Five Great Movie Impostors
This Friday’s cinema releases are swarming with fraudsters, moles and shysters.
In Bart Layton’s Sundance darling The Imposter, a grieving Texan family welcomes back their sixteen-year-old son with open arms when he’s returned home by authorities three years after going missing without a trace. The only trouble is that their blue-eyed child with a mop of blonde locks now has brown eyes, dark hair that’s receding and an accent that’s not only from the wrong side of the Mississippi, it’s from the wrong side of the Atlantic. Remarkably, this is a documentary.
Real life gives the backdrop to James Marsh’s 90s Belfast-set Shadow Dancer, a nerve-shredding portrait of a young single mum (Andrea Riseborough) caught between the IRA cell she belongs to and Clive Owen’s counter-terrorism agent who’s forcing her to inform on her brothers-in-arms (who also happen to be her brothers).
Rounding off this trio of charlatans is the welcome rerelease of Orson Welles’ final directorial feature F for Fake, which is both a quixotic essay on everything phoney (sleight-of-hand magic, art forgery, journalistic fabulism) and a celebration of the most tricksy art-form of the lot – cinema.
To get you in the mood for a weekend of cinematic chicanery, here are five great movie Impostors.
Paul Poitier (Will Smith) in Six Degrees of Separation (dir. Fred Schepisi)
Ouisa (Stockard Channing) and Flan Kittredge (Donald Sutherland) are an art dealer couple who fail to spot a forgery when a young man claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier stumbles into their upper east-side apartment one night with a cockamamie story about being college-chums with their Harvard-attending offspring and claiming he was mugged in Central Park. The phoney Poitier progeny is Paul (played by then 25-year-old Will Smith on break from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), a charming young man who knows that with narcissistic socialites like the Kittredges the quickest way to their affections is flattery. He plays them like a harp, exploiting their white guilt and love of celebrity. By the end of the night he’s schooling them on the hidden meanings within Catcher in the Rye and promising them roles in his father’s upcoming movie version of CATS.
Lady Eve (Barbara Stanwyck) in The Lady Eve (dir. Preston Sturges)
“I tell you, that’s the same dame,” says Muggsy to his less switched-on charge Charles (Henry Fonda), the heir to a beer brewing fortune. The dame in question is Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), the insanely sexy con-artist with whom Charles fell for on board a cruise ship from South America while Jean’s cardsharp father tried to bleed him dry. (Unbeknown to Charles, she also fell for him.) This demure English rose can’t possibly be that two-bit harlot who broke his heart, can she? Of course she is. She’s posing as Lady Eve in a screwball scheme to drive Charles back into the arms of her real persona. As was the case in the Garden of Eden, Eve gets what she wants.
Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) in The Talented Mr. Ripley (dir. Anthony Minghella)
Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) would rather be “a fake somebody than a real nobody.” And the somebody he sets his sights on is the spectacularly charismatic Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law). Tom has been hired by Dickie’s straight-laced father to convince his ne' er-do-well offspring to return home from an extended sabbatical in the south of Italy, but when Tom sets eyes on Dickie and his fabulous Mediterranean lifestyle he instead worms his way into the playboy’s inner circle. It doesn’t last, however. When Tom can’t have Dickie he decides to become him in a twisted Faustian deal he makes with his own fragile conscience. Patricia Highsmitsh’s most famous character has been portrayed on the big screen several times, notably by Alain Delon in Plein Soleil, René Clément’s version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, the German’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, but never has Tom Ripley’s reptilian chill been married with such pathos.
Dean Profitt (Kurt Russell) in Overboard (dir. Garry Marshall)
This isn’t just one impostor, it’s is a whole family of them. When über rich bitch Joanna Stayton (Goldie Hawn) spills off her luxury yacht into the drink she ends up in hospital with amnesia. Dean (Kurt Russell), the wife beater-sporting carpenter that she ripped off, sees the story on the news and grabs the chance to get even – he tells the authorities she’s his missing wife and brings the heiress home to the rundown shack he shares with his four feral offspring. The most fun to be had in this breezy farce is seeing the incredulous Joanna/Hawn adjust to her life with Dean/Russell and his brood of devil children. It’s all rather improbable, but it moves at such a whip under the steady hand of Garry Marshall that it’s impossible not to be charmed. Considering that Marshall went on to direct the likes of Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, I suspect there might have been an impostor in the director’s chair too.
Freddy Newandyke / Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in Reservoir Dogs (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
“An undercover cop has got to be Marlon Brando. To do this job you got to be a great actor. You got to be naturalistic. You got to be naturalistic as hell.” There are a few great undercover cop movies that would have worked for this last slot: Donnie Brasco, White Heat, The Departed, Kindergarten Cop. All great (okay, maybe not the last one), but nothing beats the sweaty brow-tension of Tarantino’s debut. Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange convinces the film’s rainbow of bank-robbing crims that he’s one of them with a well-worked yarn about the great weed drought of ’86 and a sharp-nosed police dog, but what really sells his authenticity is Harvey Keitel as Mr. White and the look of disappointment on his face when he finds out his comrade’s with the fuzz.