The Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore Oscar wins follow the prevalent pattern on the best type of roles to win best actress or best actor. It is not “do a Holocaust” movie as Ricky Gervais suggested to Kate Winslet on Extras. That advice did work for her, but the odds of winning are definitely stacked in favor of those who physically transform themselves into someone handicapped, ill or physically different for a role.
In the past 30 years, approximately 30 percent of best actress and best actor Oscar statues were awarded to people like Redmayne and Moore, whose roles in The Theory of Everything and Still Alice required them each to deal with a debilitating illness. Look at the winners and see performers conveying struggles with AIDS, ALS, Alzheimer’s, autism, deafness, stuttering or blindness. There are also the Oscar-winning roles where people physically transformed themselves into someone starving, dying, a ballerina or boxer, or even pretty actresses who let themselves be transformed into someone less attractive.
True-life movies about people who overcame life’s adversities are great for showing off acting chops, as Redmayne showed portraying ALS sufferer Stephen Hawking. Other men who won an Oscar for biographical films include last year’s recipient Matthew McConaughey, who was gaunt and believable as AIDS patient Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club; Colin Firth, who portrayed the stuttering King George VI in The King’s Speech in 2010; Jamie Foxx as blind singer Ray Charles in 2004’s Ray; Adrien Brody, who won in 2002 for his role as The Pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jewish trying to survive the Holocaust; and Daniel Day-Lewis who got his first statuette as Christy Brown, a writer and painter with cerebral palsy, in My Left Foot in 1989.
Women who won Oscars for portraying real-life people include Meryl Streep, who was steely as Prime Minister and vulnerable as an Alzheimer’s sufferer as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady in 2012; Marion Cotillard as the sorrowful little singing sparrow Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, 2007; Charlize Theron truly transformed herself in a Monster, portraying serial killer Aileen Wuornos in 2003; and then there is Hilary Swank, who won in 1999 for playing trans man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. Then there is Nicole Kidman’s 2002 Oscar winning role as a real-life person (Virginia Woolf) in a fictional context in The Hours, where she was noticeably transformed, nose and all.
There are performers who won an Oscar for fictional roles where they mesmerized audiences and were believable with their handicap or illness. For men, those include Tom Hank as AIDS patient Andrew Beckett in 1993’s Philadelphia; Al Pacino in 1992 as the blind man in Scent of a Woman; and Dustin Hoffman in 1988 for his role as autistic Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man. For women, Moore conveyed the descent into Alzheimer’s as Alice Howland; Natalie Portman was believably graceful and fragile as a ballerina with mental problems in Black Swan; Hilary Swank’s physicality in Million Dollar Baby as boxer Maggie Fitzgerald, 2004; and Holly Hunter’s 1993 mute mother in The Piano, 1993. The there’s Marlee Matlin, who is deaf in real life, who won her Oscar portraying former deaf student Sarah Norman who is afraid to face the world in Children of a Lesser God, 1986.
Other types of roles do win Oscars (except maybe comedies). However, the Redmayne and Moore Oscar wins this week follow a significant pattern that shows a lot of actor and actress are honored in roles involving physical or mental changes.
By Dyanne Weiss