With his spot-on work impersonating Tony Blair (“The Deal,” “The Queen”), TV interviewer David Frost (“Frost/Nixon”) and soccer coaches (“The Damned United”), Michael Sheen has established himself as the cinema’s reigning King Mimic, an actor who gets under the skin of a character, but who also puts so much work in on the surface that you’d swear you’re seeing the real person up there on the screen.
He fixes on something — he once told me he figured out Tony Blair when he realized “His teeth are too big for his mouth.” — and builds from there.
The British comic actor Kenneth Williams is one of his more outlandish impersonations. He brings the flamboyant purveyor of funny voices and sissy shtick, an actor most famous for his work in the leering, lowbrow “Carry On” comedies of the ’50s-70s — deliciously to life in “Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa.” This little seen 2006 TV bio-pic is now on Netflix streaming, and it’s another tour de force for the formidable — and not too proud to do “Twilight” — Sheen.
The surface-skimming film captures Williams’ early life, his doting mother (Cheryl Campbell) who indulged the boy’s desire to wear dresses and play princesses on the stage, and the homophobic barber-father (Peter Wight) who barely tolerated this mincing Nancy Boy under his roof.
Framed within an effort an aged Williams makes to sum up his decades-long diary entries into an autobiography, he begins his story the day he discovers that if he does an airy fairy voice — on stage, radio or wherever — he can get a laugh. Co-stars and directors, playwrights and producers seethed as he upstaged them all. He trotted the voice out in public whenever he needed attention. Which was often.
And he suffered — mightily — because he figured he could still do more serious work, realized early the “same old tricks” were embarrassing, and that his illegal sexual desires — he was gay in a Britain where that was still against the law — can never be acted on with another man. He flirts, lures, and then ditches his potential paramours only to fantasize about them in the quiet of his own bed later.
Martyn Hesford’s script, taken from Williams’ diaries, brings us into the complicated friendship with playwright Joe “Loot” Orton (the subject of the Gary Oldman bio-drama “Prick up Your Ears”) and Orton’s possessive, jealous and put-upon love, Kenneth Halliwell. They’re played by Kenny Doughty and Ewan Bailey here.
Williams confesses he could NEVER pick up a man in the park — too risky, too demeaning, to both of them. Too “filthy.”
“Filth fires art,” Orton insists.
Williams comes off as a self-abusing “filth-a-phobe,” scrubbing and shaving head-to-toe to achieve a kind of cleanliness that his Christian guilt-ridden life doesn’t deliver.
Sheen is so deep into character and voice that an American may have as much difficulty making out what he says as one did the REAL Williams, though the guy’s winks and leers got the message across, overly plummy accent (Tim Curry seems to have based Dr. Frank-N-Furter on Williams’ locutions) notwithstanding.
It’s dazzling work and it makes you appreciate why producers have no trouble envisioning Sheen as vampires, Computer World nightclub impresarios (“Tron”) and pretty much everything in between.
The man is a marvel.
Cast: Michael Sheen, Cheryl Campbell, Peter Wight, Kenny Doughty, Ewan Baile
Credits: Directed by Andy De Emmony, written by Martyn Hesford, based on Kenneth Williams’ diaries.
Running time: 1:19