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Physical Alterations and Acting


I am agnostic over the question at hand in this article, whether Anne Hathaway is a good actress. This is largely because I can’t think of a reason why I would watch most of her movies unless the wife wanted to go. Rachel Getting Married was pretty interesting. My wife did force me to watch The Devil Wears Prada, which was decent enough for the genre I suppose. In any case, I certainly have nothing against Hathaway, even if I never quite understood the buzz.

But I do have an opinion on the point about whether the weight loss and short hair in Les Miserables (which I most certainly did not see) constitutes something in itself that means good acting.

A part like Fantine also caters to the industry’s weakness—shared by most actors, male or female—for flagrantly masochistic martyrdom. Since Hollywood’s definition of “winning ugly” is different from the NFL’s, it doesn’t hurt that Hathaway starved herself silly to play Victor Hugo’s tramp with a heart of lead. Then she consented to having her hair done by the guy from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She may shill for Lancome in “real” life, but in Les Mis, she looks and carries on like the spokesmodel for a pricey but pungent new fragrance named Nostalgie de la Boue.

At least since Robert DeNiro gained all that weight in Raging Bull (or maybe even since he gained weight for Godfather, Part II), the idea of physical transformation as great acting has had a lot of appeal. DeNiro was truly amazing in those films, although especially in Raging Bull a lot of the popular conversation about it revolved around the weight gain. Maybe the most egregious actor in this genre today is Christian Bale, where both in Rescue Dawn and The Machinist, he put himself through masochist sacrifices in order to satisfy his directors. A subsection of this is the idea that playing someone with a mental or physical disability is also a way to get notice for your acting. The first time Leonardo DiCaprio came to fame was in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. As an actor once told me, that kind of role is not particularly hard. Far more difficult is an actual portrayal of mental illness that makes sense (say Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King, although that’s hardly a film without problems) or having a physical aliment that can shut off the brain and force an actor to switch back and forth, a la DeNiro in Awakenings.

I think all this shows is a willingness to throw oneself into a role, which is fine. At this point, I certainly can’t blame someone for doing it because, for whatever reason, that sort of physical transformation is a great way for people to think you’ve created a great performance. But I’d argue that it really is more or less irrelevant. While I suppose we wouldn’t want Philip Seymour Hoffman playing someone in a concentration camp in 1945, it’s also a bit ridiculous to expect living people to starve themselves in order to play a role. And if they do, the added touch of authenticity or whatever doesn’t mean much either way to the quality of the acting or the quality of the movie.

In other news, Oscar night, etc. I didn’t see enough of the films nominated to have too strong of an opinion. If Lincoln wins, well, it’s middle-brow enough to fit and will probably be forgotten about by 2015, but it clearly superior to the average Best Picture winner.

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  • AcademicLurker

    I’m sufficiently pessimistic these days that I’m half expecting them to give Best Picture to Zero Dark Thirty, purely as a way of saying “Fuck you all, we think torture is cool” to everyone who complained about the way it was handled in the film.

    Maybe Kiefer Sutherland could present.

    • mark f

      Finally saw it last Sunday. After all the discussion I was pretty surprised by those scenes’ ambiguity in the narrative and in their depictions being about as gruesome as Bane fighting Batman.

  • c u n d gulag

    A lot of this stems from some actors and acting teacher’s interpretations of Stanislovky.

    Lee Strasberg, of “Actors Studio” fame, is one of the teachers who advocated things like dramatic weight loss or gain.

    In late 1981 and early 1982, I was studying acting with Sonia Moore, who was a REAL “Stanilovskian,” and decided to audition for Actors Studio.

    In early February of ’82, I went through a series of auditions for days, before the evening when I did ‘my thing’ in front of the elderly Mr. Strasberg.

    After the audition, one of his Russian assistants came up to me and told me that Mr. Strasberg was impressed, and would like to invite me to join his studio>
    The cost, he told me, was $5,000 a semester, or year – I can’t remember which.

    Well, I was working, but only making about $11,000 a year as a Customer Service Trainer, so I said to the Russian, “What do I need to do, get paid to make a major motion picture before I can learn how to act?”
    I told him I’d think the offer over.

    The next morning, I heard on the radio that Lee Strasberg had died overnight.

