Should We Praise Actors' Physical Transformations?

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By Elijah Noonan

Actors certainly deserve recognition. The long hours they spend preparing for their roles, the mental, physical, and emotional toll required to get into the minds of different characters and portray them in compelling ways, all while undergoing the demanding process of shooting, is nothing short of an act of sheer will, one for which they should be commended. Indeed, we want to recognize their accomplishments, but some ways of doing this are better than others. When hearing of an actor’s physical transformation for a role, such as Christian Bale’s massive weight loss for The Machinist (2004) or Charlize Theron’s departure from beauty norms to portray a serial killer in Monster (2003), we can’t help but be captivated by such commitment, even if, and especially if, such commitment includes a certain level of masochism. But what are the consequences of praising actors for these physical transformations, and should we even be praising actors for this practice?

For the purposes of this article, I will be using the term “physical transformation” to refer specifically to performances that employ a visible bodily transformation in order to more faithfully embody a role, and not solely for aesthetically pleasing purposes. When praising actors for their physical transformations, we praise the dedication such transformations represent. After all, if an actor is willing to put in the work to gain or lose a significant amount of weight, or is willing to appear before the cameras with an intentionally unglamorous appearance, it must signify a true commitment to embody a particular role. Such dedication, by extension, appears to exemplify some truly great artistry of acting. However, I would like to challenge that this is necessarily the case.

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