Just what do we want from famous actors who portray famous authors? Resemblance? Intellectual affinity? Some obliquely expressed but otherwise unavailable insight into the creative process? Of course it's the same dilemma with any sub-category of biopic, but authors present a special sort of challenge: How do you express and reveal the innermost life of the mind of artists whose work is non-visual? Are cigarettes and typewriters always required?In no particular order and by no means comprehensive, this list of innately discussable actors-as-authors doesn't really answer these questions. But hopefully it'll remind you how fun they are to ask.
Christopher Plummer as Vladimir NabokovPlummer’s performance as the Russian literary titan, Leo Tolstoy, in The Last Station, is well known, but he also played the role in the lesser-known The Metamorphosis—A Study: Nabokov on Kafka, a 1989 Public T.V. special. Here, as Nabokov, he gives a lecture on Kafka at Cornell. Heady stuff.
Memorable quote: “Curiously enough, Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings. This is a very nice observation on my part, to be treasured all your lives.”
Daniel Day-Lewis as Franz Kafka
Speaking of Kafka, here he is, as embodied by a young Daniel Day-Lewis, directed by Richard Eyre in 1986’s The Insurance Man, one of many great teleplays by the British playwright Alan Bennett.Memorable quote: “I do a very good imitation of a human being.”
Gary Oldman as Joe Orton
Thanks in part to Bennett's perceptive script, Prick Up Your Ears (1987) records one of the greatest early Oldman performances, as the blaze-of-glory playwright Orton, and the—let's just say complicated—relationship with his muse and collaborator Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina, also great).Memorable quote: "My plays are about getting away with it, and the ones who get away with it are the guilty."
Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as Iris Murdoch
In 2001’s Iris (another one directed by Richard Eyre), Winslet and Dench share a dual portrayal of the younger and the older Murdoch, whose vibrant mind ultimately was undone by Alzheimer’s disease.Memorable quote: “There is only one freedom of any importance whatsoever: That of the mind.”
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X
Washington is at his best in Spike Lee's epic, extraordinary, Oscar-robbed Malcolm X (1992).Memorable quote: "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us."
Ben Whishaw as John Keats
So far, Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009) is the best early-21st-century movie about an early-19th-century poet ever made.Memorable quote: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
Kerry Fox as Janet Frame
And before Bright Star, Campion made An Angel at My Table (1990), the deeply lived-in bio of a New Zealand national treasure.Memorable quote: "Finally it was concluded that I had never suffered from schizophrenia. At first the truth seemed more terrifying than the lie. How could I now ask for help when there was nothing wrong with me?"
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote
Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean
Streep: So lofty, yet always so human, and therefore the perfect choice to play the most approachable of New Yorker prose stylists, in 2002’s Adaptation.Memorable quote: “Um, John? Will you go like this? ‘Mmmmmmmmmmm.’”
Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway
Before being a highlight of early House of Cards, he nailed this scene-stealing literary cameo in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, from 2011. (With due respect to Clive Owen, also fine, in Hemingway & Gellhorn.)Memorable quote: “I believe that love that is true and real creates a respite from death; all cowardice comes from not loving or not loving well, which is the same thing. And when the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face, like some rhino hunters I know, or Belmonte, who’s truly brave, it is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds. Until it returns, as it does to all men. And then you must make really good love again. Think about it.”
Viggo Mortensen as William S. Burroughs
Speaking of cameos, here’s the one worth waiting for in 2012’s On the Road, the long-awaited movie of Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic. (With due respect, of course, to Peter Weller’s thoroughly Burroughs-ian Bill Lee in 1991’s Naked Lunch.)Memorable quote: “Well, young man, I do believe the cocktail hour is upon us.”
Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman
With Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammet, too. In 1977’s Julia.Memorable quote: “Ooooowww!” [Frustratedly flings typewriter through window.]
Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf
True, more than a few Woolf fans did not appreciate the view of her depicted in 2002’s The Hours, adapted from Michael Cunningham’s book. But what self-respecting list of actors as authors could fail to mention it?Memorable quote: “Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely?”
Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
Ok, sometimes the casting of these things is just very hard to accept. Sylvia (2003) is one of those times.Memorable quote: "You probably just think I'm some ghastly American bitch, don't you?"
Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde
The casting of 1997's Wilde, on the other hand, seems so right that resistance is futile.Memorable quote: "I think that the realization of one's self is the prime aim of life, and that to realize through pleasure is finer than to do so through pain."
Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells
In 1979’s Time After Time, in a role far removed from the cheeky thug he played in A Clockwork Orange, McDowell holds his own as a dovish Wells, confronting Jack the Ripper (David Warner, also great) for stealing his time machine and trotting off to a rather ultraviolent 20th century.Memorable quote: “The first man to raise a fist is the man who’s run out of ideas.”
Colin Firth as William Shakespeare
Speaking of time travel, and of cameos, and yes, with due respect to Joseph Fiennes, also fine, in Shakespeare in Love, let us here celebrate the mirth of Firth, in Blackadder Back and Forth, from 1999.Memorable quote: “Don’t say it, I know, you hated Two Gentlemen of Verona. This one’s much better.”
Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers
Saving Mr. Banks: because who better to portray the Mary Poppins author in stubborn negotiations with a Walt Disney played by Tom Hanks?Memorable quote: “These books simply do not lend themselves to chirping and prancing. No. Certainly not a musical.”
Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens
In The Invisible Woman, Fiennes directs himself as Dickens and Felicity Jones as the decades-younger woman who became his mistress.Memorable quote: “Every human creature is a profound secret and mystery to every other.”
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker
In 1994's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Leigh's impersonation is so uncannily spot-on it's downright jarring.Memorable quote: "Razors pain you; / Rivers are damp; / Acids stain you; / And drugs cause cramp. / Guns aren’t lawful; / Nooses give; / Gas smells awful; / You might as well live."
Donald Sutherland as Giacomo Casanova
The year: 1976. The film: Fellini's Casanova (not to be confused with anyone else's). The character: Yes, if there's one thing this man did a lot of, it's...writing. His twelve-volume autobiography, the general source for this film, exceeds 3,500 pages.Memorable quote: "I'll need eggs. Bring me a basket of fresh eggs."
Ben Stiller as Jerry Stahl
In movie form, Permanent Midnight (1998), Stahl's memoir of being both a highly successful TV writer and a highly self-destructive heroin addict, gives Stiller a chance to dig deep.Memorable quote: "Trust me, on smack I was a real stud."
Philipe Noiret as Pablo Neruda
In Il Postino, a tender and rueful little film from 1994, the beloved French actor becomes the beloved Chilean poet, and a romance coach.Memorable quote: "When you explain poetry, it becomes banal."
Sandrine Kiberlain and Emmanuelle Devos as Simone de Beauvoir and Violette Leduc
At the core of Violette (2013) is an uncommon kind of drama, derived from spiky mentorship in the art of candid literary feminism.Memorable quote: "Screaming and sobbing won't get you anywhere. Writing will."
Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis as Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine
Agnieszka Holland's semi-forgotten 1995 film Total Eclipse recounts a tempestuous affair between French poets. Watch out.Memorable quote: "I have no intention of taking a job. My work is going far too well. I can't afford to waste time earning money."
Ken Ogata as Yukio Mishima
Ogata commands in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Paul Schrader's controversial portrait of the Japanese novelist and nationalist, who died by public suicide.Memorable quote: "When a man reaches forty, he has no chance to die beautifully. No matter how he tries, he will die of decay. He must compel himself to live."
Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar
Well, maybe Pekar isn't famous famous, but he's certainly among the most well known scribblers in the field of underground comics—particularly after Giamatti's gutsy performance in 2003's American Splendor.Memorable quote: "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff."
Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas
Bardem made his international breakthrough, and scored his first Oscar nomination, as the exiled author in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls (2000).Memorable quote: "My name for the moment is Reinaldo Arenas. I am a Cuban writer. I write and I survive."
Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace
Such is Wallace's aura that any casting is stunt casting, but Segel surprises and transcends in 2015's The End of the Tour. (With commendable assistance from Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky.)
Memorable quote: "And it's gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to sit alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that's fine in low doses, but if it's the basic main staple of your diet, you're gonna die."