    I very well may have been the last, but certainly ONE of the last, to audtion for Lee Strasberg.

    When I went to visit my parents, who knew about the audition and his death, when I got in the car with my father, he said, in Russian, “Some actor you are! You killed Lee Strasberg!!!”

    I laughed at that the whole weekend.
    Still do!

    • ralphdibny

      That is a fantastic story.

      And you are right, of course–acting ugly is an American acting tradition. Before Anne Hathaway chopped off her hair, Julie Harris did it, and was nominated for Best Actress (1952).

      • Here’s the thing… As part of that role Hathaway either needed to (a) chop off her hair or (b) find a way to conceal her hair beneath a wig that made it appear that she had chopped off her hair. A haircut is hardly the most remarkable physical transformation I’ve seen on film.

        If Hathaway were male, would this even be worth mentioning? Richard Gere received a pretty short haircut in “An Officer and a Gentleman” that, like Hathaway’s, went with the role.

        • wjts

          For what it’s worth, much was made of Demi Moore ACTUALLY SHAVING HER HEAD!!! for G.I. Jane.

          • Or Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta.

          • rea

            That was partly because it really turned on some fetishists . . .

    • As a Strasberg “alum” (such as it was), you didn’t miss much.

      A bunch of French and German exchange students paying full frieght and getting credits from the University of Heidelberg or some such, sitting on the stoop smoking during breaks and posing for the paparazzi (or practicing for when they hit it big)

      Some of them were really incredible actors and especially actresses, let me say that up front, but they didn’t become that until one of the LSI teachers took them aside and worked with them privately.

      Loads of talent, but try getting up in front of a class of 100 on a consistent basis to do work and get critiques.

      It really ended up being a funnel into private and semi-private coaching, except for the kids no one thought would ever make it.

      By the way, love the story about “killing Lee.” He’d have been proud of that.

  • Eggomaniac

    Because FSM knows there aren’t any wraith-thin actresses any more. I think this says as much about the studios’ obsession with “stars” and some directors’ inability to see anyone else in the role except the Actor They Must Have as it does about the actors themselves.

    But I’m inclined to agree that body-weight martyrdom should not be a factor in deciding who gets the bling. Unfortunately, actor are universally a bunch of drama queens, and they eat this shit up, so nothing will ever change.

    • The problem with Les Mis is you’d never get box office with a cast of people who can sing first. It’s such a sweeping story that to summarize it as badly as films have means you have to put glitter and tinsel on it.

      They did a prose version a number of years ago, and loaded it with Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman (among others) and it bombed. Great reviews, but it did $14 million domestic box in 1998. People just don’t like the story.

      But make Anne Hathaway suffer? Russell Crowe croak a song? They’ll come.

  • Jonathan

    Shorter Eric Loomis:

    Blah, blah, blah, chick-flick. Blah, blah, blah, blah, real actors are male.

    • I don’t know who that person is you are providing a “shorter” of since my name isn’t spelled that way, but if you were talking about me you are making absolutely no sense since nowhere did I even insinuate any such thing.

      • Matt Stevens

        You praised a male actor, and expressed indifference about a female one. Therefore you opened yourself to attack from a self-righteous prick. He resorted to the kind of power trip that gave “politically correct” a bad reputation before it became a mindless slogan for bigots.

        • Jonathan

          You can always tell who are the White men on the internet because their privilege always shines through.

          • Matt Stevens

            Hey, you’re the guy being a self-righteous prick for no good reason. Far as I can tell the only one acting privileged is you.

            • Jonathan

              Yep, because that’s totally how privilege works.

      • bob mcmanus

        Psst. Add Charlize Theron to the main post.

        • Jonathan

          Because tokenism solves everything, amiright?

      • Jonathan

        I am agnostic over[…] whether Anne Hathaway is a good actress. […]I can’t think of a reason why I would watch most of her movies unless the wife wanted to go. […]I never quite understood the buzz.

        Blah, blah, blah, chick-flick.

        […]Robert DeNiro[…] great acting[…] a lot of appeal[…] truly amazing[…]

        Blah, blah, blah, blah, real actors are male. Strip away the purple and you were dismissive towards an actress in a conversation on Hollywood’s relationship to bodies and weight. You then focused the discussion on three male actors, one of whom you praised effusively. And you don’t see that as problematic. But yeah, my bad on your name being spelled Erik instead of Eric. Because focusing on a typo is preferable to addressing my actual point.

