Why Cate Blanchett Needs to Play Two Roles In Her Lucille Ball Biopic

By  · Published on September 3rd, 2015

Miramax Filmx

If there’s any kind of casting that excites me more than superhero movie casting it’s biopic casting. Both genres involve characters we’re visually familiar with ahead of time, so the actors hired to portray them are immediately scrutinized based on their looks. For biopics, though, there’s also the voice. Actually, for a lot of these movies, the voice can be even more important than the face. But there’s also a curious case with biopics, especially as more and more of them are made: they’re all united as part of what could be called a real-life cinematic universe. And unlike with, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the biopic universe can have the same actors playing multiple characters. Some of whom intertwine.

This is particularly complicated when we’re dealing with Hollywood-set biopics, as is now evident in the casting of Cate Blanchett as Lucille Ball in an Aaron Sorkin-scripted movie covering Ball’s marriage to Desi Arnaz. That means a time span of 1940–1960, which fits almost too well with Blanchett’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, which departs with her story around 1941. It’s like she’s inhabited one iconic movie star and then quantum leaped into another at the very next instant, as if she can’t be both women at the very same time. But how weird will it be if the Ball biopic features someone else playing Hepburn, since the actresses were friends?

When I saw the news, I did immediately dream of scenes with Ball and Hepburn together, both of them played by Blanchett. I even considered remakes of their on-screen collaborations, 1937’s Stage Door and 1945’s Without Love, with Blanchett taking on dual roles courtesy of the same magic that gave us the Winklevoss twins in the Sorkin-penned The Social Network (or they can go old school, Parent Trap style, either way). The latter could potentially still happen, sort of, within the upcoming biopic given the year fits into the time frame, though there’s no good reason why that production would be a part of the depiction of Ball’s life story.

I can’t find a video of them together in the later movie, but here’s a clip from Stage Door barely uniting Hepburn and Ball in the same scene:

The idea of Blanchett doing double duty in the Ball biopic had me wondering about other interactions between famous people both portrayed by the same actor or actress. Did Margaret Thatcher ever meet Julia Child (both of them played by Meryl Streep) ? Did Truman Capote ever cross paths with Alfred Hitchcock (both played by Toby Jones)? Did Richard Nixon listen to the music of Brian Wilson (both John Cusack)? J. Edgar Hoover is known to have opened a file on Howard Hughes, but they probably never met in person (both Leonardo DiCaprio).

One major missed opportunity occurred a couple years ago when Angela Bassett did not portray both lead roles in the TV movie Betty and Coretta. Back in the ’90s, she portrayed Betty Shabazz in both Malcolm X and Panther, but this time she took the part of Coretta Scott King and let Mary J. Blige play Shabazz. Bassett could have gone for three and done an additional “cameo” as Tina Turner in the background somewhere. Or at least kept Shabazz from having to be played by too many different people (I’ve written about this issue before).

Plus, the man who played the title role in Malcolm X is the rare actor who has let his biopic portrayals intermix. There’s a scene in the 1999 biopic The Hurricane, in which Denzel Washington portrays Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, where the incarcerated boxer has a photo of Malcolm X on the wall of his prison cell. It’s hard to tell from the screen capture below, but apparently that’s also Washington from the 1992 Spike Lee joint.

Universal Pictures

Here’s hoping that if Hepburn isn’t a character in the Ball biopic, that Blanchett can take a page out of Denzel’s book and at least slip a photo of herself from The Aviator into the new movie somewhere.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.