Benedict Cumberbatch: Can a Character Actor Be a Leading Man?

Benedict Cumberbatch

Many people assume that remarkable, distinctive cultures — as opposed to bland ones like the American and Scandi-Germanic — aren’t aware of how they seem to outsiders. It dawned on me in the first years I lived in India that they not only loved how exotic they are, they wallowed in it, fostered it; their eccentricity is institutionalized in the culture.

The same self-awareness goes for the English. They know how quaint and quirky they can be, and nowhere do they proclaim that more than in their choice of names. The sound of ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’ reminds me of an expensive-but-worth-it five-alarm hangover brunch at a boutique hotel in London’s West End, the kind where there’s no remedy for how wretched you feel more effective than retoxing with mounds of greasy pork products and vats of Bloody Marys, yes, the kind made with finely chopped onions.

What a generous, Harry Potter-ish name Benedict Cumberbatch is, how worthy of the singular, multifaceted man who bares it. I can just hear his teachers at the super-elite Harrow School admonishing him with an exaggerated, flogging syllabification of his name: “Mis-ter Cum-ber-BATCH!”

Self-awareness, not just of the broader culture but the personal kind, is a key tool for a successful actor, up there with having a remarkable, distinctive physicality that he knows how to manipulate with his will and purpose for any given role. He should also understand the limits of his range, that he will never perform a role that is, say, better suited for Oprah Winfrey — not if he looks like Benedict Cumberbatch.

EW-Sherlock-CoverCumberbatch certainly has a remarkable, distinctive physicality as well as the kind of sonorous voice many actors slap themselves every morning for not being blessed with (and smoke many cigarettes trying to achieve). He has a balanced self-awareness; his choices in roles are remarkably on target. But knowing his limitations? I’m not sure about that. Cumberbatch is one of the most sought-after actors of the moment, and yet he is the most unlikely leading man. Is he a leading man at all?

The camera seeks out two things in an actor’s face: mouth and eyes. If they are unremarkable, he is unlikely to make it beyond supporting roles. The big guys — Pitt, Clooney, Downey, Depp, Cruise — all sport alluring mouth-eye sets. As long as they keep both tended and dusted with manly charm, they will be packing them into seats well into their 70s.

Cumberbatch has remarkable eyes, a distinctive mouth, but they’re not exactly alluring in the same way as the aforementioned leading men, who are all bona fide stars in the way Hollywood measures these things. (Cumberbatch has a long way to go before he is at that level; it is unlikely he will ever get there.) He’s a fantastic performer, so engaging to watch, and with the new season of Sherlock underway he has never been more popular, yet his eyes and mouth are, well, kinda creepy. But creepy in a fascinating way. If he is a leading man, he is the dark prince, forever Dracula descending the staircase, “Look into my eyes… You are becoming sleepier, and sleepier…”

A few years ago, Cumberbatch was destined to be just a well-respected working actor, maybe heir to Ian McKellen after sixty. But that destiny was flipped on its ear when he was cast as Sherlock Holmes in the supremely clever BBC version of the prototypical super-detective’s adventures, which reimagines Sir Arthur Conan’s original stories in a modern context. The show works so well that it is a tribute to how brilliant and seminal the original work is; a true classic can be adapted over time in myriad contexts and still be engaging and relevant to the new time period.

Suddenly a major blip on the pop-culture radar, Cumberbatch was then seized by Hollywood, first to play the villain in the  blockbuster Star Trek: A Journey Into Darkness, then to play the anti-hero Julian Assange in the mega-flop The Fifth Estate.

Cumberbatch is in theaters right now as the simpleton Little Charles in August: Osage County. If you want to see the limits of a talented actor’s self-awareness, you need look no further than this performance. Yes, he is greatly limited by director John Well’s abilities to extract the right pitch from most of his cast, with the notable exception of Meryl Streep, but he threw Cumberbatch in particular out into the deep sea with a heavy weight around his ankles. It’s painful to watch. It was hubris: Cumberbatch playing a mentally and emotionally challenged man? There is no amount of acting that can turn Cumberbatch into a simpleton. He plays geniuses so perfectly because he looks like one. They might as well have cast Oprah as Little Charles.