        • Anonymous


          Suffering “the wife’s” low-brow tastes, while admitting you actually know nothing about the actor’s work apart from the fact that she’s associated with gross cooties girl films by virtue of being female and working in films where the leads are women.

          • Bill Murray

            really Erik should love The Princess Diaries

    • Dave

      Y’know, it is actually kinda funny, because if you didn’t know EL was a painfully PC leftie, it would be dramatically easy to read this that way.

      I think we’ve all learned an important lesson here.

      • Jonathan

        And I’m sure he has a Black friend and thus can never say anything racist. “I’m a liberal,” is not a defense from an accusation of sexism.

  • JC
  • jeer9

    Rooting for Lincoln to win, but I fear Argo will get the nod. Don’t think ZDT has much of a chance. Silver Linings is the dark horse.

    My favorite performance of a developmentally disabled character is Thornton’s as Karl in Sling Blade.

  • LeeEsq

    During the Studio Era, audiences seemed to suspend
    their disbelief more about these things. People accepted
    Jimmy Stewart as a Hungarian without him putting
    on an accent. Audiences these days seem to be less
    willing to accept these things and demand certain
    alterations for the role from accents to weight
    changes or dye.

    • A similar phenomena, which I am sure I will talk about at some point in more depth, is the idea that good acting in bio-pics is a good imitation. I think Anthony Hopkins in Nixon might be seen as the last major role where placing a good actor in a biographical role meant more than someone who could look and sound like the original. This is not a good thing for the movies and says a lot about the endless mediocre bio-pics of the last 15 years.

      • lige

        I couldn’t get past how little Anthony Hopkins resembles Richard Nixon. The Nixonian nose is an essential part of the man’s character.

      • LeeEsq

        This to. If a historical person had an iconic physical feature, like Lincoln’s beard, than I think an actor should also have that iconic physical feature. However, an exact likeness isn’t necessary. It was enough for Kirk Douglass to grow a beard and dye is hair red when he played Van Gogh and act with angst and passion. He did not need make up to look as gaunt as Van Gogh did.

        • You can always paste on a beard.

          • BigHank53

            Just ask Phylis Gates.

          • LeeEsq

            I think what they do now is have actors grow the base and than paste on the rest if the beard is supposed to be a thick or unusually shaped one. If the beard is short than they have the actors grow it.

      • ralphdibny

        A related phenomenon–the idea that the best actors are chameleons, and that an actor who “always plays the same part” is less talented than an actor who can “disappear” into a part.

        • Indeed. Evidently, every actor who worked in the studio system was terrible.

          • By today’s acting standards, yes, most of them were.

            Imagine “High Noon” without Gary Cooper. Say with Clark Gable.

            Now imagine “A Farewell To Arms” without Gary Cooper. Say with Clark Gable.

            There’s the problem with the studio system, in a nutshell. You get an actor who is clearly not the right type for a role, but you stick him in it anyway, despite the fact it is wayyyyyy beyond his capacity because you have a contractual capacity to stick him in there.

        • Define “talent”.

          If that actor limits himself to the same types of parts, he can have a very successful career and that’s a talent.

          If an actor wants to create art, he’ll lose himself in a role. For me, the test of great acting is whether at some point in the film, I have to stop myself and remember that it’s Johnny Depp up on the screen and not Jack Sparrow/Hunter S Thompson/Edward Scissorhands/Donnie Brasco/et al, or Denzel Washington as Eli/Malcom X/et al

          But sure, I’ll watch Harrison Ford movies, too.

          Just not for the acting.

      • Excuse me?


    • Book

      HD television isn’t doing that tendency any favours either.

    • ddt

      Don’t forget Charlton Heston in brownface, playing a Mexican detective, in “Touch of Evil”.

  • Karen

    I heard a story once about Spencer Tracy, who had to play an unshaven character. He showed up on time and without any visible stubble. Te director screamed, to which Tracy replied ” I don’t have to be unshaven; I know how to ACT unshaven.”

