“Is Steve Carell going to be nominated for an Oscar?” a studio exec asked me in front of Carell at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel party immediately after the AFI presentation of “Foxcatcher” last month.
We all hooted, including Carell, but it’s not really a laughing matter, of course. Oscar voters are notorious suckers for stars who go through notable physical transformations to become other, real-life people.
It’s especially impressive when famous people disappear – to see Steve Carell vanish creepily inside the slow-talking, steely-eyed monster who killed an Olympic wrestler back in 1996. Most of us never knew John Du Pont, but Carell’s characterization is so distinct, nuanced and vastly different from his own persona that it’s obvious that this is ACTING. At Hollywood awards, you get big points for that, especially if enhanced by a plastic nose.
In “The Theory of Everything,” Eddie Redmayne really transformed himself and even contorted his arms, legs, neck, head and shoulders to become someone more famous than himself. And that’s why I believe he’s going to win. Redmayne gets extra points for convincing us that he’s become Stephen Hawking.
Think of his transformation like Meryl Streep bagging an Oscar for vanishing inside Maggie Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” Helen Mirren channeling Elizabeth II in “The Queen” and Jamie Foxx becoming Ray Charles in “Ray.” When someone famous can convince us that they are actually a different famous person, Hollywood can’t resist thrusting Oscars on them.
Too bad for Carell that we didn’t know John Du Pont. Or for Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”) that we didn’t know Alan Turing. Carell and Cumberbatch just get points – not extra points – for successfully transmogrifying into other real people, but at least that should help them get Oscar nominations. They compete against David Olyelowo, who amazingly convinces us that he is Martin Luther King Jr. even though he doesn’t (let’s be honest) look much like him, but he’s not famous. Nobody stops him on the street, shouting, “Hey, aren’t you David Olyelowo?” so he doesn’t get extra points either.
The opposite predicament is true for Bradley Cooper, who everybody knows. Unfortunately, we never knew the real Navy SEAL that he portrays in “American Sniper,” but yet Cooper goes through such a formidable physical transformation that he packed on 40 pounds of muscle, sprouted facial hair and a Texas twang. Normally that’d be good enough for an Oscar bid and it might prove to be for Cooper, who’s been nominated twice in the past, but this is a tough race. We’ve already discussed six guys battling for five slots and we haven’t even mentioned Timothy Spall knocking on the door. He recently won Best Actor at Cannes and the New York Film Critics’ Circle for portraying one of Britain’s most famous artists, J.M.W. Turner, but Turner lived back in the early 19th century. Today nobody knows what he looked like and few people know Spall.
This absurd Oscar bias toward rewarding actors who portray real-life folks hurts other good guys trying to muscle their way into the category like Jake Gyllenhaal, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a fictitious news hound in “Nightcrawler.” He even did a radical physical transformation, dropping 20 or 30 pounds, and acted all psycho, but Oscar voters are a stubborn gang. In their daily jobs, they make most of their money making fantasy films, but they want reality when doling out fake gold statuettes.
But then perhaps none of this really matters when you consider who is out front to win Best Actor this year, according to the predictions of most of Gold Derby’s experts: Michael Keaton. His character in “Birdman” is, on the face of things, fictitious. But, of course, it’s really based upon Keaton himself, so maybe that makes it the most real role of all. And maybe that’s why it’s the frontrunner, come to think of it. Huh.