The Best Actor shortlist for the 87th Academy Awards wasn’t exactly a two-horse race. Michael Keaton, Steve Carell and Bradley Cooper’s nominated performances were nothing to sniff at, and had plenty of support each. But the remaining two nominees had certain parallels; two rising young British actors in biopics of tortured geniuses who struggled with personal handicaps to reach brilliant scientific heights and make their respective marks on history. Indeed, one of the two actors had form; previous entries on Benedict Cumberbatch’s CV include intellectual high-scorers Vincent Van Gogh, Julian Assange, Kha(aaaaa)n Noonien Singh as well as the small matter of Sherlock Holmes. Oh, and he played Stephen Hawking first. Perhaps that was a factor in Cumberbatch missing out on the Oscar for ‘The Imitation Game; anyone familiar with his work wouldn’t have seen anything gobsmackingly new in his Turing. But another particularly important factor is that Eddie Redmayne’s performance was bloody good too. And while their individual interpretations of the same man are enough to fill their own article, the two Hawking biopics themselves are different enough to deserve picking apart further.
Cumberbatch’s ‘Hawking’ hit the airwaves in 2004, chronicling the two years between the future Cambridge Professor of Mathematics’ diagnosis of Motor Neuron Disease at 21, and the completion of his thesis supporting the existing Big Bang Theory with new evidence. The 2014 Redmayne-starring ‘The Theory of Everything’ covers the same period more briefly, then moves on to focus on Hawking’s marriage to his first wife Jane and their difficult family life. In the briefest terms, the earlier film is about the science, and the latter is about the disease. This makes plenty of sense considering one was shown at 9pm on BBC Two and the other was a wide-release Hollywood movie. ‘The Theory Of Everything’ was also based more heavily on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir ‘Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen’. As such it’s understandable that there’s less talk of Hawking’s scientific theories and more on their marriage. However, that’s where the Oscar-bait nature of the film comes into play.
Jane’s real-life memoir details a turbulent relationship with her husband after the first year of their marriage, chronicling heated arguments and stubbornness on his part to accept outside help for his condition. None of this turbulence translates to the film. In a story where a Jane (played by Felicity Jones) feels overwhelmed by her husband’s need for her care and where they both are implied to have had affairs, everyone comes out of it self-sacrificial and blameless. The moment where Stephen and Jane admit to each other that their marriage is over is mutually dignified and affectionate. Indeed, the closest thing to genuine tension between the couple after they’re married is when Jane looks up from doing housework to see Stephen having the audacity to be playing with their son. Her expression is the Best-Actress-Nominated equivalent of “Who’s going to clear that up then? Muggins here, that’s who.” It’s not as if unreasonable stubbornness would be unimaginable in an ambitious genius who’s spent the majority of his life being slowly paralysed. So the decision to romanticise the characters and the central relationship comes across as a pretty obvious attempt to turn a real life story into a tragic yet uplifting tale where noble people struggle with the hardships that fate throws at them. The height of this comes when Stephen goes to lengths to arrange a weekend away for Jane and her future husband (played by Daredevil himself Charlie Cox) while he flies out of the country for a concert, hinting heavily that he wants his wife to get the affection that he can’t provide. This removal of any character flaws seems to come from a mixture of respect for the still-living figures the story is based on, who remain in the public eye and relatively uncontroversial, and the sense that this is what films like this are supposed to do. And for all that, it worked. The film was acclaimed and nominated for plenty of awards, though it’s probably fitting that the single Oscar it won was for the truly excellent central performance, which is aided by Redmayne being an extraordinary physical match for Hawking.
2004’s ‘Hawking’, as previously mentioned, focusses more on his thesis and work in debunking the ‘Steady State’ alternative to the Big Bang Theory. Even the MND progression is technically a subplot; it comes into play in moments relevant to Hawking’s research, such as the discovery of a new way of notating formulas that suits his condition. In the second half, it comes mostly from Cumberbatch’s physicality, making Hawking’s condition a constant yet largely uncommented on presence. While this makes for a tighter story, it does leave a feeling that this element of Hawking’s life was glanced over somewhat, with the only acknowledgement that he smashed his original prognosis to pieces coming in a text-only epilogue. ‘The Theory Of Everything’ has an extra thirty minutes to play with, and wisely uses some of this to show Hawking’s devastation at initially being given two years to live. ‘Hawking’ on the other hand has a small, detached scene filmed through a window from outside while inside Hawking, in tears, is comforted by his father (played by Adam Godley, who oddly enough plays the doctor giving the diagnosis in ‘The Theory Of Everything’). The concern then is getting Hawking a subject for his thesis that he can complete in the time he has left. But to say that ‘Hawking’ focusses on science isn’t to say it lacks the emotion of ‘The Theory Of Everything’. One of the most memorable scenes is between Cumberbatch and a cameoing Alice Eve where Hawking is challenged to woo a girl using Einstein’s theory of relativity. Forget arrogant, brooding figures with long coats, Benedict Cumberbatch has never been sexier than when passionately explaining how physics makes the world a beautiful and extraordinary place.
‘The Theory Of Everything’ is certainly the more complete story of Stephen Hawking’s life; ‘Hawking’ never shows him in a wheelchair, or his famous (and indeed copyrighted) speech machine. It also doesn’t put a spotlight on the real man’s character flaws either, but it doesn’t feel like it was obliged to like ‘The Theory Of Everything’ arguably should have been. The latter was based on a very honest personal memoir after all. When it comes down to it, one film chronicles the struggles of an extraordinary person. The other shows the reason films are being made about him in the first place.