In The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking, the brilliant British cosmologist stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, the motor-neurone disease that robbed him of his ability to speak on his own. The film follows Hawking from his academic days at Cambridge, where he met his first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), through his history-making research that became increasing arduous as he became a prisoner of his own body.
Since the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Redmayne—best known for the role of the dashing Marius in Les Miserables—has rightfully been one of the frontrunners for this year’s Best Actor. Not only does he fully commit to the demands of playing a man who loses control of his body, but he somehow captures Hawking’s mischievous spark and unspoken joy of life with only the use of a few facial muscles. It’s a mesmerizing performance. It might also be the most tantalizing piece of Oscar bait since Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot.
Labeling it “Oscar bait” is perhaps cynical, but when it comes to the Academy Awards, there are some tried-and-true short cuts to earning a nomination for Best Actor. In fact, you could build a pretty reliable check-list of character and performance traits just from looking at the list of Oscar winners over the years, from actors in Rain Man to Philadelphia to Dallas Buyers Club.
1. Play someone who’s sick or dying.
2. Play a real-life person, especially a notable historical figure.
3. Play a character with a physical, psychological, or mental handicap or challenge.
4. Play someone who is gay—the more flamboyant, the better.
5. Play a character that requires a significant weight gain/loss, and/or undergoes a dramatic physical transformation that obscures one’s handsomeness.
While there seems to be a reliable formula for earning an Oscar nod, there’s no guarantee. Plenty of accomplished actors have tackled roles that seemed specifically programmed for Oscar love, suffered for their art, and then gone home completely emptyhanded, without even a nomination. For example…
John Hawkes in The Sessions (2012)
The Role: Mark O’Brien, a polio-stricken poet living with an iron lung.
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 1, 2, 3
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: Hawkes was honored with nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild, and he won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor. But he was denied an Oscar nomination, though his co-star Helen Hunt nabbed one. (Note: There is a different Oscar-bait check-list for actresses that includes a willingness to undress…)
Sylvester Stallone in Cop Land (1997)
The Role: A half-deaf and doughy New Jersey sheriff who reluctantly takes on corrupt NYC cops living in his neighborhood
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 3, 5
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: Stallone was earning $20 million per picture making mindless action films when he packed on 41 pounds in the hopes of regaining some credibility as a serious actor. Despite mostly positive reviews, Stallone was completely left out of the year-end award conversation, and the rejection seems to have stung. He’s never again dipped his foot in serious-acting waters and even blamed Cop Land for the early-‘oo’s lull in his career.
Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)
The Role: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the effortlessly charming polio-stricken president of the United States
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 2, 3
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: There was great optimism surrounding Murray’s dramatic turn, but the film, which focused on the historic 1939 meeting between FDR and the King of England in upstate New York, never quite connected with audiences or critics. The Golden Globes threw Murray an obligatory Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical nomination—though the movie was far from a comedy—and the Oscar buzz never translated into a real campaign.
Robert De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Flawless (1999)
The Role: A cop recovering from a stroke, and the drag queen who helps him regain his speech with singing lessons
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 3 / 4, 5
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: A decade after Awakenings, De Niro’s solid performance felt slightly been-there-done-that, and Hoffman was still a few years away from the Oscar aura that would accompany all his work. Moreover, the studio’s marketing of the film as some buddy-picture that was equal parts The Birdcage and Midnight Run failed to frame it as a prestige picture.
Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry (1991)
The Role: A high-powered attorney who has to relearn how to do everything after he’s shot in the head during a convenience-store robbery
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 3
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: In between the third Indiana Jones and his first Jack Ryan movie, Ford angled for an Oscar by playing extremely vulnerable. In hindsight, it may have been too much for audiences to handle: Han Solo wasn’t supposed to be this helpless.
Michael Keaton in My Life (1993)
The Role: A dying cancer patient who makes life-lesson videos for his unborn son.
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 1, 5
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: It’s a five-hankie special, and Keaton is pretty great as the charming ad man who teaches his unborn child valuable life skills, like the proper way for a man to make a first impression. He was still Batman at the time, so perhaps that disqualified him in the minds of some snobby voters, and the fact that the film didn’t do much box office probably hurt, too.
Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio (2003)
The Role: James “Radio” Kennedy, the mentally challenged outcast who became part of the community when a high-school football coach took him under his wing
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 2, 3
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: Not to be politically-incorrect, but Gooding, who already had an Oscar under his belt for Jerry Maguire, veered a little too close to Simple Jack territory from Tropic Thunder. You know what I’m talking about.
Jared Leto in Chapter 27 (2008)
The Role: Mark David Chapman, the man who murdered John Lennon
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 2, 3, 5
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: Years before shedding weight for Dallas Buyers Club, Leto packed on 67 pounds to play the notorious nobody who gunned down the beloved Beatle outside The Dakota in 1980. The internets noted Leto’s bloated appearance and fawned over his co-star, Lindsay Lohan, but the film barely played in theaters and was quickly forgotten.
Marlon Brando in The Men (1950)
The Role: A World War II soldier made a paraplegic by a battlefield bullet
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 3
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: Though critics raved about Brando’s performance, The Men was his first film. Perhaps the industry wasn’t yet ready to crown the Broadway superstar. Writer Carl Foreman took home a fair share of the film’s credit, earning an Oscar nod for the screenplay.
Jamie Foxx in The Soloist (2009)
The Role: Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic homeless person who was once a Juilliard-trained cellist
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 2, 3, 5
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: Foxx had quickly cashed in after winning his Oscar for Ray, starring in a series of action films, and The Soloist, directed by Joe Wright, seemed like a sure-thing return to Oscar-caliber material. But when critics provided only a luke-warm endorsement and audiences failed to show up, the April release was completely forgotten by the Oscar race heated up.
Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar (2011)
The Role: J. Edgar Hoover, the feared and respected FBI chief who wielded great power for nearly 40 years
Oscar-Bait Checklist: 2, 4, 5
What Happened on the Way to Oscar: DiCaprio landed best actor nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, as well as mention from some gay and lesbian organizations. But some audiences flinched at the heavy makeup the golden 36-year-old actor had to wear to play Hoover in his 70s, and critics overall weren’t enamored with Clint Eastwood’s film.