How important is it for actors to look like who they play in a biopic?

Jeff Pope's script for Philomena was a low-key winner, smart about the way it approached a painful and difficult subject. Pope was nominated for an Oscar along with Steve Coogan, who shared the writing credit, and while they didn't win, it must have been a good experience. After all, Coogan's just agreed to star in Stan & Ollie, the latest script by Pope to make it to the screen, and John C. Reilly has signed on to co-star, with Jon S. Baird (Filth) set to direct.

Over the years, I've read lots of stories about tensions behind the scenes with some of Hollywood's great comedy teams, and I am curious to see what Pope and Baird do with the story of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Wisely, they are focusing on a specific moment in their careers, rather than trying to tell the entire story. Set during their farewell tour of the UK in 1953, the film catches the team well after their heyday, and it deals with the way the two of them manage their personal and professional relationships after decades of working together. It sounds, based on the Variety article with the quotes from Jeff Pope, like a passion project for the writer.

“Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are my heroes. When I watch their movies, in my head it is forever a Saturday morning and I am six years old watching the TV at home utterly spellbound.”

I am fascinated by the casting, though, and it raises a question I've asked repeatedly over the years regarding biopics: which is more important, looking like the person you're playing or capturing the spirit of them? Todd Haynes played with that question in I'm Not There, but it's something I am torn on overall. One of the things that made Love & Mercy such a wonderful and daring experiment in telling a biographical story was that they split the story into two distinct periods of Brian Wilson's life, then cast two different people as the younger and older Brian. Paul Dano and John Cusack don't look a thing alike, and I don't think either one of them particularly looks like Brian Wilson. But watching the film, you get a beautiful portrait of who he was at two of the most important moments in his life, and don't we all feel like different people at different stages in our lives anyway? Love & Mercy didn't even really try to make the actors look more like Wilson. No make-up. They never went overboard on period detail. It's a film about human connection and the ineffable origin of genius and it works. I have no problem accepting Dano and Cusack as Wilson because they both illuminate things about him with their performances. With Straight Outta Compton, O'Shea Jackson Jr. and Corey Hawkins look a heck of a lot like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, but that wouldn't matter if the two young actors hadn't been able to bring these incredibly well-known rap icons to life performance-wise. It's great that Jackson looks exactly like his father, but what makes Compton work is the expert way these young actors capture the thrills and turmoils that came with being on the cutting edge of a deeply political art form.

Coogan and Reilly don't remind me of Laurel and Hardy at all, but then again, they're not playing the onscreen personas so much as they're going to define the actual Stan Laurel and the real Oliver Hardy, the off-screen human beings. “I have not treated the boys with kid gloves or looked at them through rose-colored specs. They are living and breathing characters, with flaws and shortcomings.” I think both of the actors are terrific, and while I didn't love Filth, I thought it was solid. Same thing with Philomena, which is a lovely example of wit and restraint on the page. The combination of Baird and Pope on this one has me hoping for something smart and emotional.

No word yet on who will handle Stan & Ollie for the US or the international market,  but it will be produced by BBC Films.