Friday, March 16, 2018

Stephen Hawking: To Infinity and Beyond

Not long ago, in an event sponsored by the City of Pasadena, I heard the late Stephen Hawking speak. Or, to be precise, he was present in the hall, and his voicebox was doing the speaking. I don’t remember anything he said, but I know he was charming and funny. And I’ll never forget the sense of awe that filled the room as he was escorted up the aisle. We all knew we were in the presence of a very special being.

Why was Stephen Hawking such a memorable figure? Surely it wasn’t because of his scientific achievements, which most mere mortals could barely understand. I suspect we loved him because he gave off a sense that man—even a man with a fragile and rapidly degrading body—could accomplish anything he chose. Despite the indignities of early-onset ALS, Hawking managed to live a life of achievement, making scientific breakthroughs, writing a best-selling book, and taking part in scholarly debates about the nature of the universe. He also had a full emotional life, which included two marriages and three children. And he was able to enjoy the perks of global celebrity, including humorous guest-star appearances on Star Trek, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory. So what if he wasn’t a good candidate for Dancing With the Stars? In terms of public acclaim, he had it all.

Including, of course, an award-winning movie about his life. The Theory of Everything was a 2014 British film, based on Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. The film begins at the University of Cambridge, where a young, slightly nerdy student of astrophysics and a pretty literature major fall in love. As their romance progresses and Stephen plunges into the study of black holes, he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. Though the future looks bleak, Stephen and Jane marry and start a family. And so it goes, with the marriage fraying as Stephen’s body disintegrates. Still, everyone behaves fairly nobly, and the ending is what critics have called “triumphant.” The film was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Felicity Jones). In a big year for biographical portraits—including Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper, Steve Carell as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma—the little-known Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for impersonating Stephen Hawking

Redmayne vividly captures Hawking’s personality, but of course part of the role’s award-bait potential came from the chance it gave the able-bodied young actor to show Hawking’s gradual physical self-destruction. Surely there’s no scientific way to choose a “best” actor or actress, since each of the nominees has taken on a very different sort of role. That being said, Oscar voters often favor those who display the most dramatic physical transformation. Think, for instance, of Daniel Day-Lewis as a cerebral palsy victim in My Left Foot. Think Tom Hanks battling AIDS in Philadelphia and Matthew McConaughey doing the same in Dallas Buyers Club, with both actors losing copious amounts of weight in order to be convincing. Then there are the heavy makeup roles, with actors rewarded for their ability to put forth a convincing characterization from beneath loads of Latex. .This year’s winner, Gary Oldman, was brilliantly transformed into Winston Churchill. His role in Darkest Hour required of him both solid acting chops and hours in the makeup chair. 

I salute Eddie Redmayne’s performance, but Stephen Hawking was one in a billion. Our universe is poorer without him.

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