Iron Ladies: A Definitive Ranking
This actually proved to be far more difficult than I thought it'd be when I first thought of it. A ranking like this has to take into account two factors: the movie the actor is in and the portrayal of their character. You can have the greatest portrayl of any given character, but if you're in a crappy movie about them, it probably doesn't matter how good your performance is. It's even worse when you're dealing with an actual historical figure like Margaret Thatcher.
There are great portrayals of historical figures out there. (Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, Bruno Ganz as Hitler, John Lithgow and Gary Oldman as Churchill- though the more I think about Darkest Hour, the more surprised I am at the criminal underuse of Kristin Scott Thomas in that movie-- an excellent Clementine Churchill.) It's not impossible to do- but Margaret Thatcher is... challenging, I think. For a start, most of the people who make movies aren't going to be all that inclined to her politics or policies. That's fine-- you don't want your movie to drift into hagiographic territory either and paper over all the bad shit. But Thatcher has some challenges in that, her voice and mannerisms are entirely unique and from what I've seen so far of on-screen portrayals of her, damn hard to get right.
But I looked- I'm a nerd, I make no bones about it- I find Thatcher to be a fascinating if polarizing figure. So I went out and hunted down every portrayal of Margaret Thatcher I could get my hands on and created The Definitive Ranking of Iron Ladies:
1. Patricia Hodge, The Falklands Play: I have to give Hodge the nod here. There's a lot of really accomplished actresses that play Margaret Thatcher, but Hodge I think doesn't try to get the voice right and I think that was the best decision she could have made, The voice can sink or swim or a Thatcher performance and she just goes around and it and concentrates of getting the authority and the sense of command right- which she does- and given the topic of the movie (play?) that makes sense. This is Thatcher reaching the peak of her powers. I stumbled across the one late in the game- and there's some controversy about it, as it was criticized for being too pro-Thatcher and too jingoistic- which I didn't really rate. It comes across from what I know of the Falklands War as being a fairly decent portrayal of the crisis. Yet it was commissioned in 1983 set for broadcast and production in 1986, but was shelved until 2002 and wasn't aired again until 2020.
2. Andrea Riseborough, The Long Walk To Finchley: Riseborogh comes in second place, because I don't know enough about Thatcher's early life and her rise to power. It genuinely did take her a few tries to find a safe constituency seat, but once she won Finchley she kept the seat. Where there's Margaret Thatcher, there's usually Dennis Thatcher and Rory Kinnear is probably the best portrayal of him I've seen. I think this one probably captures the class and gender struggles that Thatcher faced on her climb through the political ranks. (Yes, I just typed the words 'class and gender struggles' in the same sentence as Margaret Thatcher, but it's true-- she was working class and worked her way up through the ranks of a Conservative party rife with class issues and the whole old boys network thing.) What Riseborough does excellently though, is the head tilt thing. It's subtle, but it's very Thatcher- you get to see the character she plays grow into who Margaret Thatcher becomes and it's also very subtle, but honestly was nearly the best of the bunch until I saw The Falklands Play.
3. Gillian Anderson, The Crown: I really thought about this one long and hard, because Lindsey Duncan's performance as Thatcher is extremely good and captures more of the political animal that Thatcher was and how she managed the cabinet and to be honest, the burlap sack full of angry pissed off knife wielding cats that seem to be the semi-perpetual state of the Tory Party. Anderson, though bursts into The Crown as if we'd all been waiting for her. Granted, I haven't seen the entire season of The Crown yet- I just wanted to get a couple of episodes in so I could get a sense of her performance and while she doesn't quite have the look-- Gillian Anderson is one of those actresses that you could probably put underneath Klingon make-up on Star Trek and you'd still know it was her- she does have the hair and the movements absolutely locked in- and like Riseborough, she does the head tilt thing as well. I would have ranked her higher, because I think she comes the closest on the voice-- but as my mother pointed out, she's very monotonous with it. Thatcher famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) took voice lessons to lend her voice more authority and Anderson does have the sort of low pitched, throaty/husky voice thing going on, but I don't think she knows how to give the voice range and emotion the way Thatcher does, because it's well, her own voice. But- I haven't seen the entirity of The Crown yet, so it's possible Anderson deserves to be higher on this list.
4. Lindsey Duncan, Margaret: This performance was a tough one to rank. If I was ranking this by movie, Duncan would be higher than this. Margaret in many ways is a better version of The Iron Lady. Chronicling her last days in office, you see a woman convinced that she's indispensible while all around her men (because there are still an awful lot of men) plot and sharpen their knives. While the storm clouds gather and the plots thicken, it's interspersed with flashbacks to her rise to power- ranging from her decision to run for leadership, to her telling Edward Heath she was challenging him to her winning the election and right on through to the present moment of the movie. Duncan's performance captures a woman whose political instincts were always right up until the moment they weren't, when she was so convinced she was indispensible only to find out that she wasn't- that sort of realization landing on Thatcher is something that Duncan captures absolutely perfectly- the crumbling of authority and the acceptance that it is, in fact, over. But...the shape of the hair is more or less right, but Duncan seems too blonde- and like Patricia Hodge, she doesn't even try the voice which I think is the correct choice, but... she's just not the best Thatcher of the bunch, to me. She's very good (they're all very good), but it just doesn't quite click for me even though the movie is excellent. (Plus, big up to Iain McDiarmid as Denis Thatcher in this one. That's a nice bit of casting.)
5. Janet Brown, For Your Eyes Only: It seems a bit unfair to put an actual Thatcher impersonator on this list, but she's in a movie, even if it's only for like a minute so it counts.
6. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady: YES THAT'S RIGHT I PUT THE GREAT GODDESS MERYL STREEP AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS LIST. Why? Because The Iron Lady after watching it again, I realized that it was a terrible, terrible movie that was trying to be King Lear but with Margaret Thatcher being old and slightly senile tottering around and talking to the ghost of her dead husband while she recalls all the shitty things she's done over the course of her life. While you can maybe argue that something like The Falklands Play was a touch too hagiographic, this goes entirely in the other direction and reads like a hit piece on a dead woman. It's a waste of both Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent's considerable talents and is a rather superficial portrayal of Thatcher's life and career- especially when compared to some of the other offerings in this list. In terms of performance, Streep does the voice the best of any of these performances. The hair is good-- it's got a nice swoop to it, but Streep also seems super pale throughout this movie it's noticeable too. Put Streep in Duncan's movie and I think she'd probably be at the top of the list. But ugh, this movie is just... literally the worst of the bunch.
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