Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Hunger’s Weighty Issue
Robert De Niro went one way in Raging Bull. Matt Damon went the other way in Courage Under Fire. Tom Hanks went both ways in Cast Away. For decades now, actors have been fattening up or thinning down for movie roles. For every Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Diary), there’s a Christian Bale (The Machinist). For every George Clooney (Syriana), there’s Jeremy Davies (Rescue Dawn).
That’s why I wasn’t shocked by the conclusion of Steve McQueen’s Hunger, which includes ghastly images of a sickly looking Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the IRA activist who died of starvation in 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike. Still, I was troubled by the almost sexual ogling of Fassbender’s emaciated frame over the film’s final act, and I remain troubled today.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Fassbender lost 40 pounds for the role by “living on nuts and berries for 10 weeks.” That’s 40 pounds off a guy who didn’t have an ounce to lose in the first place. The result is unsettling, to say the least, though not to McQueen. “That’s the job,” the director told the Times. “The film is called Hunger. It’s not a vanity trip. It’s an essential necessity for the film. The guy (Sands) didn’t eat in order to be heard. It’s work. He’s a professional actor.”
On that last point, we agree: Fassbender is a professional actor. But is starving one’s self to replicate starving “acting,” or is that “doing”? I’d say the latter. True enough, Fassbender’s weight loss was inspired by history; in that respect his starvation wasn’t a “vanity trip,” nor was it some kind of flippant artistic choice, as in Clooney’s rather unnecessary filling-out for Syriana. But was it “an essential necessity”? Mere months after Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were aged and de-aged digitally for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, I’d say no. Sure, Hunger lacked the budget of David Fincher’s Oscar-luring epic, but McQueen wasn’t without options; good old fashioned makeup effects would have worked, too.
Regardless of the method (or the Method, for that matter), McQueen’s best decision would have been to suggest starvation without actually replicating it. In other words, he should have asked Fassbender to, you know, act. Not only would this have been the more humane choice, I’m not alone in thinking that it would have been more dramatically effective, too. As Peter Rainer of The Christian Science Monitor puts it in his review: “In the end, it is not Bobby Sands but Michael Fassbender we are looking at, and this realization takes us out of the movie.” Indeed, that’s true. The horror I felt at the end of Hunger wasn’t for Sands, who believed he was fighting a life-or-death cause; it was for Fassbender, who was starring in an ultimately trivial movie.
Of course, Fassbender is an adult who can make his own decisions about how he treats his body. On an individual human rights level, I support that. But I’m saddened at the thought of any actor feeling compelled to take such measures in order to land a part. If McQueen views Fassbender’s weight loss as “an essential necessity,” it’s safe to assume that Fassbender wouldn’t have gotten the role without agreeing to fast. At that point, one could argue that Sands had considerably greater control over his decision to starve himslf than Fassbender did. That’s disturbing. What’s even more troubling is the sense that such weight games are becoming somewhat commonplace, despite the primitiveness of the stunt. And, effective or not, that’s what Fassbender’s weight loss is – a stunt.
Speaking of stunts, near the end of Tarsem’s The Fall, there’s a terrific montage of death-defying stunts from the silent film era. Death-defying when they worked, that is; simply deadly when they didn’t. No filmmaker today would ask a stuntman to take the unharnessed risks of those latter day acrobats, so why, with all that we know about human health, digital effects and makeup, are we unnecessarily turning our actors into silent era stuntmen? As Rainer suggests, “filmmakers don’t often give enough credit to the imaginations of their audiences.” Or maybe it’s the filmmakers and actors whose imaginations are limited.