The Race to the Oscars: Two Excellent Performances in Two Good British Biopics

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It’s funny to think about my personal history with the Academy Awards. Every year, I’ve looked forward to its broadcast. I would read every article I could to learn about the contenders and who had the best chances of winning. I would watch almost every moment of the day, from red carpet arrivals through to the comically long ceremony. I would cheer for my favorite actors who won, and sigh or get angry when someone random I didn’t know beat my favorite actor, unless I read somewhere that they truly deserved to win, then I would just deal with it.

It occurred to me this awards season that, in all of my Oscar watching years, I’ve never sat down beforehand and watched all of the big nominated films. A lot of my opinions about the nominees were shaped by others, the critics and prognosticators. I would sometimes follow up with the winners, but more often I would simply forget until the next cycle. Blame it on my age.

When this year’s nominations were announced, I was shocked when Selma and Gone Girl were shut out of the major categories. It inspired me to actually sit down and watch the biggest contenders to see what made them so worthy of notice, and how they would fair against each other at the ceremony next month.

I started with The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, two films with quite a bit in common. Both are British historical dramas about two brilliant scientific minds of 20th century England with complicated personal circumstances. The film’s respective leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne, had become two of my favorites in the past couple of years; Cumberbatch for Sherlock and his near-ubiquitous internet presence, and Redmayne for his roles in My Week with Marilyn and Les Miserables. I was excited that both made it into the notoriously competitive Best Actor race. But upon deciding to actually see the films beforehand, I wanted to know if either actually had a shot at winning and whether they deserved it. Even further, I wanted to know if the films themselves were deserving, in my opinion, of being named Best Picture.

After watching both this week, it turns out The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything have even more in common. They are both good films that rely on the engrossing, sensitive, and powerful performances of their male leads to make them great, and worthy of the Academy’s recognition. The Imitation Game, while certainly well-crafted, never really digs deep into its subject Alan Turing, the brilliant and closeted mathematician whose work helped in ending World War II. Little is explored in the plot about the restrictive time period, the war toiling outside of Turing’s offices, or even Turing himself. Much of the film’s nuance is left to the superb cast, expertly led by Cumberbatch. He portrays Turing with wiry, dry social awkwardness, while also offering shades of deeply embedded heartache that I wish the film had explored beyond childhood flashbacks. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode turn in notable performances as well, but it’s Cumberbatch who pushes the film beyond it’s limits to evoke genuine empathy for a man struggling in a time that couldn’t appreciate him, personally or professionally.

The Theory of Everything similarly doesn’t spend much time digging deep into the psyche of its own British genius, Stephen Hawking. That is by design; the film is adapted from the memoir of Jane, Hawking’s first wife. The film is about the couple’s marriage and their mutual, although entirely different, struggles coping with Hawking’s physical deterioration from motor neuron disease. Still, Eddie Redmayne is astonishing as the scientist, to the point that calling it a performance almost seems inadequate. He is thoroughly committed to the role, showcasing with razor-sharp precision how motor neuron disease slowly and progressively ravages the body. Even as the physicality shrinks alongside the illness, Redmayne succeeds, through expressive eyes and minute facial ticks, in keeping Stephen vibrant and, most importantly, human. The Theory of Everything does have other strengths; Felicity Jones, nominated for Best Actress, is great as the devoted and suffering Jane, the score is beautiful, and there are stylistic risks that aid the film’s examination of a 25-year period. Seeing Eddie Redmayne, however, is worth the price alone.

It’s worth noting the similarities of these two films and their stars because it may very affect their chances come Oscar night. It is possible that, as symbolic and literal flag-bearers for Britain, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne might split the vote and cancel each other for glory. While both men are certainly deserving and genuine contenders, Eddie’s performance was the more challenging of the two, requiring a physical and emotional investment that Oscar voters tend to reward (see Charlize Theron in Monster, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, and even Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club). As for the films they starred in, neither seem to be serious contenders for Best Picture. The Oscar worthiness of both hinge on their lead’s performance, and if taken away, there isn’t anything else that stands out, especially amongst more daring nominees such as Boyhood and Grand Budapest Hotel. The Oscars success of both films is as much a credit to Cumberbatch and Redmayne as the film’s producers.

Part two coming soon! In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments!

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