I know I lamented the other day that I had missed The Theory of Everything. I honestly thought I would have to return from Toronto not having seen the one movie that legitimately entered the Oscar race from TIFF. But I was able to move some things around and make some tight connection times and wheedled my way into a Tuesday morning press screening.
It's a good thing I have Oscar prospects to talk about in relation to The Theory of Everything, because I'm not sure I have too terribly much to say about the movie. I'm like that with biopics, I find. There's so much similarity in the genre that it feels like checking off a list. Did the performances capture the essence of the character without turning it into a cheap impersonation? Did the film avoid the trap of being a filmed Wikipedia entry? Did uncomfortable truths get glossed over? The Theory of Everything has something of an advantage in the biopic arena, in that it's also dealing with big-idea astrophysics, a subject that most audience members aren't as already-familiar with as they might be for a biopic about, say, John Lennon and the music of the Beatles.
While James Marsh's direction does a decent job of keeping things visually peppy, the story here are the performances, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as his wife Jane. There's a very easy and cynical way to look at the film and proclaim Redmayne a shoo-in for Oscar love simply by the elements he brings to the table: biopic (Oscar loves 'em), physical transformation and disability (same), playing a Great Man Who Overcomes Obstacles. This is all true, but it shouldn't overshadow the fact that Redmayne really is showing a lot of skill as Hawking. He refuses to let Hawking the man get lost inside Hawking the debilitated. There's a world of ideas and ambition and humor inside that man from the first moment to the last. But, yeah, he's an absolute shoo-in for a Best Actor nomination, no question.
Felicity Jones probably is too, though probably as a supporting actress (it's all too easy for Oscar campaigns to pretend that loyal wives are less prominent than their husbands). Jones is an actress I've never quite warmed to, and The Theory of Everything doesn't change that, but objectively I can easily recognize that it's a substantial role, and the film relies on Jones and her character heavily. There's a lot of her putting on a brave face and staring past the camera. There's a lot of her heart breaking in quiet solitude. There's a lot of her looking remarkably and uncomfortably like she could be Eddie Redmayne sister. Twin sister. But that's probably my cross to bear more than it is hers.
Redmayne finds himself in a sea of Best Actor competition here at TIFF. There's Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game. There are rumblings of a resurgent Al Pacino, who is great in the otherwise TERRIBLE and MORALLY REPUGNANT The Humbling. Most prominently there are the men of Foxcatcher, which might honestly be a three-lead film with Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo. Not that they'll be campaigned that way, obviously. No film has managed multiple nominations in Best Actor or Best Actress since Thelma & Louise in 1991, and these days, most films don't even bother to try. (The last one that did, The Kids Are All Right, saw a nod for Annette Bening but none for Julianne Moore.)
The initial reports about the film made it seem like an obvious Best Actor vehicle for Steve Carell, playing the notorious billionaire/murderer John du Pont. Some people even made the "By a nose, Steve Carell" allusion to Nicole Kidman's Oscar victory for playing another real-life character with a prosthetic nose. (It was me. "Some people" making that joke was me.) After the film bowed in Cannes, reviewers like Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson began to beat the drum for Channing Tatum's performance, not just as an awards contender but as a Best Actor contender.
Having seen the movie, it's hard to imagine that Tatum could be bumped down to supporting to make room for anyone. Not only is he the true lead of the movie — the entry and ending point and the thematic center of Bennett Miller's themes about America's twisted sense of "greatness" — but he also deliver's the film's best performance. While Carell is terrifically unsettling, he's also rather mannered. The aforementioned Kidman's performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours was more earthy and lived-in, and you pretty much forgot about The Nose entirely. (Which is why I was so mad at people for constantly bringing it up, yes you, Denzel Washington, I mean you.) Carell's performance somehow plays up his own prosthetic, in a way that feels appropriately grotesque and distancing but also inappropriately showy. Tatum's playing with physicality too, hunching his shoulders and jutting out his chin, but it's all more frighteningly realistic.
It's not unheard of for a lead performance to be dumped into supporting to make way for a co-star. Ethan Hawke in Training Day. Jamie Foxx in Collateral. Julia Roberts just last year in August: Osage County. That last one is the one that gives me pause. Hawke was never as big a star as Denzel Washington. Jamie Foxx was already campaigning as lead for Ray. This time last year, I thought Julia Roberts was way too big a star to take a step backward into supporting. If anybody could get away with campaigning as two leads it would be Julia and Meryl Streep. Not so. And so while I might say now that it would be inconceivable for Channing Tatum, a huge star and the most prominent character in Foxcatcher to bump down for supporting, we've seen this before. I don't think it will happen. I think Carell ultimately drops down to supporting (where, it should be noted, he could honestly win). But I've seen stranger things.