Political figures jostle for Oscar spotlight

Tue Jan 6, 2009 10:43pm EST
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By Tom Roston

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - It seems appropriate that Benicio Del Toro takes a diplomatic stance when discussing the differences between playing a recognizable political figure and portraying a purely fictional character.

"There are ups and downs," says the actor, whose turn as Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara in "Che" is receiving widespread critical praise. "The up is that there is a lot of information -- a lifetime of information. That can be overwhelming at times, but that is an up because you don't have to create it."

"The down," he adds, "is the expectations, because people think they know the character. It shouldn't affect you as an actor, but inevitably it does."

Del Toro is in quite a crowded field this year, one of many actors in high-profile performances as real-life politicos. There is also Josh Brolin, who plays President George W. Bush, along with James Cromwell as his father, in "W."; Sean Penn as California's first openly gay elected politician Harvey Milk in "Milk"; and Frank Langella, whose portrayal of Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" is, like the others, getting plenty of awards season buzz.

Although these are all meaty parts, playing political figures isn't a straight shot to Academy recognition. Oscar nods have actually been infrequent for these turns, with some notable exceptions, including nominations for Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the 1992 film of the same name and Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in 1995's "Nixon." And then there has been a smattering of Oscar wins, such as Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi (1982's "Gandhi"), and more recently Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin (2006's "The Last King of Scotland") and Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II (2006's "The Queen").

This year, Brolin has a unique view on the subject because he plays two real-life characters from the world of politics; he also co-stars in "Milk" as Dan White, the city supervisor who assassinated Milk.

"With Dan White, I felt more pressure than with W.," he says, "because (director) Oliver (Stone) and I talked a lot about recreating the spirit of W., rather than making a carbon copy of him. Whereas with Dan White, I really wanted to get his voice down -- I tried to do an actual rendition of him."

Brolin says that both Stone and "Milk" director Gus Van Sant left it up to him to create the two characters, and he researched primarily by studying copious amounts of video footage. For "W.," Brolin also read 13 books on the president and constantly had his speeches on a loop "until I drove my assistant crazy," he says.   Continued...

<p>Cast member Benicio Del Toro smiles for photographers on the red carpet at the Japan premiere of the film "Che" in Tokyo December 16, 2008. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao</p>