Luckily, all of the men in Tracy Letts’ play are simpering, ineffectual idiots, to the point of misandry. The wrongness of Cumberbatch’s casting and his wretched performance will be overlooked, the memory of it swept aside — we all make mistakes, and this isn’t even his. But, oh, how I wanted him down off that screen and back to being the delightful “high-functioning sociopath” he plays in Sherlock. It really pissed me off to see him debase himself like that.

Benedict-Cumberbatch-GQ-HP-2sept13_b_479x291

If you think my opening to this piece is silly,  then compare Benedict Cumberbatch’s name to Basil Rathbone’s, the most famous interpreter of Sherlock Holmes. When you’re super-hungover and extra-hungry at a high-end restaurant on the West End, the Basil Rathbone is an Italian-style steak cooked rare in a cream sauce that you have right after your Benedict Cumberbatch. Or you could line them up as title credits on a forthcoming Harry Potter prequel thusly:

with Basil Rathbone as Benedict Cumberbatch

Or vice-versa.

Actually, there are a few similarities between those actors beyond their entrée-sounding names. Rathbone was never a true leading man in the Errol Flynn sense, but he was nevertheless a star. He appeared in over seventy movies, from action adventure to crime dramas (fourteen times as Sherlock Holmes) to costume dramas to horror films. I don’t know that any modern actor can be quite so prolific, unless you count television episodes as individual films, and in the case of ninety-minute-long Sherlock Holmes shows, why not? But Cumberbatch does have Rathobone’s distinctive, angular features, and is as adaptable to as many genres, which most leading men are not.

The one genre I would eschew if I were Cumberbatch is horror; unless it’s the Ridley Scott-ish, elegant sci-fi type of horror, it tends to torture porn these days. Cumberbatch is a hair’s breadth away from being too scary looking as it is. Doing horror would be overkill. At any rate, most horror doesn’t pay his going rate, so why bother?

Period dramas, on the other hand, are a wise move. He should do more. Cumberbatch’s strangely appealing face works well perched above important collars from all periods, as we see when he pops his coat lapels in Sherlock. We don’t do collars well these days, sadly.

Cumberbatch recently completed a period biopic about gay martyr Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician and cryptanalyst who turned the tide of World War II to an extent no other individual did by cracking the German Enigma code. He was rewarded for his efforts a few years later when he was “chemically castrated” by the British government for being a homosexual, which is believed to have led to his suicide by cyanide poisoning two years later. In reality, Turing was given a plea bargain that reduced his sentence to probation provided he went on a course of estrogen for a year to reduce his libido. It worked: he became impotent and grew a set of boobs. The problem with blaming the suicide on the government is that Turing was a scientist, he knew the repercussions of what he was doing. And the reasons for suicide are seldom what they are attributed to; unless there’s a detailed note left by the victim, it’s too hard to say what drove him to it.

I think it’s great they are making a movie out of Turing’s story, I’m sure Cumberbatch will be excellent, but he’s the wrong actor from Sherlock to play the part. Martin Freeman, who plays Dr. Watson, looks much more like Turing, and, yes, I believe physicality plays an important part casting in biopics. Cumberbatch’s casting is so off one would think Lee Daniels was directing it.

