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Tap Dancing and Wrestling in Modern Cinema

*Please note that this article is an opinion-editorial.

While taking a film class in college, I got to see Singin’ in the Rain for the first time, and, ever since, I’ve been a huge Gene Kelly fan. On Broadway, they still talk about an actor being a triple threat, and Kelly most definitely was. He could act, sing, and dance, and he made it look both joyous and effortless. He had an innate athleticism and masculinity as a dancer that made him popular with both male and female audiences. He was also a choreographer and director. I recently stumbled across a clip of him on YouTube. It’s from a movie called It’s Always Fair Weather. In the clip, Kelly tap dances while wearing roller skates. I was pretty impressed, but I was also convinced that some clever editing was making it seem more complicated than it was. I figured there was no way he was actually tap dancing on rolling wheels; they had to be welded in place. Like most of the great Hollywood musicals, the sequence was filmed in wide, unedited shots. Soon, Kelly was tap dancing on roller skates and then skating around, all in the same take. It’s an amazing bit of style and athleticism to watch. I couldn’t skate across the room without seriously injuring myself. What Gene Kelly was doing (in one of his lesser-known pictures) was just amazing to me.

Gene Kelly never won a competitive Oscar. In fact, he was only ever nominated once. Sure, there were tons of awards he would eventually win as the industry realized what an amazing and singular talent he was and what a remarkable career he’d had. He won an honorary Oscar. He won the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille award. He won the AFI Life Achievement Award. He won the SAG Life Achievement Award. But, during his actual career? Bupkis. He was one of the greatest movie stars of all time, and yet got very little recognition during the active part of his career. Better late than never, I guess.

It’s always puzzled me why some actors get singled out for certain skills they add to a role while others don’t. It’s as if some skill sets are fawned over while others are completely ignored or undervalued. By not recognizing them, it creates the sense that what these actors are able to do is somehow frivolous or easy.

I was watching Foxcatcher at AFI Fest last week and had a similar thought. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play Mark and Dave Schultz, brothers who were also both Olympic Gold Medalists for the United States. Both actors had to learn how to wrestle for the film. That’s not an easy task. When director Tom McCarthy was looking for an actor to play a high school wrestler in his film, Win Win, he went with a ringer. Kyle Shaffer was a New Jersey state champion. Not only did Tatum and Ruffalo have to learn a new sport, they had to be convincing as athletes that competed at the highest possible levels. They both nailed that. Their physicality is utterly convincing, not just in the wrestling sequences, but also in regular dialogue scenes. They walk like wrestlers.

Tatum is getting the best reviews of his life, and Ruffalo gets consistently great reviews for everything. But, virtually nobody has pointed out how effortlessly they made you believe they were world champions. There’s no question in my mind that their authenticity is part of what makes the movie tick. They have instant physical credibility, sort of the opposite of something like Roger Moore when he played James Bond.

I wonder what the notices would have been like if they’d both gained 70 pounds for the movie? Robert De Niro (one of my acting heroes) gained about 70 pounds to play fat, older Jake Lamotta in Raging Bull, and that’s one of the things people raved about in his performance, how “committed” he was to the physicality of it. DeNiro in Raging Bull is legendary, largely on account of the massive weight gain. George Clooney gained 30 pounds for his Oscar-winning role in Syriana. Charlize Theron gained 30 pounds for her Oscar-winning role in Monster. Matt Damon gained 30 pounds for The Informant. Vincent D’Onofrio gained 60 pounds for Full Metal Jacket. The list goes on.

I hate to break the bad news to everybody, but I can tell you from personal experience that it’s pretty easy to gain weight. We didn’t reach an obesity epidemic in this country because it’s hard to do. You just sit down on the couch and start shoveling in the donuts. But, for some reason, people will be in awe of your “commitment to the character” when you pack on the pounds. Ryan Gosling gained 60 pounds for The Lovely Bones by drinking melted pints of Haagen Dazs. He would literally sit pints out and let the ice cream melt and then drink it. What’s that you say? You don’t remember Gosling being in The Lovely Bones? That’s because he got fired from the movie for gaining a bunch of weight for it. (Lesson for all would-be actors out there: if you think a massive weight gain is just what your character needs, be sure to discuss it with your director first before showing up on set in New Zealand 60 pounds overweight. Nothing sucks worse than being fat and unemployed.)

It works the other way, as well — an actor loses a bunch of weight for a role and everybody goes nuts again. While losing weight is more of a challenge than gaining it, it’s pretty much just the same process in reverse, get off the couch and stop shoveling in the donuts.

Or an accent! People will go nuts if you learn an accent! Don’t get me wrong. Meryl Streep is, indeed, fabulous, and I don’t use the F-word lightly. But, an enormous part of her reputation rests on her ability to take on a variety of accents. Also, she gained a bunch of weight for The Bridges of Madison County.

Learning an accent and working with a dialect coach is a lot of work. I’m just not sure why that work is so much more vaunted than other things actors do to build a reality. Gain 30 pounds to play a lesbian serial killer? Bravo! Train for months so you can believably be an Olympic athlete on screen? Crickets. Think of the martial arts stars like Iko Uwais in The Raid who have never received their critical due or action stars who are looked on as just meatheads. Not everybody can do what they do, and the industry is extremely reliant on their work. The stuntmen’s union has been lobbying the Academy for years about awarding an Oscar for stunt coordination, but they are always ignored.

Steve Martin is one the all-time great masters of physical screen comedy. Oscar nominations? Zero, but he did recently win an Academy Life Achievement Award, just like Gene Kelly.

Mark Wahlberg was totally convincing as boxer Mickey Ward in The Fighter. Was he nominated? Nope, but three other people in that cast were. The boxing must have been the easy part. After all, Christian Bale did the heavy lifting and lost a bunch of weight to play Mickey Ward’s brother. I’m not saying accents or physical transformations aren’t impressive.

I’m just saying teaching yourself to tap dance in roller skates is pretty impressive, too.


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