On Sunday night at the Academy Awards, Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne won best actor statuettes for their respective roles in Still Alice and The Theory of Everything. Moore, of the two, had possibly the most difficult assignment as a woman of great education coming to terms with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is a more nuanced and less flashy performance than Redmayne’s, who had the task of becoming the famed Stephen Hawking. Both actors deserve recognition for these parts, and will predictably be criticized for having won them. That’s where I’m heading.
It would be a much easier remit to complain that these roles — less Oscar Bait than Oscar Oozing Chum — were taken in the hunt for the highest of recognition if the performances were genuinely bad. They’re not. The Theory Of Everything is a tad drippier, as it is more a romance than your standard biography, but both actors do well by their parts and cannot be denied that they put everything into their tasks. Moore tops herself in Still Alice, a film that emerged from true “dark horse” territory.
However, the cliche of the radical transformation that gains the win is as bad as the cliches that often populate such movies, and as bad as the morning-after pundit gripe about them. Roll ’em off: Robert DeNiro gains weight for Raging Bull, Matthew McConnaghey loses weight for Dallas Buyers Club. Charlize Theron gains weight and loses makeup for Monster. I don’t think anyone could say that any of these didn’t deserve to be singled out for favor, such as they have been over these many years. Yet it has come down to less of an honor than it used to be.
How so? When DeNiro did his transformation, it was an extreme commitment to the part and was seen as such. By the time Theron got to her role, the nay-sayers had to take away some of the glory by asserting that the best way to get your Oscar gold is to do something radically different with your physicality. McConnaghey rather strode the two paths by, yes, taking a role that surely would require a major physical change, but also by showing he was capable of more than being the shirtless, super-chill, stoner manchild. The role revealed two prominent diversions. Honestly, so was Theron’s role as the psychotic Aileen Wuronos, since her previous work required her to be mostly snappy and sexy. We could go for another ten paragraphs about how the male role was viewed as revelatory, and the female role as a calculated play for victory, but there’s nothing there you shouldn’t already know.
Notice that it no longer becomes about the role that was played, but by the motivation for why it was played. We’ll dissect and slice, mount, and stick under microscopes why an actor takes the part, and shunt to the side the quality of the performances. Does anyone think that Michael Keaton took the role in Birdman not to reinvent himself, or to reestablish himself, or at the very least to get people to forget about Jack Frost? Of course he did, and he did a great job of it. Keaton was my sentimental favorite for the win, and I felt the usual spite I expected when “the guy in the wheelchair movie” got the win. I reiterate: Eddie Redmayne did an admirable job as Stephen Hawking. If it was only about the portrayal of ALS, then I could complain that Keaton was robbed. He wasn’t.
But by winning, Redmayne gets robbed. He now joins the constellation of actors that got it just because they contorted themselves into painful positions, and not because they…well, acted. And that’s a problem.