The Year of the Cumberbatch. That’s what media outlets dubbed 2013, when actor Benedict Cumberbatch gained international fame after a string of high profile film roles, in Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Fifth Estate, August: Osage County, 12 Years a Slave, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Cumberbatch capped these successes with the Bafta Britannia Award for British Artist of the Year. “The Year of the Cumberbatch,” however, was a misnomer. 2013 was only the beginning…
Starting 2014 as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, Cumberbatch then garnered his first Emmy, Actor in a Miniseries or Movie, for the TV role that catapulted him into the mainstream, the eponymous high-functioning sociopath in the BBC series Sherlock.
Next came the film festival screenings of The Imitation Game, in which the actor gives a stunning portrayal of troubles Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing. Given the audience response – the movie won the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award – perhaps it was not all that surprising that Cumberbatch began 2015 with Bafta and Academy Award nominations. Add these achievements to a decade’s-worth of nominations and awards, and it is easy to see why Benedict Cumberbatch, though still in his 30s, is often hailed as one of the best actors, if not the actor, of his generation.
This stars vying for this year’s best actor Oscar are a particularly gifted group, and Cumberbatch has well earned his place among them. Yet he also stands apart from the majority of Academy Award nominees, past or present.
One aspect of Cumberbatch’s uniqueness as an actor is his versatility. He is able and willing to work across film, television, theatre and radio – often within the course of a single year. He is best known, of course, for his body of excellent performances in dramas-with-heart, including his 2004 award-winning role in the television movie Hawking and 2012 Olivier award-winning interpretations of both Victor Frankenstein and the Creature in the National Theatre’s Frankenstein (2012). Last year, he continued that with The Imitation Game.
In two other movies, however, Cumberbatch reached out to different demographics. He won over family audiences by voicing superspy wolf Classified in the animated Penguins of Madagascar and once again provided the smoky voice (as well as mo-cap movement) for Smaug, the Hobbit’s fire-breathing nemesis.
Late last year, Cumberbatch completed work on The Hollow Crown, BBC2’s series of Shakespearean history dramatisations, tackling the mercurial Richard III. A few weeks later he returned to work on Sherlock, and #setlock once again gifted fans with glimpses of the world’s most popular consulting detective. With the latest instalment of Sherlock just wrapped, fans are already clamouring for details of when and where the fourth series will begin filming.
For all his success in films or television, Cumberbatch frequently honours his roots in the theatre, whether through dramatic readings at benefits or festivals or in the memorable scene from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that helped celebrate the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary. Beginning in August, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet will bring “outrageous [good] fortune” to the Barbican; the speed of ticket sales broke box office records more than a year in advance of the play’s opening.
Whereas many Academy Award- or Bafta-nominated actors might shy away from radio (or never honed their vocal talents there), Cumberbatch continues to act in the medium that gave him some of his early professional roles. Listeners were treated to the seductive sound of the Angel Islington in the radio dramatisation of Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed fantasy Neverwhere in 2013. Late last year, faithful fans applauded beloved comedy Cabin Pressure and its brilliant ensemble cast one last time as they said farewell to Cumberbatch’s awkward civil aviator Martin Crieff.
But even Cumberbatch’s brand of celebrity differs from that of fellow Oscar nominees. He often tops lists ranking everything from sex appeal to global influence. In 2012 he beat David Beckham in the former and US President Barack Obama in the latter. His name frequently trends on social media. He often shares an intriguing perspective on his profession, evidenced in sometimes-controversial interviews. He has become internationally recognised as a serious actor but is also known as the man who photobombed the Academy Awards and Golden Globes.
Although Cumberbatch may not be able to control all aspects of his celebrity, he uses his popularity to promote worthy causes. During this year alone, his understanding of the life of Alan Turning prompted him to join Stephen Fry to petition for a pardon for the 49,000 men who were historically prosecuted for being gay, and he campaigned with Save SoHo to help prevent the closure of some of London’s culturally important performance venues. During interviews, whether in a studio or on the red carpet, his comments may be wordy, or his words occasionally poorly chosen, but Cumberbatch seems sincerely invested in bringing attention to issues or people lacking political or media clout.
During this year’s Oscar campaign, interest in Cumberbatch-the-celebrity has sometimes threatened to overshadow discussion of the issues raised by The Imitation Game. But Cumberbatch has always tried to restart the conversation. He may be wildly popular, but the core of what is interesting about him is ability and drive to create memorably nuanced characters that tell important, as well as entertaining, stories. He does not go for the easy interpretation; his performances continually surprise and move audiences. In The Imitation Game, Turing is both funny and tragic, ennobled and shattered. More than the dialogue, Cumberbatch’s shift in focus, tremored hand, or stutterer’s cadence reveal Turing’s emotional state.
On Sunday, Cumberbatch may win an Academy Award. Even if the Oscar eludes him this year, his dedication to research and physical preparation for his roles – and the insight with which he brings characters to life – mean he is likely to be nominated again. He chooses roles carefully and resists being typecast; he is imminently watchable (or “listenable”) as a master of multiple media.
As in 2013, when entertainment journalists proclaimed the Year of the Cumberbatch, many have been touting this year’s Oscar race as Benedict Cumberbatch’s “moment”. How wrong they are to limit this actor’s success or popularity to one point in time (Cumberbatch himself has expressed a wish to still be working in 40 years’ time). Rather than being the career moment of Cumberbatch’s lifetime, this year’s Academy Awards, come what may, is simply the latest milestone in a lifelong acting career.
Lynnette Porter is a humanities professor and the author of performance biographies Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition (2013) and Benedict Cumberbatch, Transition Completed: Films, Fame, Fans (2014), both by MX Publishing