This week, the first pictures of Naomi Watts as Princess Diana were made public. As with the first pictures of Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock, or Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor, or Toby Jones as a different Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, or Malin Akerman as Linda Lovelace, or Amanda Seyfried as another Linda Lovelace, we’re invited to marvel at the close physical resemblance between actor and subject, to infer that the casting has been validated, and thus to begin anticipating the arrival of the movie, safe in the knowledge that it is being well-handled; the validating resemblance is designed to prove that the film is respectfully attuned to the legacy concerns of the beloved subject.
My response to all of these examples is that none of the performers actually looks anything like the person they are portraying, even when the pictures are carefully composed, and the prosthetic makeup is extensive, but that’s not especially important. The films’ producers have handpicked portraits that mimic well-known photographs, encouraging side-by-side comparisons, as if physical resemblance were the only, or most important way to capture the personality of a celebrity.
This vogue for le cinéma du looky-likey is a perfect fit in a film culture less inclined to support and sustain experiment and innovation than it is to cheer on adaptations, remakes, and replays of familiar things in new dressing, where fans terrorise message boards to insist that adaptations of their beloved young-adult fictions transliterate every last word of the book to the screen in perfect imitation of the adaptations they’ve already constructed inside their own brains.
I use the example of Watts as Diana because this is a case where the resemblance is so slight, but she’s a sufficiently intelligent actress to make sure that she doesn’t take on a task for which she is ill-prepared, and I know she won’t go “full Streep” and attempt a mannered, detailed impersonation of Diana. The casting is surprising because Watts usually plays it low-key. She is as unlikely a choice for Diana as she was for Marilyn Monroe, in Andrew Dominik’s long-delayed adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde (which looks set to shoot early in 2013, but maybe without Watts). But I’ll spare you any of the Monroe/Diana comparisons that people were so keen to make at the time of Diana’s death, and which Elton John’s repurposing of Candle in the Wind as a dedication from one to the other cemented. You can bet that if she keeps the lead in Blonde, there will be more pictures of her recreating famous Monroe poses than there will side-by-side comparisons of Watts and Gertrude Bell when Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert starts shooting. For an actress with such an unassuming public profile, Watts is surprisingly ready to step into previously-inhabited personae, whether historical figures such as Helen Gandy in Clint Eastwood’s J.Edgar and Valerie Plame in Fair Game, or lead roles in remakes King Kong, Funny Games, and The Ring. If this is fearless role-selection, and if Watts has a career strategy, it comes with the assurance that the performance is never to be mere mimicry, but a rethinking and repersonalisation of existing material (look at how she completely re-orientated Kong‘s Ann Darrow to sidestep comparisons with Fay Wray). My skepticism about a Diana film is not about Watts’ (suit)ability but, more prosaically, about whether or not there’s anything interesting left to say about such a familiar figure, without succumbing to the push to sanctify or scandalise.