Alan Turing Martin Freeman

Alan Turing (right) and Martin Freeman, a.k.a. Bilbo Baggins

It’s not just Sherlock that has made Cumberbatch famous, it’s the Internet: Reddit, Twitter et al. love both the show and him with a passion. I could be on thin ice about this opinion, but I’m not sure this phenomenon would have happened ten years ago, when a star’s popularity was in the less-democratic hands of entertainment and fashion editors, who tend to have rather gay tastes, whether they are male or female — they would rather saturate publications with a conventionally sexy Michael Fassbender. Cumberbatch isn’t appealing to the gay aesthetic, doesn’t sell advertising space quite the way Fassbender does. Still, Cumberbatch has triumphed and risen above convention. Editors and writers from the bigger publications who might have eschewed him for the more conventionally handsome Jonny Lee Miller — who also plays Sherlock Holmes on a far-less-clever version, Elementary, set in modern America — have been rewarded with a nice surprise: Cumberbatch is media friendly, a great interview, one of those charming, energetic actors who peppers his conversations with impersonations, candid anecdotes and a variety of pitch-perfect accents. In other words, he’s a world-class raconteur.

In the sense he is trying to rise above conventional ideas of male pulchritude, of what a leading man should look like, Cumberbatch reminds me of Bette Davis. Perhaps he will reach a point where movie roles are written for him and he’s not adapting himself to playing real-life people to whom he bears little resemblance because few people resemble Cumberbatch. I think it’s a mistake for him to continue these biopic roles, but he’s also not at the point where he can open a film and pick and choose from a broader array. At thirty-five, realistically speaking the clock is running out for him to climb to the level of public recognition where he can open a film and cause one to be made. He will likely end up a powerful character actor in constant demand. Frankly, I would rather that as a career than a leading man. Unless I were the male Bette Davis.

I don’t know if The Imitation Game, as the Turing film is called, will be the one to catapult Cumberbatch into a place where he will call his own shots. Quality dramas are making a resurgence, so I’m sure he has signed onto a few worthy projects. Strategically, he needs to find a partnership with not just a good director but a great one, the way Fassbender has with Steve McQueen and DiCaprio has with Scorsese.

Whatever the outcome, and I’m not one to call Cumberbatch a star quite yet, his is certainly a career to watch. Even if that face makes you uneasy, you have to admit that rumbling, commanding voice goes down as smoothly as a Bloody Mary at a high-end London brunch. (Or more smoothly than my attempt to tie the end of this piece to the beginning.)

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James Killough
James Killough

Comments: 11

  • Blanche2 January 23, 20141:19 pm

    Many character actors have become leading men — James Gandolfini,
    Judd Hirsch, Spencer Tcy, James Cagney, Edward  G. Robinson, Humphrey
    Bogart.  

    Cumberbatch is both a leading actor and
    character actor.  Will his film career reach Clooney heights?  Probably
    not.  His choice of roles seems to be in films that have a niche
    audience with the possible exception of Star Trek: Into the Darkness. 
    Cumberbatch is a lead because of sexiness and charisma.  Women find him
    terribly sexy, just ask the fangirls on the Internet.  As far as his looks, I think he’s very handsome but can photograph oddly, as in the photo that was chosen to make your point.  What makes him a
    character actor is his magnificent acting.  I thought his performance in
    August: Osage County was excellent, but he wasn’t playing a simpleton. 
    The man appreciated Beverley’s poetry – he wasn’t stupid.  He was
    playing a loser, probably a nerd in school, and he did it beautifully.  Do I think he can play a simpleton?  Absolutely.  He can do anything. 
    I put him in the Alan Rickman category, as he easily moves from
    character (Sweeney Todd) to leads (Private Lives on Broadway).  Amazing
    voice, the world’s highest cheekbones — I happen to find him quite
    compelling.  I’m not alone.

  • jkillough January 23, 20147:53 pm

    Blanche2Thanks for your detailed comment, Blanche.

  • SurfinSheryl February 3, 20146:26 pm

    I agree with you, though – Cumberbatch happens to be handsome in a rather alien, creepy sort of way.  There was, for example, that scene in the last episode of this season of “Sherlock,” where he opens his eyes in the hospital, and you get that extreme close-up on his eyes — and it was very hard for me to watch, because his eyes and face are just so odd and…yes, off-putting and quirky/creepy.  I can’t put my finger on it, but your article as a whole captures it.

