By Erick Johnson and Stacy Jenel Smith
What do Gwen Stefani
, Janet Jackson
, Joaquin Phoenix and Jamie Foxx have in common? They're each recreating entertainment icons in upcoming film projects. We're seeing an avalanche of biopics of show business legends these days. Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," starring Leonardo DiCaprio
as larger-than-life aviation pioneer and Hollywood kingpin Howard Hughes, offers a lineup of classic stars being played by stars of today. Kate Beckinsale
's portraying smouldering movie queen Ava Gardner, Cate Blanchett
's essaying the role of Katharine Hepburn in her heyday. (Don't you know they just love being turned out in that great period wardrobe and hair?) And No Doubt lead singer Stefani
is making her film acting debut as Hollywood's glamorous original blonde "Bombshell," the 1930s doomed film siren Jean Harlow.
Already, Scorsese's casting choices have elicited both applause and jeers. Stefani looks fabulous as Harlow, note some. She's got the star power to bring off the role and it's "inspired casting." Others don't see Gwen as Jean at all. And still others are already turning up their noses at DiCaprio daring to play the great Hughes.
"He looks like a little boy playing dress-up," sneered one industry insider, when the first wave of setside photos broke.
And while Kevin Spacey is convinced that he can play a swingin' Bobby Darin, despite the fact he's already older than the singer was when he died, plenty of Darin's fans are taking a wait and see attitude -- at least.
Such controversy over dearly held images of film and music greats makes playing entertainment immortals a task for only the bravest (and most talented) actors. James Brolin was critically crucified for his performance as Clark Gable in the film "Gable and Lombard," for instance. Jennifer Love Hewitt's portrayal of Audrey Hepburn in 2000's made-for television movie "The Audrey Hepburn Story" won her a host of back-handed compliments. Hewitt was said by many reviewers to do an adequate job with the role, and even those critics admitted they were surprised and had expected worse.
However, when performers can nail such a performance, the rewards are big.
That's exactly what happened to Robert Downey, Jr., who had done good work in a string of movies, but had yet to prove the immensity of his capabilities, when he immersed himself in all things Charlie Chaplin to play Hollywood's supreme genius in the 1992 "Chaplin." He astonished critics and won an Academy Award nomination.
Halle Berry and Judy Davis each brought home an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award for star biopic performances -- 1999's "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" in Halle's case, and 2001's "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows" in Judy's. The latter was exec produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, the duo behind 'Chicago,' who've practically made star biopics a cottage industry.
Pop superstar Janet Jackson will soon be trying her hand at playing living legend Lena Horne in a television movie for ABC being produced by Meron and Zadan. In the project, which could debut as early as May of next year, Jackson will record her own versions of such Horne jazz classics as "Stormy Weather" and "Just One of Those Things." And lots of luck.
Already in the can is "Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Story," which is expected to go into wide release later this year. In the film, Foxx portrays Charles, as it tells the singer's life story of being from a poor family in Albany, Georgia, to going blind from glaucoma at the age of 6, and overcoming racism and other obstacles to become the famous and remarkable performer that he is today.
Even before the recent passing of country music legend Johnny Cash, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon had signed to play Cash and his musician wife, June Carter Cash, in the big-screen drama "Walk the Line." The project, which is slated to go before cameras next year, is being made with full cooperation of the Cash family and will incorporate some of the singer's original songs.
Now -- do you think Renee Zellweger can handle Janis Joplin?
Paramount's "A Piece of My Heart" biopic of the whiskey-voiced 1960s blues-rock singer -- who died of a drug overdose at age 27 -- rolls next year.
And there'll certainly be more star bios after that.