Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Birthday Take: Eddie Redmayne in "The Theory of Everything" (2014)

Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Eddie Redmayne
Born: January 6, 1982 (34 years old) 
Nomination: Best Actor (won) as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

The Take

Over the past few years, there seems to have been a strange backlash against actor Eddie Redmayne. For many, he has become the epitome of Oscar bait following his performance in director James Marsh's The Theory of Everything. With this year's The Danish Girl showing him as the first transgender woman, it does seem like he has picked roles that are meant to be prestigious attention grabbers. However, I don't know that he's necessarily as bad as anyone seems to make him out to be. True, he does have a rather small filmography compared to most actors who can be called great, and those films (My Week with Marilyn, Les Miserables) haven't quite stood the test of time as well as others, but he is a better actor than everyone seems to give him credit for. As long as you ignore Jupiter Ascending, you could even argue that he's been consistently good, though great is too subjective to actually argue here.

The one thing that I'll admit is that he hasn't been in anything that can be clarified as exceptional or significant to the zeitgeist. In 20 years, it isn't likely that people will remember him in the ways that people remember Katharine Hepburn or Gregory Peck - at least not yet. However, that doesn't mean that he cannot be a good actor who did impressive work by method acting. I have yet to see The Danish Girl, but I do maintain that his work in The Theory of Everything is itself something that's impressive from an acting standpoint. Maybe Marsh's direction was mired in sentimentalism and bothered some people, but the work as a whole is a solid biopic that showed the struggles of love in the face of disabilities and the emotional subtext by which Stephen Hawking had to face following that.

It may seem controversial to say, but I haven't seen work like that since Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot. True, there have been close to 30 years after that by which to judge Lewis as compared to a year for Redmayne. However, I would argue that there's a lot of small touches that make his performance really interesting. There's the slow progression into the illness itself. It's the way that his foot seems to waver from the rest of his body. It's the way he lurches over as he loses muscle control. He gives a very convincing performance in regards to depicting a man with those particular disabilities. To watch him crawl up the stairs as he becomes helpless is an impressive dedication to physical control and focus for an actor.

Of course, I am likely to get flack for that, especially since I currently loathe the idea of Leonardo DiCaprio getting an Oscar for The Revenant for being "physical." In some respects, DiCaprio does more daring and health risking scenarios. However, it's not a performance so much as an endurance test. Where Redmayne separates from this is that he actually gave a performance that required training and focus. DiCaprio merely threw himself into freezing water and reacted. ANYONE would feel the same way in that scenario. There's nothing special at all about it. To me, a physical performance is mostly good if it's done within logical and unique sense of the character and his/hers motivations. Redmayne was convincing as Hawking, even at times endearing.

I don't honestly know what to make of those who hate Redmayne as an actor. He isn't the greatest, but he's more interesting than they're giving him credit for. Where most actors merely go for the emotional performance, he goes for something far more personal and complex. Even if he hasn't turned in his best performance (or maybe he has), one can only expect him to get better and try new roles that are interesting. It's too early to outwardly dismiss him, even if it's easy to pin him as an Oscar bait actor. Maybe he wasn't in the best movie of 2014, but at least he gave a performance that wasn't merely reactionary. If anything, I respect him for trying something far more complex, and I still do stand by his Oscar win because he was making a role his own instead of merely inhabiting it.

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