Celebrity and the Celebration of Art

The Transformation of Benedict Cumberbatch

by Lynnette Porter

26 April 2011


Celebrity Fan or Art Aficionado?

Cumberbatch fans, perhaps more than those of many on-the-verge international celebrities, seem to be divided into two distinct groups that transcend age or nationality. There are the fangirls who probably enjoy the actor’s body just as much if not more than his body of work. They celebrate their fandom with tweets about Cumberbatch’s eyes or Live Journal comments about his voice. They post testimonials about meeting the actor. They describe his body and display gorgeous photographs of favored features. They review his “performances” on talk shows or clips from red carpet interviews. Many write Sherlock fan fiction or share Sherlock- or Frankenstein-themed art.  In short, they display the characteristics associated with today’s fans of any other celebrity.

Another group of Cumberbatch fans take art, and this artist, very seriously. They primarily seek information about any current or future roles. They know minutiae about the actor’s career and, if possible, travel to see the actor’s live or filmed performances.

Will future reviews emphasize Benedict Cumberbatch’s face and body, or his body of work?

In the US, Cumberbatch’s fans often have to go to more extreme measures to see the majority of his performances. To see Frankenstein, for example, fans Chasteen Mullins and Scott Stewart drove a few hours from home on 17 and 24 March. They bought tickets months earlier, as soon as the NTL broadcasts went on sale.

Mullins makes a point of seeing as many of the actor’s performances as possible, whether she has to track down DVDs of Small Island or Starter for 10 or figure time zones to be able to listen to Cabin Pressure via BBC radio online. She goes to the cinema when Cumberbatch is in a film. “I’ve seen him in a lot of different things, and I’m really looking forward to his new film, Third Star, which is coming out in May in the UK. I hope we’ll get it here.” Mullins, like many US Cumberbatch fans, worries that independent films often don’t make it to her local cinema. Even Sherlock can be difficult to find on television, because many communities lack or are losing a PBS station.

That lack of access in the US gives UK fans a distinct advantage. Mullins notes that Cumberbatch’s British fans “can go to the [20 April Frankenstein cast’s] Q&A. They can see him in person. Celebrity there is more accessible than it is here.”

Cumberbatch’s roles in period dramas, independent films, or theatrical productions attract fans of acting; however, they also may have hindered the actor’s transformation into a celebrity. Without the popularity of something like a Sherlock, he might never be known to US audiences. Scott Stewart thinks that the pace of American life makes the often slower paced, character-driven dramas common on British stage or film less attractive to US audiences.

“We’ve become a culture of people who stand in front of our microwaves and say ‘Why is it taking so long?’ We’re less willing to sit through two hours [of entertainment] without an intermission. Audiences want glitz; they want explosions; they want instant gratification with bigger plot. That’s hurting theatre actors, who were never going to get rich unless they were in the top two percent. Theatre is a calling.”

Stewart and Mullins clearly believe Cumberbatch brilliantly answered that call. “I’m glad for his success,” Mullins says. “He’s so talented. But I want him to stay the same artist and not let fame change him.”

Timing Is Everything

The timing of recent UK news articles—and the type of news being presented—illustrate the importance of media in turning a highly talented actor into a celebrity. On the day of the NTL Frankenstein broadcast, online news announced that Cumberbatch and his long-time girlfriend had broken up. The timing of the announcement was indeed interesting, placing Cumberbatch’s name in the celebrity news section as well as the theatre reviews.

Similarly, on the morning after Cumberbatch took home a best actor award, an Internet-fueled rumor claimed that he would be heading to Broadway next spring. Discussions reportedly underway with Actors Equity to allow the British cast to come to Broadway developed an interesting twist. Cumberbatch, according to the online articles, wanted his co-stars from the National Theatre production of After the Dance to accompany him to New York. This implies that the actor’s name recognition has improved to the point where his requests become part of the negotiations.

A few days later, an article speculated about the casting of a new film version of Les Misérables. First in the list was Robert Downey, Jr. Only a few names below was Benedict Cumberbatch. Although the actor certainly has been hand-picked for leading roles (namely, by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for Sherlock), Cumberbatch previously had not been publicly featured in such a famous company of actors at the sheer speculation stage of casting.

The trend continued the same week with an announcement that Cumberbatch would join the cast of Anna Karenina, certainly a period piece, but one to be adapted by director Joe Wright, whose “teenage assassin” film Hanna premiered the weekend after the announcement of his next film. Although this new role may not be as much of a stretch for Cumberbatch as Frankenstein or as celebrity-making as Sherlock, the article associated him with Wright during a week when the director’s work was especially well publicized. It seems that hardly a day goes by in 2011 without Cumberbatch’s name appearing in the news somewhere online.

Cumberbatch’s future celebrity may depend upon the way the actor is marketed in the US. After the Dance may bring him physically to the US, but roles in blockbusters make more audiences aware of his work. Like Colin Firth, this year’s best actor Oscar winner, Cumberbatch may become more famous as an actor but not infamous as a celebrity.

Perhaps the key question to be answered in coming months is not whether Benedict Cumberbatch will become more famous, but how he will do so. Will future reviews emphasize his face and body or his body of work? Will fans most often discuss his latest performance or romance? Benedict Cumberbatch will continue to have a celebrated career, but whether his artistry or appearance becomes the focus of that celebration may be determined by media marketing and Internet fandom in the next few months.

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