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Cinema’s Great Chameleons

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Lots of actors use makeup and special effects to change their appearance for roles, but only a handful seem able to innately transform themselves on a regular basis. Luckily for us, many of them are plying their craft currently. Here are some of them, along with a few of their predecessors.


I can’t wait to see this guy play Abraham Lincoln, which is his next project. Day-Lewis disappears entirely into his characters, from Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York” to Christy Brown in “My Left Foot.” His acting has a powerful, intense quality.


I’m certainly not alone in thinking Sellers was a genius. Rather than trying to find the emotional core of historical figures, he developed fully-realized characters out of whole cloth. Clouseau, Dr. Strangelove, Chance the gardener – I loved them all.


To me, Sacha Baron Cohen is the heir to Peter Sellers. His commitment to his characters is total, which, in this era, includes taking on the guerrilla film making format of “Borat.” It will be interesting to see if he takes his talent to more dramatic roles, as Sellers eventually did.


Great, great actor in the lineage from Brando to DeNiro on down. One thing distinct about Penn, I think, is that he has a particular facility for tinkering with his voice and mannerisms. Harvey Milk (“Milk”), David Kleinfeld (“Carlito’s Way”), Jeff Spicoli (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) and Matthew Poncelet (“Dead Man Walking”) are very different dudes.


Steiger found a niche starring in movie biographies of everyone from W.C. Fields to Napoleon. Those weren’t my favorites, though. Try out this double feature: Steiger’s Southern bigot sheriff from “In the Heat of the Night,” followed by his Holocaust survivor in “The Pawnbroker.”


Kidman’s career is often overshadowed by her personal life, which obscures a terrific filmography. She can play ditzy, sexy, neurotic, tragic and depressed. She also has a great flair for dialects.


The key to Bale’s acting, as much as anything else, is the way he adapts the contours of his own body. He was emaciated in “The Machinist,” wiry and wired in “The Fighter,” and buff as Batman.


Thanks mainly to Tim Burton, Depp has had multiple opportunities to play with accents, wigs, timing and even singing. Throw in a funky pirate and an undercover cop infiltrating the mob, and you’ve got an exceptional gallery of characters.


Streep’s reach and range are so amazing, so consistently on the mark, that it’s easy to take her for granted. She’s played Australian, Italian, British, Polish, highbrow, lowbrow, powerful and homeless. Her accents are flawless and her acting is unsurpassed.

Great chameleons, all. Now it’s your turn – which ones did I leave out?

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