This is a copy of a post I wrote for "Blogger of Jared."
Not too long ago Richard Dutcher planned on making a movie about Joseph Smith Jr. with rumors of Val Kilmer as the lead. It didn’t take long for those rumors to be unfounded. There was news that he rejected the part for other movie roles. It seems that Bro. Dutcher has also gone a different direction and made other films. His personal homepage doesn’t offer any new information that he still has a biopic in the works. Other films have, more or less, taken up the slack.
There is an abundance of Joseph Smith roles to look at if interested in how he has been portrayed, both in and outside of LDS Church circles. The first major inclusion of Joseph Smith Jr was the Brigham Young movie of 1940, with Vincent Price taking up the part. Of all the ones I have seen so far, he seemed to represent him the best. It was too bad he played such a small role in that one. On the other hand, the book it was partly based on, "Children of God" by Vardis Fisher, was not a flattering portrait. There was another movie called Brigham with Richard Moll (of Night Court fame) playing Joseph Smith when he was tarred and feathered. Not sure if there was a martyrdom scene. He was problematic because the acting was stiff and he wasn’t the "hunk" that the historical records indicate for the real person. At least one other semi-portrayal was in "Angels in America," originally a stage play, and negative. Films done by Latter-day Saints have not fared better.
Three most recent LDS centric films, two of them done by the Church itself, include "Legacy," "American Prophet: the story of Joseph Smith," and "Work and the Glory." Each one had flaws that might be considered part of trying to act as a person whose life can be seen as larger than life. After all, it took someone like George C. Scott to play Patton and Peter O’Tool directed by legendary David Lean to play T.E. Lawrence, of Arabia fame. Neither historical figure accomplished or went through all the Joseph Smith did in his short life. Perhaps there are too many expectations. Nathan of Tachyon City made these personal critical opinions:
Nathan Mitchell, the actor who played Joseph was… pretty good. I’ve almost come to believe that actors who can successfully portray the passionate, gifted, flawed charisma of Joseph Smith must be almost as rare as men like him in real life. This Joseph was very believable as Joseph in his private moments, relating to his wife and family, playing with the children and adults of his community. He was a little less successful in portraying the expansive, captivating presence he reportedly had when preaching and teaching larger groups of people. A little soft, is how he appeared. I cringed in anticipation when it became apparent that the movie was gearing up to the "majesty in chains" scene, in which a shackled Joseph rebuked his jailors who had been boasting of their exploits against the defenseless Mormons fleeing Missouri. For this story, that scene would be equivalent to the high note which caps "O Holy Night" — the song lives or dies by that note. This Joseph was… not bad in that scene. But it’s a scene for which "good enough" isn’t good enough.
Of course, in context, this good Brother Mitchell was probably the best Joseph I’ve ever seen on film. Certainly better than the disastrously bad one in Legacy, who looked like a psychopath who wanted to eat your children. (Necessary disclaimer: I’ve yet to see either of the two The Work and the Glory movies released so far, so I can’t compare that Joseph, Jonathan Scarfe, to this one.)
I haven’t seen the most recent church produced movie, but I have seen the "Work and the Glory" with Jonathan Scarfe. If Tachyon City’s observation is correct, than it seems the public aspect of Joseph Smith is very hard to copy, compared to what we would imagine. There isn’t very many actors that could pull it off without overdoing it or underplaying the charisma. Assuming for the moment that a professional movie was to be made, what current actors would be best to play the part? Val Kilmer is out, although he would defiantly be eccentric enough to do a fine job. Another actor that might be a nice fit is Jonny Depp, who has both the flair and the personality, but perhaps not the look. Most of all, it is a question of what expectations do exist and who can best portray those qualities of personality missing in other presentations.