At this point in the Academy Awards race, only one acting-related category still includes even a tinge of suspense: Best Actor. J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Julianne Moore have so convincingly staked their claims on the Oscars for best supporting actor, supporting actress, and lead actress, respectively, that predicting wins for other nominees in those categories makes as much sense as picking the Green Bay Packers to win Super Bowl XLIX. Those other nominees are perfectly worthy, of course. But at this point it seems pretty clear that, like Green Bay, they’re no longer in the game.
The push toward a Best Actor TD, on the other hand, now appears to be a harder-to-assess close call between two men: Eddie Redmayne, for his portrayal of the ALS-afflicted genius Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, and Michael Keaton, for his work as recovering superhero/walking nervous breakdown Riggan Thomson in Birdman. It’s easy to imagine either of these guys getting in the end zone. Keaton is a well-liked Hollywood veteran who’s never been in the Oscar nominees’ circle before. While Birdman may not qualify as an official comeback for the artist formerly known as Mr. Mom, it certainly serves as a powerful reminder of his formidable range. In Birdman, he repeatedly shows how adept he is at unearthing both the comedy and pathos in any given scene; sometimes he even does that while simultaneously pummeling Edward Norton, who’s wearing nothing but bikini briefs. The fact that Keaton made a really heartfelt, appreciative acceptance speech when he won the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy surely doesn’t hurt him in the winning-Academy-support department, either.
Still, there are several tangible pieces of evidence —at least as tangible as “evidence” in the Oscar race can be—that Redmayne will ultimately pull out the win here. The panel of experts at Gold Derby has him in front at the moment, though admittedly by the smallest fraction of a nose. Redmayne already won the Golden Globe for best actor in a drama. More importantly, he, instead of Keaton, also won the Screen Actors Guild Award for best actor, an honor that for the past 10 years has synched up exactly with the Academy’s eventual choice. (It’s worth noting that for four consecutive years prior to that, the Guild and Oscar were divided every time. Unlike Stephen Hawking science, awards-season science isn’t exactly, um, a science.)
Then there’s the simple fact that Redmayne is playing a man with motor neuron disease, which requires him to undergo a stunning, progressive physical metamorphosis in which his limbs, facial expressions, and voice collapse in upon themselves. As we all know by now, roles that demand such massive transformation, especially to capture the realities of physical disability, are the kind that often garner Academy Award nominations and wins.
It’s become the ultimate Oscar cliché: if you want one of those little gold men, just play someone with a disability or crippling disease, and pretty soon, you’ll be backstage at the Dolby Theatre, taking congratulatory questions during the post-acceptance-speech press conference while holding that coveted trophy in your hand. A recent Flavorwire piece created a timeline of the performances focused on affliction, either physical, psychological or both, that resulted in Oscar nominations or wins. Not surprisingly, it’s rather lengthy, and also references a particularly memorable scene in Tropic Thunder that further underlines the widespread belief that “afflicted equals Academy Award.”
The Flavorwire story also cites a key Best Actor moment—the 1989 win for Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of the severely autistic Raymond in Rain Man—as the one that ushered in “The Golden Age Of Affliction-Based Academy Awards.” If Hoffman in Rain Man was an usher, then surely the following year’s coronation of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot—a film about cerebral-palsy sufferer Christy Brown that firmly established Day-Lewis’s reputation as an extraordinary actor, and also, possibly, some sort of shapeshifter magician-person—served as confirmation that physical affliction can be enormously persuasive with Oscar voters.
In the years that followed, many of the Best Actor prize-takers have played men attempting to overcome varying degrees of physical and/or medical limitation, including Al Pacino in Scent Of A Woman (blindness), Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (AIDS), Jamie Foxx in Ray (blindness again), and last year’s winner, Matthew McConaughey in The Dallas Buyers Club (AIDS again). The idea that any role involving an outwardly manifested illness automatically leads to a Best Actor Oscar win, however, can easily be proven false by the number of times an actor has tackled such a part and either lost or not been nominated at all. This Entertainment Weekly list highlights some of the Oscar-ignored work in that category, including John Hawkes’ magnificently committed turn in The Sessions. On the nominated-but-didn’t-win front, I’d also add Sean Penn in I Am Sam, the role Robert Downey Jr. calls out in Tropic Thunder (Penn was nominated, but lost to Denzel Washington), as well as John Hurt in The Elephant Man, a role currently bringing much Broadway acclaim to nominee Bradley Cooper, but which resulted in a 1981 Oscar loss to Robert De Niro.
While physical affliction carries weight, in recent years, roles based on well-known real people have boasted even more cred with Oscar voters. During the past decade, seven out of the 10 Best Actor victors have fallen into that category. If Redmayne wins, he’ll fit that description too. And once again, just like those portraits of affliction, the reason depictions of famous people stand out may come back to the physicality of the performances.
When all the members of the Academy, both the actors and non-actors, sit down to cast their ballots, they are attempting an impossible feat: to figure out how to determine who scores highest in an endeavor that doesn’t involve points. Acting, like all aspects of the creative process, isn’t based on any hard, objective data. You can’t add up the scores for Keaton and Redmayne, then decide to go with Redmayne because he scored a point higher, even if Gold Derby might make it seem like exactly such a thing is possible. You have to weigh the performances and decide which actor was presented with the greatest challenge, then met and exceeded that challenge in a way that was revelatory and moving.
Considering what an actor does physically, then, is the closest way to measure something unquantifiable in a way that feels quantifiable. If someone asks what made Daniel Day-Lewis so great in My Left Foot, for example, you can whip out a before picture (normal, everyday Daniel Day-Lewis) and an after picture (Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown) and point to all the things that the naked eye can clearly see he had to do to turn himself into a man with little muscular control and in a constant state of strain. Similarly, you can look at a before picture of Daniel Day-Lewis and an after picture of Abraham Lincoln and… Holy shit, wait, that isn’t Abraham Lincoln, that’s Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln! No wonder that dude won the Oscar!
You get the point. For great actors, every performance is a disappearing act. But the performances that ask an actor to become a famous person and/or someone dealing with an extreme infirmity are disappearing acts that also whisper, “Ta-dah!”
In that way, Eddie Redmayne’s “Ta-dah!”—and he really is excellent in The Theory Of Everything, so “ta-dah” seems absolutely right—is a mixture of those two aforementioned Day-Lewis roles. Like Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Redmayne surrenders his body fully to the part, until he’s fully hunched, shrunken, and mute, but never broken. Like Day-Lewis in Lincoln, he also so fully becomes Stephen Hawking that he can easily pass as the identical twin of the wormhole expert we’ve seen millions of times on TV, in photographs, and on book jackets. (Of course, the hair, makeup, and costume designers also play an important role in making the resemblance so uncanny.)
But Redmayne also does something besides the technical and observable: he brings a humanity to his portrayal of Hawking that takes the performance beyond the realm of mere impersonation. Even when Hawking is wheelchair-bound, no longer able to speak, and pretzel-twisted by ALS, there’s a light that never goes out in his eyes, one proclaiming that inside that body, there’s still a man with mind-boggling intelligence, unquenchable curiosity, and even an appreciation for racy magazines.
Does that light shine brighter than Michael Keaton’s? Is Redmayne’s performance truly better than the one in Birdman? Since this particular Stephen Hawking-related question cannot be solved using science or math, there’s no way to definitively say. But all the evidence in this (very) brief history of certain Best Actor voting tendencies suggests that the theory that Redmayne will win… Let’s just say you don’t have to understand quantum physics to decide that it’s pretty sound.