Familiar Oscar pattern seen in this year's acting races

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Posted: Feb 13, 2015 3:08 PM
Familiar Oscar pattern seen in this year's acting races

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Oscar envelopes have been full of surprises over the years, yet one pattern persists: academy voters are moved by affliction.

From 1988 to 1997, eight of the best actor winners had played a character with a mental or physical disability or disease. It's been less of a trend for women but this year, an afflicted role is the clear favorite in the best actress category.

In Oscar's 87th year, the acting front-runners for the Academy Awards are Eddie Redmayne, for his portrayal of ALS victim Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," and five-time nominee Julianne Moore, for her depiction of a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer's disease in "Still Alice."

Both have scored wins from the Screen Actors Guild and the British film academy and in some ways, their Oscar success has been a foregone conclusion for months.

Academy Award-winning depictions of disabilities and diseases have been around since the beginning, but starting in the late 1970s and reaching a saturation point in the mid-1990s, it began to look like a formula.

Consider Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man, Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot," Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump," Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman," Geoffrey Rush in "Shine," or Colin Firth in "The King's Speech," to name just a few.

How have they done it again? Even the possible upsets in the best actor category fit the pattern, with Bradley Cooper's portrayal of the suffering Chris Kyle in "American Sniper," or Michael Keaton as a possible schizophrenic in "Birdman." Alan Turing, as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch also has what seems like undiagnosed Asperger tendencies in "The Imitation Game."

The short answer: Oscar simply wants to see the work.

"There are three things that academy members seem to gravitate toward: Actors who play real people, actors who go through a big physical transformation for their roles and actors playing a specific disease or condition, whether mental or physical," said Dave Karger, chief correspondent for Fandango. Redmayne's Hawking checks off two of those irresistible boxes.

One reason, Karger notes, is that the acting is out there.

"It's a very outward, easy to appreciate challenge that the actor has, to take a disease or a condition that we've all either heard about or that has touched our lives and really bring to life what it's like to tackle it," said Karger.

An actor's work and process is built in to those performances in an understandable way to non-actors.

"It's kind of like a big speech, or a big meltdown. It's something that, when the voters have the ballots in front of them, they can think back and have an easy reminder of what was so great about a particular performance," said Karger.

Also, actors themselves can't seem to resist the challenge.

"It felt like solving a puzzle," said Redmayne at last year's Toronto Film Festival. He spent nearly five months doing research, meeting with Hawking, his family, his old students and specialists to figure out how ALS progresses and how it affects the body. His goal was to be "really intricate in the physical degeneration."

Moore's character Alice might be fictional, but it was important for her and the directors to show a realistic portrait of the effects of early onset Alzheimer's. To prepare, she immersed herself in the world of both doctors and patients.

"I was really starting at zero," said Moore late last year. "I didn't want to represent anything on screen that I hadn't actually seen. I felt like that was the only fair way to do it."

But process and transformation mean nothing if what ends up on screen doesn't move academy voters.

"When you talk about thousands of people voting, generally the consensus votes with its heart," said AwardsDaily.com owner and Oscar blogger Sasha Stone.

"They need that urgency... usually that comes up in the form of someone they feel sorry for, who they want to see overcome their disability," she said.

In some ways, the perceived expectation of awards recognition for this type of performance can actually diminish the work of the actors to cynical onlookers.

"I don't want to make it seem like anyone can play someone with a disease and win an Oscar. It has to be the confluence of the right role and the right actor," said Karger.

Plus, it doesn't always result in a win, or even a nomination.

"Look at Jennifer Aniston. She tried it and it didn't work for her," added Stone, referring to Aniston not being nominated for her portrayal of a woman suffering from chronic pain in the little-seen drama "Cake."

Also, as USC School of Cinematic Arts associate professor Jason Squire notes, it's a positive thing when these performances break out.

"There's a healthy trend toward socializing these characters so you don't think of them as disability first. Disability is just a component of a character," he said.

With academy members still voting, nothing is locked in just yet. Oscar has surprised us before.