Brow Beat

Two Oscar Favorites Show Great Acting Is More Than Mimicry

As Dick Cheney, Christian Bale is uncanny. As Mary Poppins, Emily Blunt is something new.

Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins and Christian Bale as Dick Cheney.
Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins and Christian Bale as Dick Cheney. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Disney Enterprises Inc. and Annapurna Pictures.

Dick Cheney may not have much in common with Mary Poppins, but in playing these two people, Vice’s Christian Bale and Mary Poppins Returns’ Emily Blunt were faced with a similar task: to construct a recognizable facsimile of a familiar figure and comment on it at the same time. That the figure is a former vice president in one case and an iconic Disney heroine in the other has less to with why one performance works and the other falls flat than how shifts in culture, technology, and, inevitably, the awards race have changed the way actors approach the job of re-creating and riffing on the familiar.

From the moment the first photos of Vice hit the internet, it was clear that another one of Bale’s vaunted transformations was underway. Just five years after Bale packed on a reported 40 pounds to play a con man–turned–federal agent in American Hustle, Bale did it again to play Dick Cheney, using, according to the New York Times, “over a hundred pieces of encapsulated silicone” to further alter his appearance. The results are often uncanny, in the Freudian sense: Especially as the elder Cheney, the one so familiar from his role as George W. Bush’s attack dog and enforcer, Bale captures his target so precisely—the sideways tilt of his head, the nasal drone of his voice—that it’s difficult to even remember what the real Cheney looks like. Not all of the movie’s characterizations are so elaborately constructed: LisaGay Hamilton is almost invisible inside her Condoleezza Rice getup, but Sam Rockwell’s George W. is more impressionistic than literal, and Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney looks mostly like Amy Adams in an unfortunate wig.

Bale’s transmogrification won him a Golden Globe last week, and he’s considered a lock for an Oscar nomination: The prediction site GoldDerby now has him in a virtual dead heat with A Star Is Born’s Bradley Cooper and Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek for the eventual win. And it is truly an impressive feat. It’s just not an especially interesting one. Awards-giving bodies love performances like Bale’s because of their high degree of apparent difficulty. Actors respect the craft it takes to nail a real-life figure’s voice and bearing, and nonactors marvel at the dedication it takes to gain (or drop) pounds by the dozens in the service of one’s art. But for an imitative performance like Bale’s, the mark of greatest success is to achieve a facsimile of something the audience already knows—to make the thing look like the thing.

Although Vice is more ambitious (if not always much smarter) than a Saturday Night Live sketch, it’s bedeviled by the same problem that the show faces. The more accomplished prosthetics and makeup technology become, the more audiences expect impressions of public figures to physically resemble them, and the easier it is for the performers to let the prosthetics carry the load. Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford looked and sounded nothing like the real-life version, but his portrait of the then-president as an accident-prone klutz resonated so strongly that it redefined Ford’s public image. Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump is a savage caricature, but it only reinforces the image of Trump we already know. Bale’s Cheney is an astonishing re-creation, but once you get over your initial amazement, there’s nothing left to ponder. There’s so little distance between him and the real Cheney that there’s no room to create anything new. When Darrell Hammond played Cheney on SNL, the image of him as a Dr. Strangelove–ish war hawk, casually nibbling a sugar cookie as he rode astride a nuclear missile bound for Iraq, clashed with the Bush administration’s efforts to case him as a tough-hearted realist, reluctantly making the difficult decisions necessary to protect the U.S. Vice’s Cheney is hardly an admirable figure, but you can picture Cheney himself surveying its portrait of him as a Machiavellian schemer and nodding in approval.

Emily Blunt has said that she didn’t set out to “impersonate” Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins, relying on P.L. Travers’ original books for inspiration. But her take on the character still feels like it’s in conversation with the 1964 film, which has permeated the culture so thoroughly it’s almost irrelevant that Blunt says it’s been 28 years since she watched it (and like everything said on the promotional trail, that statement has to be taken with a grain of salt). Blunt’s not “doing” Andrews in any transparent way. Her speaking voice is an octave lower, her accent crisper and more self-consciously posh. Andrews’ Mary is an ebullient, lighter-than-air presence, helping the Banks children find the magic in even the most mundane of tasks; Blunt’s is more like a mischievous god, sent to Earth to right a few wrongs before ascending to the heavens once more. Blunt’s Mary is a delight, but she’s a little frightening, too. There are moments, brief pauses in the film’s tightly packed (and sometimes strenuous) fun when the camera catches her staring at the Banks family with a distant curiosity, as if she’s still trying to master the delicate art of being human. It’s not hard to imagine a version of Mary Poppins Returns where she’s like Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, a melancholy deity giving humanity one last chance to get it right. Blunt’s Mary Poppins isn’t a revision of Andrews’ so much as a complement to it. Sometimes it’s in harmony with the original, sometimes crafting its own countermelody.

Vice’s goal is to overwrite history. When it recreates the White House situation room on the morning of Sept. 11, with Cheney asserting presidential powers he does not legally possess, we’re meant to process it as fact, not a re-creation of what happened but the thing itself. It doesn’t want you to see Bale’s performance in relation to the real person; it wants you to take it as real. You can sympathize with and even respect the urgency behind that approach, but it feels dead on the screen, and Bale’s performance is of a piece with it. Mary Poppins Returns is overwritten in its own way, matching the original film sequence for sequence, song for song, but Blunt breaks free and produces something that’s kinetic and not merely mimetic. Her Mary Poppins is a breath apart from the one we already knew, and the space between them is filled with sparks.