    And I’m one who can gaze deeply into Downey’s huge brown orbs and study his amazing lower eyelashes…(sorry, drifting…), or Clooney’s hazel ones, or Pitt’s absorbing facial structure even as he ages (well).   When you’re larger than life on a movie screen, and a leading man, you can’t creep people out.

    Yes, Cumberbatch is a fine actor and I’m sure a nice guy, and of course he has his legion of cult followers who think he’s amazingly handsome, but I don’t think the majority of moviegoers will ever think of him as sexy or handsome.  And you need to be, to become a leading man.  
    As Blanche2 points out, yes, some “character actors” have become leading men, but of her list I would REALLY only count Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart as true superstar leading men (i.e. romantic, sexy leads) – and they had a rugged sort of craggy glamor that Cumberbatch lacks.  There’s a certain type who can pull that off as they age – Redford is one, and I think Pitt is on his way to that, as well as Downey and Clooney. 
    Even Tom Hiddleston, if we’re talking Brits, has that handsome-everyman look plus the physicality and talent that will carry him into leading-man roles, although I don’t think Tom will ever be Bond.  But Cumberbatch – no. Period roles, yes!  Important collars, yes!  But when your own fangirls can’t even follow you into “The Fifth Estate” – (which may have been wise on their part…) and make his first big leading U.S. role even a modest hit, you know there’s not much of a real romantic-lead following.

    Cumberbatch, by the way, although I think he’s entertaining on “Sherlock,” has this season almost become a parody of himself-as-Sherlock.  The show has become so overtly self-regarding that they have him popping that collar and ruffling that hair and leading on his fictional-fangirls (and Anderson, I’m including you…) just a hair’s-breadth too much.  Lucky for them they only have three episodes a season, or “Sherlock” would be way too deep into self-parody by episode 6 or 7. (By the way, that last episode was far more James Bond than it was Sherlock Holmes. You can’t throw in a cartload of random canon references and some soap opera and just call yourself Sherlock Holmes…!  And I enjoy and follow the show…but come on.)  
    And I agree – Benedict was totally miscast in “August: Osage County,” which was a steaming bowl of tripe. Stellar tripe, but nonetheless. – Sheryl

  • Blanche2 February 3, 20147:52 pm

    Gee, I think he’s gorgeous and sexy, and I’d be thrilled to see him in romantic leading man roles, though as I pointed out, plenty of actors can do leading man roles and he’s better suited to stronger parts. I didn’t find him miscast in August: Osage County at all. I love the play – it didn’t translate as well as it could have, because of the direction. As for Sherlock Holmes, I think it’s fantastic, and I thought the last episode was one of their best. I followed him into the Fifth Estate. I thought it was okay. I thought he was great. It’s not a subject people are all that interested in, and it didn’t get good reviews. I don’t think the producers intended it to be a blockbuster. I don’t think they intended that it flop, but on the other hand, they know they’ll sell it to premium channels and it will be on DVD so there’s more money coming. I doubt it will ever even break even. I’m sure his fangirls did follow him into it, but they were the only ones.
    Leading men aren’t just romantic leading men, they carry a film. And as far as that, never in my life did I consider Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy remotely sexy. Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, William Holden, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, okay. Bogart and Tracy were character men who became stars. Clooney harkens back to the old-fashioned movie star, but we don’t see much of that type today, any more than that era saw the Francis X. Bushman or John Gilbert types. And by the way, Redford needs to take that mop off his head and get a better hairpiece.
    They have found now that actors no longer bring in audiences. There was a time when people went to see every single thing an actor did. I can remember reading about a film Tyrone Power did, “Nightmare Alley,” which now has a cult following. Back in 1947, Zanuck withdrew it from release early because he thought it was bad for Tyrone Power’s image. One woman commented, “Did I love it? No. But no woman in her twenties ever missed a Tyrone Power movie.” That’s not true of a star today. Strangely, I still look at the cast and often make a decision based on that.
    Most of what Cumberbatch does, unless he happens to do another Star Wars type thing, will be films that appeal to niche audiences. That’s true of a lot of actors today.
    It’s obvious that Cumberbatch’s looks are incredibly divisive, so it will all depend on how a director sees him. What he has in spades is talent and charisma.  When he was first cast in Sherlock, the producers were told, “You promised us a sexy one!”  When he was proposed for the lead in Parade’s End, HBO said no.  After Sherlock, HBO informed the producers of Parade’s End that if Cumberbatch wasn’t in it, it was no go.  This article sums it up for me: http://tv.yahoo.com/blogs/tv-news/sherlock–a-sex-symbol–inside-the-cult-of-benedict-cumberbatch-030135427.html.