  • montag

    I’m reminded of the story of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier chatting on the set of “Marathon Man,” with Hoffman describing his difficulties in doing the voice of an extremely elderly Jack Crabb for “Little Big Man,” finally locking himself away and screaming non-stop until he apparently damaged a vocal cord and his voice cracked.

    Olivier listened to the story with some sympathy and when Hoffman had finished, said, “but, my dear boy, why didn’t you just… act?”

    Gaining weight (or losing it) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even now, after getting a best supporting actor Oscar for “Syriana,” Clooney still wonders what prompted him to gain thirty pounds to do it (especially since the extra weight caused him to bung up a knee). And who knows what kind of kidney damage Viggo Mortensen may have to done to himself starving and dehydrating himself while doing “The Road.”

    • wjts

      The way I heard that story was that Hoffman showed up on the set of Marathon Man one day looking haggard and bedraggled, as if he hadn’t slept in the last few days. Olivier looked at Hoffman and commented that Hoffman looked as though he hadn’t slept in the last few days. Hoffman said, “I haven’t slept in the last few days, because my character hasn’t.” Olivier replied, “It’s called ‘acting,’ dear boy.”

    • wengler

      I’ve heard variations of this story and I have to imagine it’s annoying as hell to be around anyone doing ‘method’.

      • ralphdibny

        Exception: Apparently Sean Penn stayed in character as Spicoli throughout the filming of “Fast Times.” I’d much rather hang out with Spicoli than Penn.

        • Pestilence


      • That’s why we always thank our ex-wives at awards shows :-)

  • BigHank53

    Eh, it seems to be another excuse to engage in public judgment of a woman’s appearance. Otherwise why the snarky paragraph about her weight and haircut? How much weight did Clooney pack on for Syriana? Any tut-tutting over that? By anyone, anywhere? Ms. Hathaway’s appearance is of concern to the following people: Ms. Hathaway herself, any directors or casting folks she’d like to get a job from, and Adam Shulman. The rest of the world can fold up its concerns and cram them.

    • wjts

      Agreed. The recent(ish) “transformations” for roles that seem to get the most attention attractive actresses willing to “debase” themselves by getting an unflattering haircut or donning an unsightly prosthetic nose.

      • Scott P.

        Anne Hathaway’s haircut wasn’t unflattering. The appearance of every woman is improved by short hair.

        • SV

          Nobody cares what gives you a boner, dude, that’s not what this is about.
          And, yes, the discussion you hear about a female actor changing appearance in this way for a role is massively different from when it’s a male actor.

  • I always thought that Dustin Hoffmans’ character in Rain Man was a good piece of acting, he was able to get that slack-muscled facial lack of affect that you see in a lot of retarded/autistic people faces.

  • Medrawt

    Note that the linked article doesn’t actually deign to entertain the question of what “good acting” is at any length, or explore why Ms. Hathaway might or might not qualify beyond the implied Potter Stewartisms of some ill-defined crowd. What is clear is that Anne Hathaway really, really bugs some people, and some of them think that this has something to do with the quality of her performances, which certainly doesn’t need to actually be the case.

    • Michael

      Exactly. Hathaway was excelled in Les Mis, and her excellence had nothing to do with her weight. We can use that as a jumping-off point for discussing the unhealthy culture of body modification in Hollywood, but it seems odd to me to use it as a jumping off point for discussing the merits of Hathaway’s acting.

      • Errr, she’s playing a peasant at the time of the French Revolution.

        Where, you know, they were all starving.

        • rea

          Errr, she’s playing a peasant at the time of the French Revolution.

          Where, you know, they were all starving.

          Les Miserables is actually set 1815-1832, with the climactic fighting being the unsuccessful rebellion of 1832.

    • ddt

      My guess — and it’s a total guess — is that Hathaway has, to her credit, been relatively brave about what parts she’s taken and how she’s acted them, compared to the arc her career could have taken. Instead of parlaying teen queen roles on the model of Disney Channel types, just going for romcoms, she’s attacked relatively thankless parts (wife in Brokeback, including a topless scene), and played “unsympathetic” leads. She doesn’t have a reputation as a demanding hire, and seems to be dedicated to advancing her work. So, there’s that, though it’s another example of awarding the person, not the acting.

      • LeeEsq

        I don’t know if this is bravery so much as whats necessary to break out of the childhood actor mode. Most childhood stars, especially boys, can’t translate childhood stardom into an adult career. Taking roles that go against the type you played as a childhood star is really the only way to do it.

