlike, say, Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter in “The Girl From Plainville,” a young woman whose face is well-known but whose manner is less so — and they pass. Fanning is extraordinary as the then-17-year-old who urged Conrad Roy to kill himself, but who knows if her performance is realistic? Likewise Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, the man convicted of killing his wife in Max’s “The Staircase.” Hollander, Debicki, and Isaacs recreate the mannerisms, the voices, and the vibes of their subjects, then move forward without swerving into caricature. I recall feeling that way about Michael Douglas’s performances as Liberace in “Behind the Candelabra” in 2013; impersonation is only the first step toward something fully dimensional.
In Max’s “Julia,” Sarah Lancashire edges her version of Julia Child into a more comic vein. The British actor captures Child’s essence and then exaggerates it, turning up the volume carefully and precisely. The show, recently (and unfortunately) canceled after two seasons, is a sitcom about marriage, the workplace, and sexism first, before it’s a biography. Lancashire creates a terrific character, but that character is Julia Child only to a certain point, after which she is an original creation by Lancashire and series creator Daniel Goldfarb.
As such, it’s less mind-blowing than watching Debicki resurrect Diana, if no less entertaining. Matthew Goode takes a similar approach to playing Robert Evans in Paramount+’s “The Offer” — inflating an already big personality to serve the amped-up tone of the show, which is about the making of “The Godfather.” Goode skillfully chews up the scenery as he tracks Evans, the studio head, through his infectious highs and drug-fueled lows. It’s a kick, in all its excess.
Let’s hope we’re never faced with technologically generated versions of famous people in scripted TV stories . Where’s the fun in that?