  • jkillough February 4, 20145:14 pm

    SurfinSheryl I agree, this season’s Sherlock is much more self-conscious than the others. Comments like this are companion pieces to the articles themselves, so thank you so much for taking the time and the effort.

  • jkillough February 4, 20145:33 pm

    Blanche2Thanks for commenting again. I admire your passion for Cumberbatch! I’m not surprised to see he has a “cult” following.
    A leading man is determined by the economics, his performance at the box office. There is no studio contract that supports his flops as well as his successes over the three- to four-year trial period that stars used to have. Both Bogart and Tracy were, in fact, considered sexy because they also epitomized a certain aspect of the American performativity of masculinity that audiences of both sexes at the time found appealing. Spencer Tracy in particular was carried by his relationship off screen and on with Katherine Hepburn.
    It may be that Cumberbatch will have that breakout hit that will make him what Hollywood considers to be a star these days. He is famous, he has a cult following, it’s looking good, perhaps good enough to overlook the disaster that was The Fifth Estate, which is what the industry refers to when they consider him for leading roles. He’s probably going to have to do a lot more indie films and crawl his way up, but I’m not sure he will ever be able to lose his Britishness enough to catch on with mainstream America. Then again, every star has his individual trajectory, so it’s hard to say.
    I have written another article about my personal experience (and it is by no means the only one) of how a modern star is made here: http://purefilmcreative.com/killough-chronicles/how-a-star-is-born-the-making-of-channing-tatum.html

  • Blanche2 February 4, 20147:57 pm

    Well, I want you to know I’ve been writing for a half an hour and
    just lost everything I wrote. There is no way to recapture the
    brilliance of that comment, but I’ll reconstruct it as best I can.
     Okay,
    first off, British actors normally don’t care about “stardom” the way
    American actors do.  Brits are usually in it for the work and the
    money.  I remember Christopher Plummer telling an interviewer he was
    looking at a voiceover so he could take a big vacation.   I don’t think
    Cumberbatch is an exception.  His home is the theater, and when he
    became “hot” he decided to take the films he was offered because as he
    said about his fans, “In a year or so this will all be over.”  As it is
    he will be doing Hamlet in the fall.  Variety wrote: “It’s virtually
    impossible to believe that Cumberbatch chose to play Assange with
    aspirations of it making him a leading man.”  They just don’t think that
    way. 

     As far as “stars,” as I pointed out, or
    attempted to, there are very few “stars” any longer the way there were
    in the old days.  The studios realized they were paying these people $20
    million a film and not getting the bang for their buck.  The classic
    film stars had few flops because their fans followed them everywhere,
    and the studios kept the costs down.  When my father was 9 years old, he
    went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Why? Jimmy Cagney was in it.  If
    that type of thing were still the case, everybody would have gone to
    see The Lone Ranger.  Or The Tourist.  Or The Incredible Burt
    Wonderstone, Cloud Atlas, Wonderlust, etc. Fans don’t follow actors to
    every film any longer.  The Hollywood Reporter said it best: “…More and more in today’s Hollywood, audiences fall for movie
    characters–Edward Cullen, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Frodo Baggins,
    Katniss Everdeen, Indiana Jones, Ellen Ripley, Harry Potter, John
    McClane, Rocky Balboa, Ethan Hunt or James Bond–more than the actors
    who play them.”

