You can’t miss the parallels between Eddie Redmayne‘s performance in “The Theory of Everything” and Daniel Day-Lewis‘s Oscar-winning turn in “My Left Foot” in 1989. It’s been in the back of my mind for a while, but seems especially relevant after Redmayne’s surprise win at the SAG Awards.
Redmayne and Day-Lewis are both British actors (the Oscars love those). And like Redmayne, Day-Lewis played a real person (Oscars love those too) and underwent a drastic physical transformation to portray a physical disability (Oscars jackpot). While Redmayne plays ALS-afflicted scientist Stephen Hawking, who physically deteriorates until he is confined to a wheelchair and cannot speak, Day-Lewis portrayed Christy Brown, an artist with cerebral palsy who could only control his left foot.
Sure, Redmayne is a youthful pretty boy in an Oscar category that favors seasoned veterans, but at age 33, Redmayne is actually a year older than Day-Lewis was when he won, and Day-Lewis certainly had heartthrob appeal in his early years (remember “Last of the Mohicans”?), and the academy didn’t slap that stud. Who knows, this time 23 years from now, we may be anticipating Redmayne’s third Oscar win for playing a US president – James K. Polk, maybe?
I was skeptical about Redmayne at first given his relative youth and limited industry stature – he’s got an impressive list of credits, but not many high-profile leading-man roles – but then I saw “Theory of Everything” and realized his performance is awards catnip. I had predicted him to win the Oscar until the night of the Golden Globes, when I switched to Michael Keaton (“Birdman“).
Keaton had a great Globes speech, yes, but that wasn’t what changed my mind, per se. I don’t put too much stock in “Oscar auditions,” but his triumphant off-screen narrative became crystallized that night: he was a comeback kid whose on-screen struggle as an actor striving for relevance resembles his own career, whether Keaton admits it or not – as he told Entertainment Weekly, “In terms of the parallels, I’ve never related less to a character.”
Redmayne’s story – up-and-coming actor gives a good performance – isn’t quite as compelling; despite the fact that his role ticks all the Oscar boxes, Redmayne’s off-screen narrative doesn’t have the same dramatic heft, and like it or not, that often plays a role in who wins Oscar. Just consider Julianne Moore this year; her performance in “Still Alice,” good as it is, is only a fraction of the reason she’s on track to win Best Actress.
But then the SAG upset happened, and it turned me back around again. Maybe I was right the first time, and Redmayne’s performance really is too perfectly tailored for Oscars to deny. And plenty of up-and-comers have won before.
Redmayne is young, but seven men won Best Actor when they were even younger: Day-Lewis, Marlon Brando (“On the Waterfront”), Maximillian Schell (“Judgement at Nuremberg”), James Stewart (“The Philadelphia Story”), Richard Dreyfus (“The Goodbye Girl”), Nicolas Cage (“Leaving Las Vegas”), and the current record-holder Adrien Brody (“The Pianist”), who was the only man to win Best Actor before turning 30. That’s pretty good company in which to be.
Of course, it also sets the bar pretty high. Does Redmayne have what it takes to be the next Day-Lewis, not just at the Oscars but in his career? Academy voters can’t predict the future, which may be one reason they prefer to reward veterans over whippersnappers, but as long as he plays his cards right and pays his taxes, he should be able to avoid the Razzie-studded ignominy of a certain Left Behind Ghost Rider.