Oscar often has a soft spot for an acting gimmick, something that proves that the performer has somehow shown themselves worthy of a gold statue by virtue of the physical and mental demands of their role.
Extreme weight loss or gain has been a popular way to capture the attention of Academy voters. Christian Bale is the current champ at this form of acting, taking over from Robert De Niro, whose 60-pound weight gain for his Oscar-winning boxing role in 1980’s “Raging Bull” is the stuff of legend. In the past, the six-footer has packed on muscle for 2000’s “American Psycho” and for his Batman films. But, in between, he dropped an alarming number of pounds to achieve a rail-like physique in 2004’s “The Machinist” and 2006’s “Rescue Dawn.”
But all his yo-yo dieting finally paid off with Oscar success when Bale won supporting as a crack-addict boxer in 2010’s “The Fighter” after whittling down to 121 pounds. He followed up that feat and won his second supporting Oscar nomination by ballooning to 228 pounds as a chubby hair-impaired con man in 2013’s “American Hustle.”
However, judging by what is on the Oscar menu this year, merely increasing or shrinking your body fat index is not good enough. Instead, disease and disability are the ingredients that will more reap gold.
Sure, last year’s male lead and supporting Academy Award winners, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, were mere wraith-like shadows of their real selves in “Dallas Buyers Club.” But what might have played an even bigger factor is that both of their characters suffered with AIDS in the ‘80s, when the disease practically equaled a death sentence. They also tussled with health-industry bureaucracy, which is not unlike what most people have to deal with when making a health insurance claim.
This year, the acting categories are filled with enough illness-related cases to fill a small wing of the Mayo Clinic. Of course, not every performance that revolved around a medical condition made the cut this year. Most notably left out in the cold was Jennifer Aniston’s acerbic take on a chronic pain sufferer and pill addict in “Cake.” The part just might have been too akin to Moore’s less barbed character in “Still Alice.” Also, Streep pretty much owned the pill-popping nightmare aspect of ongoing pain as a cancer patient in last year’s “August: Osage County.”
Just as there are historians who keep on an eye on films based on real-life events and people, so, too, there are experts in the medical profession who watch for how diseases and health care are depicted in the movies.
One such person is Arthur L. Caplan, a professor of ethics at New York University Medical School. He especially notes the rise in interest in films about aging, such as 2012’s “Amour,” which he calls “a very realistic portrayal of old age and disability.” The French-language film that allowed Emmanuelle Riva to become the oldest best-actress nominee at age 85 also was nervy enough to broach the touchy topic of assisted suicide. “The decision to end her life is one that is more likely to occur in Europe than in the USA.”
As for why more nominated roles are apt to be concerned with such matters these days, he says, “It’s not surprising considering that the older crowd in Hollywood would be interested in such medical problems.”
That is especially true of “Still Alice.” Caplan’s rating? “Pretty good at not distorting the experience. It was interesting that one of her children wanted to get genetic testing and the other didn’t. The doctor who delivered the news to her was exceptionally supportive. On the whole, it was a fair depiction, such as when Alice tries to leave a tape to give herself directions later on so she can kill herself and then is too far gone to make use of it. Patients do that.”
As for how “American Sniper” stands up to other depictions of PSTD, Caplan says that most films on the subject avoid one sad truth about the disorder: There is no cure. “In most movies on the subject, the suggestion is they waited too long to get treatment. That isn’t the problem. The treatment stinks.”
One of Caplan’s favorite health-related films is 1993’s “Philadelphia,” the first major studio Hollywood title to tackle the subject of AIDS. It gave Tom Hanks his first best-actor Oscar as a gay lawyer who sues his employer for firing him because of his condition. “They did a very nice job. It opened up the conversation.” Another that passes muster: “My Left Foot.” “It was interesting to see this cranky, not very nice person coping with cerebral palsy.”
The one concern that Caplan wishes that films like “Still Alice” and “The Judge” touched upon is the high cost of ongoing care and difficulty of finding a facility that would take someone like Alice, even with her fairly upscale lifestyle. “Most of the audience would go broke treating a chronic illness like Alzheimer’s,” he says. “There is no discussion of money. No recognition that getting someone into an Alzheimer’s facility is a huge headache. It’s a Hollywood fantasy. Most films are good on the patient and the effect on intimate relationships. But not good on the economic realities.”
Here is a list of Oscar contenders with ailments, and similar roles done by previous nominees and winners.