    I would call Colin Firth a star but
    he’s not in George Clooney-land.  I’m not sure Cumberbatch will play the
    same types of roles either.  Stardom isn’t the goal. I don’t think it’s
    the goal for Sean Bean, for Matthew Goode, for Tom Hiddleston, though
    they’re all wonderful and very attractive.  Cumberbatch could go the Cilian Murphy route, though he’s already bigger than that.  I suspect for someone like Channing Tatum, stardom is very much the goal.

    As
    far as indie films, I assume that’s all he will be interested in —
    independents distributed by a studio or part of a studio’s independent
    branch — because the studios themselves are only interested in tired
    remakes and films directed to 15 year-old boys in Taiwan (as I was told)
    – explosions and car chases.  And he seems to enjoy the ensemble pieces
    like Star Trek, so maybe there’s more of that, which is more
    mainstream. 

    Season 3 of Sherlock had the highest
    ratings of all three years.  I don’t think anyone has thrown some
    references to the canon and called it Sherlock, not that you said that,
    but a poster did. Considering how hard they work on those scripts,
    that’s really insulting.   If anyone did that, it was CBS though I love
    the show and Johnny Lee Miller (and by the way Benedict’s Frankenstein
    kicked Miller’s ass from here and back in Frankenstein, though Miller is
    a wonderful actor).  What they are doing, rightly or wrongly, is giving
    in a little bit to some of the fan fiction.  You can’t blame them for
    catering to their audience just a bit.

    Thank you so
    much for letting me comment and noting my passion.  Fortunately for me
    when I talk about film or actors I pretty much have that passion for
    everything.  I have a foundation for bringing classic film to a new
    audience – http://www.moviememories.net.  Thank you for your intelligence, and I
    am delighted to find this site.

    • Pure Film Creative February 6, 20149:30 am

      I’m loving this impassioned discussion! I should only write about actors going forward (let’s called them that rather than stars). The irony is that, even if they are few stars in the proper sense any more, we still can’t put together a film without them. We call them “names,” come to think of it. Agents use the word star when they’re trying to flog a client who really isn’t one. I’m hard pressed to remember when else I’ve ever heard the word mentioned on the business end of the business.

  • Rowana February 6, 20147:18 pm

    I don’t mind Benedict Cumberbatch, though my choice of “modern” Sherlock Holmes will always be the great Robert Downey Jr.  Sometimes people reflexively dismiss the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies with Downey and Jude Law as being “Victorian James Bond” flicks.  And – they are…and beautifully done, too.  To me, all three of the current actors playing Holmes (Downey, Cumberbatch, Miller) are excellent, and highly watchable, because they all capture the character in such different ways.  Downey has that soulful aura of hurt and melancholy underneath the clowning bravado.  Cumberbatch is all quirk and twitches and high drama (although, agreed, he’d better start cutting down on the coat-swirling and hair ruffling, or that will get very old very fast…).  Miller is wounded and slow-burn brilliant (although I agree “Elementary,” as drama, is the weakest of the three and the least Sherlockian…still, I watch it, because it’s Sherlock Holmes).   But aren’t we Sherlock Holmes fans lucky to have three such stellar portrayals of one of the great characters in all of literature, all happening at the same time (yes, there’s a third RDJ Holmes movie in the works!)? I wonder when something like that has ever happened before with any other beloved fictional character?

  • jkillough February 7, 20143:44 pm

    Rowana I agree: Sherlock is a great role, so brilliant, so flawed, open to so much interpretation as few others are. He’s almost Hamlet?

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