  • College professors are sometimes urged to improve their teaching by being more like actors (and sometimes not). I suppose it will only be a matter of time before they are (sometimes) urged to improve their teaching by undergoing physical alterations.

    Personally, I would like to urge various college administrators to improve their administrating by undergoing physical alterations. Mostly involving pikes.

    (ha-ha, just kidding!!!! FIGURE OF SPEECH!!!! hyperbole

  • The weight gain/loss thing is of a piece with improved cameras, recent directorial preference for occasional tight shots, the advent of CGI etc. In the age of CGI actors have to be expected to be something closer to a “special effect” than was the case in 1935, Lon Cheney notwithstanding. I agree that Oscar’s preference for thin/pretty actresses is troubling but this didn’t really stem from De Niro. De Niro was more of a symptom than a cause.

  • Erm, that would be Robin Williams in The Fisher King, yes? Or am I severely misremembering that movie?

    • Right, right. Bridges played the dj. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen that.

      • matt

        Although, I would argue that Bridges is the one giving a smart and nuanced portrayal of mental illness in that film

        • Pestilence

          Thats what I thought Prof L meant, too. Although kudos to a director who could find the right fit for Williams’ OTT berserk act.

  • Also, the cite tag goes to bold now?

  • Scott P.

    I am agnostic over the question at hand in this article, whether Anne Hathaway is a good actress. This is largely because I can’t think of a reason why I would watch most of her movies unless the wife wanted to go.

    Hathaway being one of the five most attractive women in the world isn’t enough?

    • SV

      Damn, I should have kept reading! Please, tell us more about the attributes of Hathaway that turn you on, and why. Totally relevant and of interest to this thread.

      • Brautigan

        You must be alot of fun at parties.

        • wjts

          I know, right? How can anyone have fun at a party if there’s no pseudonymous internet guy ranking female celebrities by their fuckability quotient?

        • SV

          Actually, you have no idea… although maybe we’d differ, since my idea of a fun party requires a woman being able to speak without some dude interrupting to demand her cup size, or insisting that it’s really important for her to know how she compares to other women in terms of boner-inspiring ability.
          But hey, I’m sure your parties rock, since only the really interesting people would enjoy the alternative.

          “Saw Les Mis yesterday,I thought Anne Hathaway was-” “WHO CARES ABOUT THAT I WOULD TOTALLY DO HER JUST SO YOU KNOW!”

  • MG

    Steve McQueen underwent a physical transformation during “Papillon” because he spent his off-screen time drinking beer and smoking reefer. This meant that costuming had to perform some magic to hide the fact that the actor gained weight steadily while his character was going through physical deprivations in prison.

    But, hey, he did his cliff diving in the movie! Go Steve McQueen!

  • efgoldman

    But I do have an opinion on the point about whether the weight loss and short hair in Les Miserables (which I most certainly did not see)

    Jeez. Your wife didn’t force you to go? Mine did. As a musician, I was much more taken by the score’s lack of creativity.

  • Joe

    Didn’t see the movie but “starved silly” sounds a bit much — AH is not exactly husky normally. Then, we are told her character has a bad haircut. Okay. As to her acting chops, she was pretty good in various films, showing some range, comic to drama. I also read a review in a local paper that said AH was okay here but you knew all along she was an actress playing the role. Sort of that she overdid the whole thing. That sometimes works.

    Jimmy Carter’s choice for Best Picture is Argo. Having seen it, I don’t really think Silver Linings Playbook should win.

    • I don’t think “starved silly” is a bad way to describe an already fairly thin actress losing 25 lbs. through living off “rabbit food.”

      • Joe

        I stand corrected.

  • C.S.

    If I recall, I think it was John Geilgud who said that beggars, kings, and madmen were the easiest to play, because you could do anything you wanted —- your performance was in the hands of the other actors, in how they reacted to you. This is why Johnny Depp was 10 times better than DiCaprio in Gilbert Grape.

  • JB2

    I thought the linked article was interesting, but the author seemed perplexed by something that I think is fairly common: many successful and appealing movie stars aren’t great actors. To cite the most obvious example: Ah-nuld is a terrible actor, but, a lot of his eighties films are pretty good. He had the great physical presence and didn’t take himself too seriously – just what you need to make an idiotic movie like Commando entertaining.

