David Hoppe

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:: The Oscarís cultural arithmetic

by David Hoppe

I’ve been belatedly playing catch-up with movies that received Oscars at the end of February. As my esteemed colleague, critic Ed Johnson-Ott, has so aptly observed, the Oscars are really the world’s most glamorous employee recognition dinner. But, almost in spite of itself, this annual exercise in self-congratulation sometimes reveals clues to the country’s cultural state.

Last week, my wife and I finally saw Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne won the Best Actor prize for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist, struck by ALS. The film is based on a memoir written by Hawking’s ex-wife.

Redmayne is deeply affecting as Hawking, managing to play a brilliant mind trapped within a body in the process of shutting down. As has been pointed out elsewhere, it’s the kind of shape-shifting performance the Academy finds practically irresistible.

But in checking out Redmayne’s fellow Best Actor nominees, I was struck by something else.

Three of the top five male roles portrayed highly creative, thinking men. Men who were screwed up in various ways, to be sure — hence the drama. But men who you could say redefined that stock term, “man of action.”

In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Nazi codebreaker Alan Turing.  Haunted by and persecuted for his homosexuality, Turing is an anti-social, tragic hero who secretively did as much, if not more, than any other single individual, to win the Second World War.

And Michael Keaton plays an actor who, for better and worse, became a celebrity playing a superhero called Birdman. When we meet him, he is trying to reclaim himself as an artist, playing the lead in a staged version of short stories by Raymond Carver.

Playing creative artists and thinkers is not as easy it sounds. You can jazz the action, as is done in Birdman, creating plenty of backstage kinesthetics. Or add a fraught backstory, ala The Imitation Game. Throw in physical disability for good measure, like in The Theory of Everything.

Ultimately, though, you have to convincingly evoke what it’s like to think, imagine, be enthused, to love. To be, as Shakespeare wrote, and not to be.

I was ready to proclaim this year’s Oscar preference for creative men a breakthrough of some kind.

Then I came to Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Chris Kyle in American Sniper. This film has been fodder for political commentary on the left and right. Suffice it to say here that Cooper plays the aforementioned sniper, an actual soldier who chalked up a record number of kills in Iraq. He is a darker, deadlier, Sgt. York.

He is also a traditional man of action — driven more by what’s outside himself, and consumed by the belief that imposing order is his righteous duty, albeit with tragic overtones.

That’s one trad man versus three of a newer type. But here’s the deal: American Sniper has sold more tickets than all those other movies combined. Which amounts to a kind of cultural arithmetic. It measures distances between who we want to be, and who we are.