Oscar Race: The Uphill Battle of the Physical Genius

Channing Tatum Foxcatcher

I first stumbled on the theory of multiple intelligences around a decade ago while training at a boxing gym in London. I was a competitive swimmer as a youth, then into “power yoga” as it was called when the craze first hit these shores, then weight lifting, all solitary sports that requite little interaction with anyone else. Learning how to box was transformative, empowering; fighting other men in a rather primal sport forces you to overcome the innate resistance to violence that most people are born with as a survival instinct. Contact sports like boxing teach your body that fight is as viable as flight.

Erik was one of the trainers at the gym, a colossus of a man, a recently retired professional heavyweight who had never been a major champion, but chad come close it, winning a few regional titles. I’ve encountered plenty of dumb jocks in my life, but Erik was extreme, like Chauncey Gardner from Being There, a complete simpleton who spoke in sentences of no more than five words; he preferred not to speak at all. He never laughed at any of my jokes no matter how basic I made them.

The different intelligences. (Click to enlarge)

The different intelligences. (Click to enlarge)

Whenever I saw Erik practicing on the bags or in the ring, I would stop what I was doing to admire the magic. Here was a cockney blockhead no-neck, a solid lump of muscle, who moved around the ring like lightning in a bottle. He struck with the assured, unpredictable speed of a mongoose, with a strength that convinced you he could demolish the weighted leather bag with a few jabs if he chose to. I have never personally met anyone who would stand a chance against Erik in a real fight.

As I watched, one word came to mind: Genius. It was as if Erik’s brain were no longer centered in his head, but spread through every cell of his body. He didn’t cogitate, he moved. He didn’t have philosophies, personal theories, he didn’t practice abstract math on white boards set up in his living room at home, didn’t do crosswords or solve riddles, didn’t bother himself with being liberal or conservative or caring about pure democracy over a representative republic. He was just Erik the sportsman; he boxed, therefore he was. And to watch him box was moving, a lyrical ode to human physical achievement that no poet could transpose to words.

I thought of Erik while watching Channing Tatum’s primal, smoldering performance as a wrestler in Foxcatcher, a film that is right now the frontrunner in my own personal Oscar race, if I were to give out Best Picture and acting awards based on what I’ve seen so far. As Olympic gold-medalist Mark Shultz, Channing literally embodies the bodily-kinesthetic genius that an athlete like Shultz or Erik needs to be in order to compete at that level in this era. Since seeing the film, I’ve watched footage of Shultz, both wrestling and in interviews, and Channing has nailed the monomaniacal brute: his underbite, that pouncing gait; the hairless gorilla as fighting machine.

With this performance, Channing has once again shown us his own particular genius, which is more of a balanced blend of the different kinds of intelligence than Shultz and Erik’s, which is purely bodily-kinetic. When Channing-as-Schultz holds up his Olympic medal in the first scenes, you do not doubt he earned it. Likewise, I believe this is an award-worthy performance.

As we move forward with the Oscar race, the focus is probably going to be on Steve Carell’s turn as John du Pont. Like Channing with Schultz, Carell emobodies du Pont the way Meryl Streep was more Margaret Thatcher than Thatcher herself, but he does it with the considerable help of prosthetic makeup. If Carell wins, it will be the same as Nicole Kidman picking up Best Actress for The Hours: it will be because of the nose, not any dazzling pyrotechnics of performance. It is the make-up department that should be awarded the Oscar, and stands a good chance it will. Unlike Carell, Channing doesn’t appear to have much more prosthetic makeup than fake cauliflower ears, maybe padding on his nose.

It is far harder to transform yourself into a credible Olympic athlete, spending a considerable amount of screen time grappling on the mat, than it is into a stiff nebbishy WASP with a monotonous speech pattern. Don’t get me wrong, I am only comparing degrees of difficulty in the event Carell overshadows Channing in the Oscar race; there is nothing lazy or bad about what Carell has achieved. However,  Carell’s du Pont owes much to Bennett Miller’s authentic recreation of that patrician American world and its cold, dreary, decidedly unglamorous denizens, with their stodgy identities borrowed from worthier ancestors. I’ve spent a career trying to correct the stereotypical staging of the American old-money upper class. I’m not at all resentful that Miller has beaten me to it; I’m happy as long as someone gets it right.

Tatum as Shultz, fighting even his reflection.

Tatum as Shultz, fighting even his reflection.

My better and smarter half, Chris, is a true polymath, brilliant at many things, from writing and conceptual art to Bayesian mathematics and beyond. To round out this uomo universale ideal, he is also a consummate sportsman, having once been an NCAA wrestler himself. The Shultz brothers were his childhood heroes. He even owned a pair of Ed Shultz wrestling shoes: “They were the best.”

In the classical tradition of male-with-male relationships, Chris and I met at the gym, where we began what has been a fervent, five-year dialectic about as many disparate subjects and experiences as we have in common or could share with each other. Ours is also an intergenerational relationship; it’s a scene off a Greek vase depicting Plato’s Symposium.