    I’ve seen most of the best picture nominees – ZDT is really great, but we just saw Amour last week and I can’t get it out of my head. Both of those were clearly better films than likely winner Argo.

    • Medrawt

      Indeed, what’s really necessary (and Arnold has this) is the ability to be on camera (or onstage) without turning into a terrified flailing facsimile of human behavior, which based on my few occasions on the casting side of the table in school theater is an ability a great many people are a very great distance from having. It doesn’t mean you’ll be a good Hamlet, but as long as you stay in your lane you won’t be that bad.

      After that, there’s some weird alchemy. I remember watching Stallone’s remake of Get Carter, which is not a particularly good movie, and having the thought that Sly is clearly a much, much better actor than Arnold. He has perfectly fine dramatic scenes with the actress playing his daughter in that movie that would’ve been unintentionally funny if Arnold tried his hand at them. He also, unlike Arnold, has laid down evidence of ambition and skill as a writer and director. I’m not saying Sly is a misunderstood genius (though, seriously the first Rocky and Rambo films are very good), but he’s a competent artist with questionable taste and not the most expansive range as an actor. Arnold is an impressive looking muscleman with awkward delivery and an admirable ability to allow himself to be funny.

      And yet I’d rather be stranded on a desert island with 10 randomly selected Schwarzenegger flicks than 10 randomly selected Stallone flicks. No hesitation.

  • Conrad

    If physical transformations are the hallmarks for being a “Great Actor” then Gerard Butler and David Wenham should have been up for Oscars for 300. Both went from well-built guys to hulking behemoths for their roles.

  • Bloix

    In Les Miz, Hathaway is not doing modern movie acting. She’s doing a form of Broadway stage acting on film. It’s closer to silent film than sound, but of course it’s combined with singing (famously, in this film, all the singing is done in real time – there’s no lip synching). She’s extraordinarily good at it and IMHO she deserves the Oscar.

    It’s an interesting coincidence that for the second year in a row an actor who is acting in an older style will win an award (last year was Jean Dujardin, for The Artist).

    • LeeEsq

      Its also closer to the early sound pictures when they just used theatrical techniques. I think that film didn’t really hit its stride as an art form until the late 1930s, when actors and directors finally figured out that the acting needed in film needs to be more like how people behaved in real life than theatrical acting.

      • Hogan

        Unless you’re the Marx Brothers.

  • Unless the same script/story/screenplay & amount of money is given to five (It’s nine, now?) separate producers who must have the final cut in by the same date there is no actual competition.

    Plus which, film (& movies) being a collaborative medium it’s silly to single out individuals, except writers, maybe, who at least start solo. And producers (a stretch, but) for picking the right director, writer, yada, for a project?

  • Jeff

    DeNiro gained weight for Godfather Part II? He looked very thin in that film, especially compared to the older version of the character played by Brando.

    • JB2

      30-something Vito who returns to Sicily so he can bump off Don Cici is a little heavier than Little Italy Vito, but I agree – not such a huge transformation.

  • cck

    Many years ago I saw Patricia Clarkson as Blanche DuBois at the Kennedy Center. When she performed the scene that came after Stanley had raped her (the “kindness of strangers” scene) Clarkson showed the audience a physically diminished and demolished Blanche – it was as if she had lost 25 lbs during the short time that had elapsed between the rape scene and this scene which, of course, in live theatre is impossible. Now, that is acting!

  • Wow. I didn’t know that until i came across this page. It seems people are willing to do anything to lose weight. However, i came across this weight loss site endrosed by Dr. Oz. Tell me what do you think about this. Cheers!

  • Daniel Day-Lewis: My Left Foot.

    Nuff said.

    There’s a huge difference between reshaping yourself for a role and becoming the character.

    Sorry. Hathaway just was not that good. Les Miz needed to get *something* to justify the expense of making it. Her Oscar was a pity party.

  • JD

    Christian Bale is up there, but the most egregious has to be Jared Leto. Google “The Dallas Buyer’s Club” and “Chapter 27” and you’ll see what I mean. (A warning: if you want to retain your Jordan Catalano crush, you might not want to Google these.)

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