Suffering For One’s Art | Should We Celebrate Actors’ Pain?

Eating disorders, depression, insomnia, panic attacks, heart problems and humiliation. Would you accept a high-paying job if these were the risks involved?

Many people dream of being an actor. We view them as an unattainable sub-species living in the lap of luxury, admired by the masses. Despite this, fame can be fleeting and it is only the select few who are able to cement their mark on the world.

Hollywood legends are those willing to push themselves beyond the limits, to not only convey their character but to become it. The likes of Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix and Daniel Day-Lewis come to mind, all of whom have suffered for their art. But is it right to not only praise, but reward an actor for their suffering? Would we encourage this is any other line of work?

The recent success of Joker sparked a much-needed discussion surrounding mental illness. Ironically, leading star Joaquin Phoenix had to endure his own mental struggles to convey this controversial message. To truly embody his character, Phoenix lost 52 pounds and became obsessed with the slightest weight gain. He told the Associated Press, “waking up everyday and being obsessed over like 0.3 pounds… you really develop like a disorder.” Despite this unhealthy and dangerous mindset, Phoenix won an Oscar for the role and was praised for his commitment and shock value surrounding his character. The New Yorker positively remarked, “it’s his whole body, coiled upon itself like a spring of flesh, from which the movies energy is released.”


Phoenix isn’t the only actor to engage in unhealthy weight loss practices. Christian Bale notoriously lost 60 pounds for his role in The Machinist against the advice from his doctor. Bale claimed he became so skinny that he could hardly walk up a flight of stairs. Yet again, regardless of the obvious health dangers, Bale received positive feedback and was nominated for several awards. Empire Magazine even commented on how Bale’s weight loss contributed towards the success of the film: “it looks and feels the business, in Bale’s bone-bag of a body and the morphine-dosed Kubrick vibe.”

In the current climate, where mental health is becoming a priority, it seems strange to support the suffering and mental struggles an actor intentionally brings upon themselves. Where models and other entertainment professionals are shamed for extreme weight loss, it seems Hollywood is unusually accepting when it comes to risking your health for “art.”

These struggles don’t end with weight loss. There has also been reported mistreatment by several directors whose aims are to push actors to their mental and physical limits. Whilst filming Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack, apparently caused by stress. Rather than lose his main actor, director Francis Ford Coppola claimed Sheen was simply suffering from heat exhaustion. Additionally, a crew member also claimed that in order to mentally prepare Sheen for the opening scene, Coppola “kept Martin drunk for 2 days… kept him locked up.” The mistreatment of Sheen was largely overlooked as Coppola received widespread success, personally winning several prestigious awards such as a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.

Another celebrated director guilty of causing his actors to suffer is Stanley Kubrick. It’s no secret that, whilst filming The Shining, the relationship between Kubrick and his female lead was far from ideal. Kubrick infamously forced Shelley Duvall to film the famous baseball bat scene a record breaking 127 times. Duvall opened up to critic Roger Ebert about how she had to, “[go] through day after day of excruciating work. Almost unbearable.”

However, this is not the only example of Kubrick pushing his actors. When filming the critically-acclaimed A Clockwork Orange Kubrick insisted that Malcolm McDowell wear real lid locks to keep his eyes open. McDowell recounted this experience, “the lid locks kept sliding off my eyelids and scratching my cornea… I was in such pain I was banging my head against a wall.” In any other job role, high paying or not, this kind of mental or physical mistreatment would not be acceptable. Unless you’re in the movie business, in which case apparently you get a pass. Kubrick was rewarded for his efforts with nominations from the Golden Globe Awards, BAFTA’s and the Academy Awards.

Those in the limelight often end up serving as role models. Therefore, issues begin to arise when actors unintentionally deliver the message that pushing yourself to dangerous limits can help achieve success. For his role in Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis partook in method acting which led to him catching pneumonia by wearing a thin 19th century coat. He also admitted to fighting strangers on the street and claimed playing the role was “not so good for my mental or physical health,” Despite his unorthodox and somewhat reckless approach, Day-Lewis was nominated for a Golden Globe and won a BAFTA for this controversial role.

Jamie Foxx also suffered extreme measures to play his character in Ray. As Foxx was playing the role of a blind man, he willingly wore prosthetics over his eyelids which essentially glued his eyes shut. This caused Foxx to have frequent panic attacks and he later stated, “imagine having your eyes glued shut for 14 hours a day… that’s your jail sentence.” It seems suffering really is key to success as Foxx won several awards for his role including an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.

Of course, much of this suffering is overlooked due to the glitz and glam of Hollywood. Unfortunately, it often takes a loss of life to force people to pay attention to the darker side of the industry. Heath Ledger tragically took his own life whilst filming the now iconic role of the Joker. It’s clear that Ledger had many other underlying mental health issues, however many believe his method acting may have pushed him over the edge. In preparation for his role, Ledger locked himself in his apartment for a month prior to filming and was said to be suffering from insomnia. Ironically, he was given a posthumous Academy Award and celebrated for the same role which may have contributed to his mental health struggles and heartbreaking suicide.

It’s very easy to overlook actors’ struggles when they are ultimately getting a hefty paycheque for their efforts whilst living a life of luxury. However, it’s interesting to see how mistreatment and mental health struggles within this industry can be celebrated and rewarded rather than frowned upon. It seems bizarre to accept the connection between mental and physical suffering to success within any field of work. Should audiences and critics start to re-examine where to direct our praise or is this simply the disturbing price actors have to pay to stand out from the crowd?

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