Features Australia

Pity Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts

Some Australian actors have slightly better luck playing non-Australians

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

The Oscars, awarded in February each year, bring out the patriotism in many Australian movie buffs and sections of the media. While few people seriously assume that an Australian film will be named the best picture in the near future — none has been nominated since Moulin Rouge! in 2001) — we hold out hope that our actors, probably Australian cinema’s most successful exports (or at least the most revered), will win a few statuettes.

If a non-Australian actor wins a major trophy, en route to the Academy Awards (‘Hollywood’s night of nights’), the local entertainment pages will give it a parochial spin: ‘Another setback in Hugh Jackman’s Oscar campaign’ or ‘Naomi Watts misses out again’. (We read such headlines a few times last year, even though Jackman never stood a chance and Watts was an outsider at best.) Like sports fans during the Olympics, star-watchers have a marvellous tunnel vision.

For the upcoming Oscars, there was some local hope of a showdown between two Aussies: Watts, as Princess Diana in Diana; and Nicole Kidman, as Princess Grace in another imaginatively titled film, Grace of Monaco. It would be a perfect story for celebrity magazines: two major Australian stars, close friends for over 20 years, playing the world’s two most popular princesses of the past century. (Yes, Watts is technically Anglo-Australian, but we’ll forgive her.) Both have been nominated before, and Kidman has won, but they’ve never gone up against each other.

Unfortunately, that battle won’t be happening. Grace of Monaco, due to be released in November, will now be released in 2014. This puts it out of the running. Diana has been released, but Watts probably won’t be nominated. She was unsure about whether to accept this role, and in hindsight, she should have turned it down. The Oscars love a good impersonation (see Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher), and Watts’s imitation of Diana’s voice and style is at least as accurate as Michelle Williams’s much-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated performance in 2011 as another tragic celebrity, Marilyn Monroe, in My Week with Marilyn. Williams, however, had the benefit of a better film. It is rare that any actor, however accomplished, could get plaudits for a movie as universally scorned as Diana.

Diana retells the final years of the Princess’s life as a Mills & Boon romance, making her seem both banal and somewhat annoying. How much of it is true? Don’t ask me. Did Diana really try to reach her boyfriend over the phone by using a comic Liverpudlian accent? Did she go out in public wearing a long brown wig, making ‘the most famous woman in the world’ (as she is twice described, with some validity) miraculously anonymous? Well, possibly. She and the Duchess of Kent once notoriously went on the town with comedian Pamela Stephenson, disguised as policewomen. In this movie, we can believe that the disguise worked, because Watts really looks nothing like Diana. If Diana walked the streets of London in 1997 looking like Naomi Watts, her greatest danger would have been an Australian expat stopping her to say, ‘Hey, aren’t you that girl from the lamb roast ads?’

That’s another problem: try as I might, I can think of no major actress who looks like Diana. However precise the hairstyles (and that much they get right), Watts’s lack of resemblance goes against her. This is Diana, one of the most emotive figures (and still most famous faces) in British history. The film is so bad, in fact, that Britons can blame Watts, forget that she was born in Shoreham, England, and say: ‘Why did they cast that bloody Australian woman?’

For good reason, actually. Normally, Australian actors are a safe choice to play almost anyone. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of cultural cringe. When you’re a relatively small nation, you want to broaden your horizons. Cate Blanchett alone, for example, has played Elizabeth I, Veronica Guerin, Charlotte Gray and (more challengingly, because they are familiar as well as famous) Katharine Hepburn and Bob Dylan. She has been Russian, English, German, Elfin (if that’s how they sound) and various regions of American. In the upcoming film The Monuments Men, she is French.

Australian actors are so good at mimicry that, outside their home nation, many people don’t realise that they are Aussies. See that Yankee prisoner in the television series Orange Is the new Black? That’s Yael Stone, a Sydney girl. The young woman playing the title roles in Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre? The ubiquitous Canberran, Mia Wasikowska. Most of the New Yorkers in The Great Gatsby? It was filmed in Sydney, which had a ready-made cast. Occasionally, they even play Australians.

When playing a revered non-Australian, however, we could be treading on eggshells. Kidman’s performance as Princess Grace is yet to be seen, but the delay in the movie is not a good sign. Happily, Kidman seems to be foolproof casting. Like Grace, she is a movie star known for a steely glamour, who lost the glamour to win an Oscar. It isn’t her most challenging role.

A few other Australians have emerged relatively unscathed from portraying fame. In Rush, Melbourne boy Chris Hemsworth, who made his name as Marvel’s superhero Thor, plays the dashing English motor-racer James Hunt — and does so with aplomb. He has joined a crowd of Australians to play famous non-Australians in the movies: Guy Pearce as Houdini, Andy Warhol and Edward VIII; Kidman as Virginia Woolf; Eric Bana as a young Henry VIII; Geoffrey Rush as Peter Sellers; Watts as Valerie Plame (whom she resembles far more than she resembles Diana).

The great friendly showdown between Kidman and Watts won’t happen next year, but perhaps an Australian actress can still win the Oscar. Currently, Blanchett is the favourite to win for her role in Blue Valentine, as a deluded New York socialite. If she wins, she will be the first Australian actress to win since… since Cate Blanchett in 2005. Who needs a nation of actors when one woman can play everything?

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