Suspension of disbelief is the willingness, probably unconscious, of the viewer to believe what he sees on screen. What is seen is so involving that he is swept up in participating in the production. It used to apply to special effects in the old days. Convincing ones were very expensive. But then, no way do today’s super-whizbang computer-generated graphics representing explosions or gunfire come across like realistic, everyday life. They’re meant to come across like a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Movies of yesteryear have it all over modern films in that for biopics the subject was always someone long dead and so the acting depicting the central figure had a good shot as coming across as believable as that real-life person. If a still-extant prominent figure was significant in the story but not central the writer would include a key but very short scene in long shot or acute-angled close-up of the back of his head accompanied by what he hoped was a reasonable facsimile of the person’s voice.
In the Eighties a series of biopics of rock’n’rollers were hailed for the portrayals from Gary Busey as Buddy Holly, Lou Diamond Phillips as Richie Valens… but Kurt Russell as Elvis? All due credit to Kurt’s chutzpah for taking on this project, but why would an audience want to see a well-known actor pretending to be Elvis? A pretence was all it could be because “The King” had only died in 1977 and there were dozens of his movies in circulation featuring (too much of) the real thing.
Great credit must go to the convincing performances of the actors more recently portraying Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Idi Amin… But in Frost vs Nixon, Frank Langella as President Richard Nixon comes across more like he is trying to play Mr Ed: “I am not a crook, Wilbur.” Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock is just as ridiculous.
And, The King’s Speech — Colin Firth as George VI?! Maybe if James Fox or his brother Edward had been available or of half-suitable age, they could have at least portrayed the King’s special sanguine stolidity… Having seen just clips of Firth in the role, at no time was he able to suggest even a hint of an impression of George VI — still a well-known persona to history buffs — in looks or in his distinctly reserved manner. How is this an award-winning performance?
Probably, Firth (and Langella and Hopkins) gave an actorly performance par excellence — uninhibited, energetic — of the kind you might see on the West End stage, resembling the pupil in Pygmalion and so impressing many members of the Academy.