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Talking pictures: Let me give my impression . . .

Our film critic's view on Tom Cruise's gray hair has drawn critical e-mail.
Our film critic's view on Tom Cruise's gray hair has drawn critical e-mail.
Frank Connor, Paramount Pictures

As anyone who knows me well can attest, I fancy myself a fair amateur impressionist. As a kid I watched and studied routines by comic impressionists Rich Little and John Byner. Then, just for friends, I started doing my own versions of characters from "Saturday Night Live" in its heyday — when the cast featured John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner.

Since then I've foisted my impressions of William Shatner and various characters from "The Simpsons" on others. Musically, I do Gordon Lightfoot singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and Bob Dylan singing Rolling Stones songs. And some of the Wallace Shawn lines from "The Princess Bride" seem to go over pretty well.

I'm currently working on Joe Mantegna and Hugh Laurie's fakey American accent on TV's "House, M.D."

Like accents, impressions are not an easy thing to do. You have to have a good ear for voices to be able to get the voice just right. And you have to stay in character — unless you're doing a skit or are trying to do a caricature.

Just look at Jamie Foxx, who won a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Ray Charles in last year's biographical drama "Ray." His performance went beyond a mere imitation of Charles and was easily the best part of the movie.

Not too surprisingly, two of this year's most talked about performances come from actors who also play real-life characters — Philip Seymour Hoffman, who transformed himself into Truman Capote in "Capote," and Joaquin Phoenix, who does his own unique take on country-music legend Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line."

Both have incorporated inflections and affectations from their subjects. Phoenix tries to replicate Cash's baritone drawl, while Hoffman almost whispers his lines in Capote's softer tones.

In my opinion, Hoffman's performance is the more effective of the two, though Phoenix is very good in perhaps his most high-profile role to date. (And you have to give him credit for having the guts to sing several of Cash's best-known songs in the movie.)

THOSE WHO CAN, DO. THOSE WHO CAN'T, REVIEW. OK, that's not really true. but I'm constantly amazed when I hear from people who think that critics and reviewers have a personal agenda, as if we take delight in trashing the work of certain actors, directors or artists.

While I can't say for a fact that it's untrue for all of us, I can tell you that it isn't for me. I take my job seriously and do my best to be as unbiased as possible.

However, I do have to share one recent e-mail, which was, as expected, unsigned. The unnamed e-mailer took me to task for my criticisms of Tom Cruise's performance in "Collateral." (I thought his silver hair looked ridiculous and that he wasn't convincing in a role that would have been better suited for someone like Christopher Walken.)

"Why can't you just admit you're jealous of his success?" the e-mail said. "You critics never give valid reasons for your criticisms. . . . This goes back all the way to high school. The jocks are the actors and nerds are the critics."

Well, all right, that last part may be true. I was a nerd in high school.

But the jealousy thing is just silly.

I replied with a polite "Thanks for your input," which I use to answer most of the insulting e-mails I receive. Perhaps I should have added that I praised Cruise's Oscar-nominated performance in the 1999 drama "Magnolia."


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com