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