Maybe it is Toronto’s summer heat making me irritable, but the silly-season announcement by the CBC that Colm Feore will play Pierre Trudeau in an upcoming television mini-series rubs me the wrong way. It isn’t only that the announcement demonstrates once again that Canada has so few television actors to play the roles of public figures with IQs over 100. Nor is it that I harbour a specific dislike for Feore and his on-screen expressive repertoire. I liked his interpretation of Glenn Gould in 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould a few years back because he managed to convey Gould’s intelligence and sensitivity as well with his quasi-autistic weirdness. And Feore does do Hollywood bad-guy reasonably well so long as the evil that’s asked for is the kind that can be invoked with very tight wiring, snideness and a tendency toward using weapons of personal destruction like cattle-prods. But Pierre Trudeau’s character doesn’t lend itself to anything within Feore’s range.
One of the things I respected most about Trudeau was his Jesuit approach to public displays of emotion. He was the one political figure in our recent history who didn’t go declamatorily sentimental on us whenever the shit hit the fan and he had to put something unpleasant upside the General Public. Not to condone his habit of giving the finger to groups of people shouting slogans at him, or his famous October 1970 Crisis "Just watch me!" sound-byte. Rather, I’m thinking aloud about the patronizing unction with which Brian Mulroney handled the crises of public confidence his regime was confronted with—and I’m imagining Feore inevitable massacre of the October 1970 moment, which might have been the single most dramatic political nexus since Confederation.
Feore, like most actors, tends to convey complexities by doing googoo eyes and genuflecting. That is more or less the contrary of Trudeau’s remarkable emotional fastidiousness. And this matters, after all. An inaccurate portrayal of him on television will leave a corrosively inaccurate view of his genius to future generations. Such overkill will also unduly influence the junior executives and youngish on-air androgynes at CBC, who already appear to believe that Joe Clark’s woodenness is what is meant by "public restraint."
Meanwhile, Toronto Star Pop Culture reporter Vinay Menon’s proposal to get Julia Roberts to play Margaret Trudeau is simply naïve and funny. First of all, Roberts isn’t about to do a television miniseries for a media-grade banana republic like Canada. If she did, her fee for a four hour production would suck up roughly double the CBC’s annual national funding for drama, let alone bulge the budget of a mini-series. Second, despite a superficial physical resemblance to the young Margaret Sinclair, Roberts is a serious actor who has recently shown a distinct prejudice for playing characters who have depth. I don’t want to make light of Margaret Trudeau’s recent misfortune, because what she has suffered would have broken anyone’s heart. But this is a woman who called herself a disciple of William Blake on the basis of a single undergraduate course at Simon Fraser University and has always had enough air between her ears to supply a space-station with a week’s supply of oxygen and helium. More appropriate candidates to play her role would be actors Bernadette Peters or Carol Kane, the latter of whom also has the distinction of once being a Canadian. Either of those women, I’d say, could do the role with the generous doses of the irony-free ham it would require to approximate the reality.
Getting a competent actor to portray Pierre Trudeau would be much harder, and I really can’t think of a constructive suggestion except to note that Ms Peters and Ms Kane would have a slightly better chance of getting Trudeau right than Colm Feore. A sane approach to accurately casting the Trudeaus might be to recognize that we’re millimeters away from a national embarrassment here, and delay the project for a few years until the central characters are back in whatever it is that serves the television industry as perspective. Sometimes the market demands things that the artists can’t provide—and the people shouldn’t be asked to bear. This is one of those instances.
700 Words August 16, 2001