1. Julianne Moore in “Still Alice.” Fresh off her Screen Actors Guild win, Moore is practically a lock to win an Oscar for her sensitive, quietly unnerving portrait of a 50-year-old linguist who finds herself struggling with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Yes, the fact that the long-admired actress has been nominated for an Academy Award four other times without a win also works in her favor.
It was originally thought that Moore might be nominated for her showier part as a self-absorbed, fading actress in the biting Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars,” especially after it brought her a best actress prize at Cannes last year. But her awards-season game plan quickly switched focus to the more sympathetic “Still Alice” after she received raves at the Toronto Film Festival.
Other nominated female roles involving Alzheimer’s: Judi Dench, “Iris” (2001); Julie Christie, “Away From Her” (2007); Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady” (2011, winner).
2. Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything.” The singing revolutionary from “Les Miserables” does a complete turnabout in this biopic about the brilliant British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who was stricken with a form of ALS at an early age and lost his ability to walk and talk. Redmayne spends most of his screen time in a wheelchair, his body twisted into Hawking’s familiar posture, and uses an electronic device to communicate. Much of the power of his performance relies on his expressive eyes and sly, crooked grin. With his Screen Actors Guild win for best actor, he is giving “Birdman’s” Michael Keaton — thought to be the favorite — a run for the trophy.
Similar nominated male roles involving non-war-related immobility and ALS: Gary Cooper, “Pride of the Yankees” (1942); Daniel Day-Lewis, “My Left Foot” (1989, winner).
3. Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night.” In this Belgian drama, Cotillard is a factory worker on medical leave for depression. Her condition worsens after she learns her job is in jeopardy if she doesn’t convince her co-workers to support her instead of taking a bonus. The more that it looks as if her position is in jeopardy, the more Xanax she pops to stave off crying jags.
Cotillard already has a lead Oscar for her revelatory work “La Vie en Rose,” the 2007 biopic about tragic singer Edith Piaf. Otherwise, the French actress could be a formidable foe for the trophy-less Moore.
Similar nominated female roles involving depression and mental issues: Jessica Lange in “Frances” (1982); Moore and Nicole Kidman (winner) in “The Hours” (2002); Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” (2013).
4. Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper.” Cooper is up for his third Oscar in a row as Texas sharpshooter Chris Kyle, who puts his legendary marksmanship skills to deadly use during the Iraq War.
Cooper adds pathos to his macho performance when Kyle is shown dealing with the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after he returns home. While there has been much debate over whether the film wrongly paints its real-life main character as a hero, there is no doubt about the lingering battle scars both mental and physical that afflict the war’s veterans. With “American Sniper” soaring at the box office, some believe Cooper might be able to pull a dark-horse upset.
Similar nominated male roles involving war-related concerns: actual amputee Harold Russell, “The Best Years of Our Lives” (winner, 1946); Jon Voight (winner) and Bruce Dern, “Coming Home” (1978); Tom Cruise, “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989); Gary Sinise, “Forrest Gump” (1994); Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker” (2009).
5. Laura Dern in “Wild.” In a supporting role, Dern is a perpetually upbeat single mother of two who overcomes hardships with a song and a smile. Her death from cancer at age 45 initially sends her daughter into a downward spiral of illegal drugs and random sex. But eventually the memory of her mother’s strength and wisdom leads her to re-align her path in life by going on a 1,100-mile hike.
While Dern’s part is small compared to Reese Witherspoon’s as her daughter, she makes the most of every scene and proves to be believable as someone who, even after death, could provide love and support. While it has been ages since Dern was last nominated for her lead as a troubled Southern woman in 1991’s “Rambling Rose,” it will be hard for her to beat Patricia Arquette, who has a much more substantial matriarch role in “Boyhood.”
Similar nominated female roles related to cancer deaths: Ali McGraw, “Love Story” (1970); Debra Winger, “Terms of Endearment” (1983) and “Shadowlands” (1993); Streep, “One True Thing” (1998).
6. Robert Duvall in “The Judge.” Duvall earned his seventh Oscar nomination and his first since 1998’s “A Civil Action” in a supporting role as an ornery small-town judge who gets in legal trouble after a suspicious car accident. His estranged lawyer son eventually learns that his father might be having blackouts caused by the chemotherapy treatment for his cancer.
The esteemed actor won an Oscar for his lead as a washed-up country singer in 1983’s “Tender Mercies” and is unlikely to upset J.K. Simmons’ all-but-certain win for “Whiplash.”
Similar nominated male roles concerning illness and old age: Henry Fonda, “On Golden Pond” (1981, winner); Christopher Plummer, “Beginners” (2011, winner).