I’ve never said anything to Chris before, but from the first time I saw him in the weight room I thought it odd how he walks on the balls of his feet, slightly stooped forward like a cat poised to pounce. He doesn’t just walk across the gym, he lunges, darts. After seeing Foxcatcher, I see why. These guys are ready to attack and grapple at any time, and their opponent can be anything: a belligerent bouncer, a tree, a hearty meal, a turnstile.

A demanding viewer who rarely likes anything, Chris loved Foxcatcher. He thought it such an accurate portrayal of the wrestling world that it was all he could do to keep himself in his seat during the first part; it was too close to home, right down to Mark Shultz’s lonely consumption of Ramen noodles. He gave Channing top marks for his performance of wrestling, but noted that it could never be at the real Mark Shultz’s Olympic-champion level. “It needs to look like two squirrels playing,” Chris told me. This helped simplify what I was looking for in order to compare Channig’s reenactment when I watched the real Shultz’s epic and exciting match in 1982 that unseated three-time NCAA champion Ed Banach. Channing and his screen adversaries look more like prize pitbulls trying not to rip each other limb from limb than squirrels at play.

No matter. I’d bet that if Mark Shultz were brought in to play himself, he wouldn’t do nearly as great a job in the non-fighting scenes as Channing does.

While not quite a polymath in the strictest sense, Channing is multi-talented and gifted. Many people both in our business and in the audience are often not aware of the amount of skill it takes to pull of what he does. They see the gorgeous model turned actor, that dancer who started out in Step Up. When he was on the rise, it was hard to find a millennial male who didn’t resent him in some way, and nothing diminishes appreciation of accomplishment quite like jealousy.

Ed and Mark Schultz

Ed and Mark Schultz

Channing not only acts and dances, he also produces, as we saw in Magic Mike, which he created soup to nuts, meaning he wasn’t just accorded a producer title as a courtesy because they secured financing on his attachment. He developed the script, which was based on his life experience, roped in Stephen Soderbergh, and killed it at the box office. It’s now being made into a Broadway show and there will be a sequel film.

Channing is far more focused, not to mention more humble and less of a loudmouth, than faux-polymath and pseudo-intellectual James Franco, a mediocre actor who rarely seems emotionally vested in his characters. Franco wears his other many hats with varying degrees of skill, from weak to outright crap. And, yet, he looks intelligent and clever, and therefore gives a false importance to what he’s doing. Channing has to work harder to be taken seriously, despite being the superior entertainer.

Let’s go further than Franco and look at other Best Actor winners and compare them. Can Channing do what Matthew McConaughey does? Eventually, yes; he’s certainly further ahead in terms of the gravitas of his roles than McConaughey was at his age. Can McConaughey do what Channing does physically? I don’t believe so. Channing’s character range doesn’t extend to Daniel Day Lewis’, but can Day Lewis do what Channing does? If replay Last of the Mohicans in my mind’s archive, it ain’t no Magic Mike.

One actor who approaches Channing in many respects is Mark Wahlberg, who also produced fine, highly successful entertainment based off his own life experience with Entourage. Like Channing, he started out modeling underwear and dancing in music videos as Marky Mark. But were his moves on Channing’s level? Not in my opinion. As for his performance in serious roles, even in Lone Survivor Wahlberg is just Dirk Diggler as a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan — he is never not himself, has never transformed himself like Channing has to become Mark Shultz. If you have seen Foxcatcher, watch this video of the real Mark Shultz to compare.

Wahlberg is also on a par with Channing in terms of the quality, cool decisions he makes, the people he chooses to work with. But in terms of performance, I would place Channing a measure or two above Wahlberg. And I’d like to see where Channing pushes himself to be by the time he’s Wahlberg’s age; if drive and commitment to improvement can be allowed as a talent, Channing’s got that in his arsenal, too.

We’d rather honor the comedian who goes serious, like Carell and Jean Dujardin in The Artist, than the dancing, exceedingly handsome athlete, who might not seem to be stretching his range but really is. At the risk of sounding like a total douche, I believe its because the former isn’t as threatening to beta males, who make up the majority of the population at large and men who work in the film business, despite the fact Dujardin and Carell are both as handsome as Channing is, just in different ways. Channing makes you think of sex; you don’t want him around your woman. Dujardin and Carell make you ask where they buy their suits; you delude yourself to think you might look almost that good if you wear the same thing.

This Oscar race will be a challenge for Channing. I think he did a fantastic job and should be up for at least a nod. I like him better in Foxcatcher than McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club; McConaughey is another actor who is never more than who he really is — as much as I admire who he really is — and we shouldn’t give out acting awards for weight loss and more than we should for make-up.

Great performance requires and engenders great transformation. It is why Meryl Streep is so consistently showered with honors. Despite being taller than the real Mark Shultz, Channing donned his persona and loped like an ape across a big canvas, entirely the frustrated Olympic wrestler brought down by his own hatreds and jealousies.

I don’t know if it will be Channing’s year yet at the awards. It should be. But Foxcatcher asserts again what we have seen in the past: his physical intelligence is genius.



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