On Sunday, Hollywood’s finest assembled for the Golden Globes. Perhaps one of the most predictable wins of the night was Eddie Redmayne receiving the Best Actor award for his role in The Theory of Everything. Ever since the first trailers were released, soaked in broken piano chords and uplifting crescendos, it was a pretty safe bet that the film and its stars were on that awards trajectory. It had all the reassuring hallmarks of a good old British drama: stoicism in the face of adversity, clipped accents, an abundance of red brick. I should point out that I haven’t actually seen this film yet (and I can’t say I was enamoured by the trailer, so I still might not). For all I know, Redmayne deserved an award for his performance – that’s what a lot of the reviews are telling me. But what I have seen of the film left me feeling slightly uncomfortable, so I’ll plough on regardless with some (possibly misplaced) assumptions about why he received such high praise for his part.
There has been a trend emerging for some time regarding the correlation between actors getting awards, and the physical transformation they had to undergo for a role. Christian Bale was nominated for an Oscar for his dramatic weight loss for The Machinist, and we only believed Charlize Theron was a good actor after seeing her barefaced and a few pounds heavier in Monster. This raises the question of whether Redmayne really won the award for his acting; Redmayne, an Eton-educated Brit, managed a convincing portrayal of young Hawking, an Oxbridge-educated Brit. It’s hardly a stretch. So was it, rather, that this model-turned-actor, appreciated the world over for his boyish good looks and adorable freckles, rendered himself completely unrecognisable for the role?
“But what about his equal-parts sensitive/ respectful/ faithful portrayal of Hawking once the disease had progressed?” I hear you cry. Certainly, Redmayne must have done something right for Hawking himself to give the film his blessing. But would it have been impossible to offer the part to someone who is actually disabled? Difficult, sure, particularly for the scenes that depict Hawking’s life before the disease became overly debilitating. But it is possible that someone with an actual motor neurone disease may well have done as good a job as Eddie.
Because isn’t giving Redmayne a Golden Globe sort of celebrating his ability to do an impression of a disabled person? What is a temporary transformation for the actor is a reality for a great deal of people. In an article for The Guardian, Frances Ryan points out that by choosing an actor who is not disabled to play the role of a person who is, directors are overlooking disabled actors who are already at a disadvantage in the industry. She compares the ‘cripping up’ undertaken by Redmayne, and established as a career-boosting guarantee by predecessors such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Dustin Hoffman, to ‘blacking up’. Ryan says that whilst we rightly condemn the latter, we reward the former. This doesn’t quite sit comfortably, and the ‘white wash’ debate around Exodus: Gods and Men springs to mind: if the character is Egyptian, why not use an Egyptian actor? Equally, if the character is disabled, why not use a disabled actor?
According to playwright Christopher Shinn, it is because it’s reassuring for audiences to see an actor that they know is fit and well pretending to be a character with a disability, because it allows society to continue to see disability as a metaphor, rather than ‘something that happens to real people’. Ultimately, we are still uncomfortable with disability, unless it is depicted in a heartwarming, sensitive way; as long as we know that the actor will be their shiny selves once again come awards season, that’s okay with us.