Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Theory of Everything

(UK, 2014)

Well, we’ve now seen all five of the nominees for Best Actor, 2014, and it’s official: Michael Keaton got robbed.

He was the victim of a well-known quirk of Academy voters. They seem to believe that it’s harder to contort yourself into a pretzel, to show obvious suffering, than it is to do a straight role. It can be summed up as, “When in doubt, vote for the cripple.” And brother, there’s hardly anyone on the planet as crippled as Stephen Hawking. Being hugely disabled will usually at least get you a nomination, quite often a win.

Case in point: Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot. I think he was outclassed by both Kenneth Branagh in Henry V and (though I hate to say it) Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July (another cripple, please note, but a better performance and a better film).

This year we had two winning disabilities. Julianne Moore had Alzheimer’s, remember? In a film, Still Alice, that almost no one saw.

I’m not saying Eddie Redmayne didn’t do a good job here. All the nominees did; it’s rare to get a bad performance nominated for an Oscar. It’s just that, this year, Michael Keaton far outclassed everyone else, in my opinion.

I’m also far from convinced that this movie should have been made at all. I’m always a little leery of making movies about people who are still alive. Stephen Hawking has had a remarkable life, no question. As far as I know, no one has the faintest idea how he has managed to survive for fifty years beyond the two years he was given to live back in 1963. (At the age of seventy-three now, he has been reduced to one cheek muscle to communicate with the rest of us.) I guess it was sheer bad luck that a man with such a brilliant mind got ALS in the first place, and mostly good luck that he has lived with it. Though he has certainly had a lot of help that your average man-in-the-ALS-ward probably didn’t get, like specialists around the world willing to drop everything and hurry to his side if he needed anything, like a new voice synthesizer.

But there are several problems with the movie, I think. One is that it is, necessarily, a pretty static affair. He gets sick, and he gets worse and worse. He gets a lot of awards, and a lot of ideas. Which is the second problem. Just about all these ideas involve concepts very difficult to explain at all to most laymen, and totally impossible to get over in a movie. So most people have to take their word for it that he was revolutionizing quantum physics. And third is the perhaps natural tendency to clean up a biography a bit when the subject is still alive. I have heard that Mr. Hawking can be a bit of an SOB with other people, and treated his long-suffering first wife badly. Also that his insistence on not using some of that help that could have been available made things doubly hard on those who were helping him. Are any of those accusations true? I don’t know, but with a living subject you just have to wonder. All in all, I think this one was over-rated.