Film: Can you still eat your way to an Oscar?
In his new film Gold, which opened here yesterday, Matthew McConaughey undergoes an extraordinary physical transformation. To play alcoholic 1980s prospector Kenny Wells, the actor wore false teeth, a balding wig, and packed on four stone (23kg)to create a paunch so pronounced he looks like he's six months pregnant.
If it wasn't for that distinctive southern drawl, McConaughey would be all but unrecognisable, and this isn't the first time he's suffered for his art. In 2013, he lost four stone to play Aids sufferer Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club: at one point his weight dipped as low as 8st 2lbs (51kg), his knees locked up and his eyesight began to fail. But it all seemed worthwhile when he won a Best Actor Oscar.
Radically altering one's physiognomy is no longer a guarantee of glory, however: Gold opened to mixed reviews, and McConaughey hasn't been nominated for anything. The trouble is that these days, everyone's at it, losing and gaining pounds to play roles and then telling everyone how much they suffered doing it. It wasn't always that way, however.
Back in Hollywood's golden age, the idea of a star getting fat to play a part would have seemed preposterous. There were thin actors, and heavier ones, and if you wanted someone to be thin, then fat in the same film, you used make-up, lighting, or a cushion, as Orson Welles did in Citizen Kane. And though the odd dedicated Thespian like Lon Chaney used wires to distort his face, most stars always looked the same in everything.
The method actors changed all that, not Marlon Brando so much, who latterly developed a talent for putting on weight and never losing it, but the second generation of method players who followed him. Robert De Niro was perhaps the most dedicated method man of all: he'd learnt Italian in order to sound more convincing playing a Sicilian immigrant in Godfather Part II, drove a New York cab in preparation for Taxi Driver. But on Raging Bull he outdid himself. Based on the life of 1940s middleweight Jake LaMotta, Paul Schrader's screenplay asked a great deal of De Niro. First, he had to slim down to 10st 2lbs (64kg) as he learnt how to box, then bulk up dramatically to play LaMotta in later life. So once the boxing sequences had been shot, he flew off to Italy to embark on a binge eating trip, putting on an incredible 70lbs in a matter of weeks.
De Niro won Best Actor at the 53rd Academy Awards, but although that probably had a lot more to do with his performance than his weight, he set a kind of trend. Because after Raging Bull, fat padding and make-up wouldn't cut it if an actor wished to be taken seriously.
You'd never associate Tom Hanks with method excesses, but when he was asked to star in Cast Away, he had little choice but to go on a diet.
Robert Zemeckis's 2000 film told the story of a harried FedEx employee who gets stranded on a remote Pacific island after a plane crash. So Hanks had to first gain four stone to look like a pudgy executive, then filming was halted so he could lose it all again and grow a beard in order to look sufficiently unkempt. It took four months, and required eating what he called "miserly" portions. "The hardest thing was the time," he later recalled, "I wish I could have taken a pill and lost all the weight… four months of constant vigilance as far as what I ate, as well as two hours a day in the gym doing nothing but a monotonous kind of workout, that was formidable."
And all that accelerated weight gain and loss may have long-term consequences. A few years ago, Tom Hanks revealed that he now has type 2 diabetes, and said that "the gaining and losing of weight may have had something to do with it, because you eat so much bad food and you don't take any exercise when you're heavy".
If so, Russell Crowe would want to watch out. Over the years he's bulked up for various films, but his most radical transformation came in 2008 when he decided that the devious CIA boss he would play in Ridley Scott's Body of Lies needed to be on the portly side. So Russ packed on the pounds in the time-honoured fashion - pizza, burgers, beer - and was over four stone heavier by the time shooting began.
But he'd overdone it, and drastic action had to be taken when tests showed his cholesterol levels were dangerously high. "I was surprised," he said, "that my body was taking it all so seriously. I was enjoying myself, because I was eating and drinking what I liked, but my body was objecting. The most frightening thing was having to rock back and forwards to get out of a car. Instead of stepping out, I had to tip myself out."
Michael Fassbender found the experience of slimming down to play Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's Hunger oddly "liberating". He lost two stone in 10 weeks through a regime of long walks, yoga workouts, water and tinned sardines. Living on 600 calories a day must have been tough but it had other consequences, too as his libido disappeared for six weeks. "You don't realise how distracting all that stuff can be," he commented. "Your body streamlines and focuses on what's important. I suppose that's why monks and religious people do it."
Christian Bale deserves some sort of medal for his commitment to extreme dieting. In 2004, he lost four-and-a-half stone to play an emaciated factory worker in The Machinist. But he had a problem when he was cast straight afterwards in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Given just six months to prepare, he jumped from 9st 4lbs to 16st 6lbs by combining weight training and eating - then realised he'd overshot the mark and had to lose almost three stone before donning the bat suit.
And he's still at it. In 2013, Bale went on a strict diet of cheeseburgers and milkshake to pack on the three stone he deemed necessary to play chubby 70s conman Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle. His co-star, Jennifer Lawrence, saw the funny side: "I finally get to make out with Christian Bale and he's a really fat guy - he's fatman, not Batman."
Female stars have resorted to extreme dieting too, and with greater risks it could be argued because they're so defined by their physical appearance, and because the weight can be harder to lose. Anne Hathaway reduced herself to the dimensions of a stick to play a starving but tuneful peasant in Les Misérables, Michelle Williams jumped to a size 14 to play the curvaceous Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, and Charlize Theron gained more than two stone to deliver an Oscar-winning portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.
But the most impressive female transformation was Renée Zellweger's creation of Bridget Jones. The slim, 5ft 3in Texan used doughnuts and cheese pizza to pack on two stone and turn herself into a boozy London secretary. It remains one of the great comic performances of recent times.
Less impressive by far were Jennifer Aniston's preparations for the 2014 drama Cake: in order to play an ordinary woman in her early 40s, Aniston embarked on a draconian regime. "I basically just didn't work out for two-and-a-half months," she explained. Oh.
But perhaps she was right, because audiences have grown tired of all this extreme dieting. Jared Leto is known for his radical method approach: he lost more than two stone and waxed his entire body to play a transsexual opposite McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, and hung out with psychopaths when preparing to play the Joker in Suicide Squad. But he outdid himself in Chapter 27, a 2007 biopic of John Lennon's assassin, Mark Chapman. Jared used pints of microwaved ice cream laced with soy sauce and olive oil to gain almost five stone, then contracted gout and had to use a wheelchair. But the film was terrible, his performance very ordinary. Sometimes fat is no substitute for good acting.