Celebrity and the Celebration of Art: The Transformation of Benedict Cumberbatch

[26 April 2011]

By Lynnette Porter

Contributing Editor

Benedict Cumberbatch is a highly talented working actor. Since 2004 alone, he has played roles in just about every medium imaginable: stage, radio, television, film, even audio CD. His roles include some impressive names: Dr. Frankenstein, the Creature, Sherlock Holmes, Vincent Van Gogh, T.S. Eliot, William Pitt, Stephen Hawking.

He is also about to be cast, against type, as an international celebrity, possibly his trickiest role to date.

An Impressive Body of Work

Cumberbatch’s work has earned him quite the professional reputation, as well as a measure of fame. In 2004, he was nominated for a BAFTA and won a Monte Carlo TV Award for the miniseries Hawking. In 2006, he won the London Critics Circle’s British Breakthrough award for playing William Pitt in the film, Amazing Grace. In 2008 he was nominated for a Satellite Award for his performance in The Last Enemy.

And then there’s Sherlock, probably Cumberbatch’s only role with which most Americans are familiar—if they tuned in to PBS or picked up the TV series’ DVDs in the past few months. Americans quite possibly learned more about the series and actor as a result of Sherlock’s massive online publicity. Print and video reviews, interviews, and red carpet highlights showcased the series and its leads, Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (as John Watson).

During mid-March’s Royal Television Society Awards, Sherlock received recognition as best drama series. In late March, the British Press Guild recognized Cumberbatch’s talent by presenting him the best actor award. Since the series’ debut on BBC in July 2010, Sherlock, and the actor playing the title role, have continued to earn nominations or awards just as steadily as the series has conquered international entertainment markets. (By March 2011, the first season, consisting only of three 90-minute episodes, had been broadcast in more than 30 countries.) Almost everyone in the media seems to be a fan.

Recent publicity for Sherlock has been matched only by the volume of press surrounding Danny Boyle’s direction of the National Theatre’s Frankenstein. In Nick Dear’s adaptation, Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate playing Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature, roles in which both actors have wowed the majority of critics, and fans queue for hours for coveted day tickets to the sold-out performances.

By the conclusion of the play’s run in early May, Cumberbatch also will have completed more episodes of BBC Radio 4’s Cabin Pressure. Then filming begins on the next block of three movie-length Sherlock episodes, and undoubtedly the press will begin the next round of interviews. For Cumberbatch, these projects and their publicity will mean greater acclaim, fame, and opportunities for more high-profile (and presumably higher-paycheck) roles.

The actor already has completed roles in films that seem certain to gain widespread attention later this year:  Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and a remake of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Cumberbatch previously has been seen in such big films as Atonement and The Other Boleyn Girl, as well as independent films Four Lions and the about-to-be-released Third Star. Nevertheless, these films pale in comparison to the publicity surrounding a Spielberg film, especially one scheduled for release during the holidays and Academy Award nomination season.

Cumberbatch’s body of work is indeed impressive. So what has previously prevented his transformation from a highly talented, sought-after actor to bona fide international celebrity?

Required for Celebrity: An Impressive Body, Not Necessarily of Work

A January 2011 Independent article described the actor as one who “doesn’t possess the obvious, symmetrical looks of a star,” nevertheless adding that “it’s about time” for the 34-year-old actor to become the “Next Big Thing”. Cumberbatch himself commented in a 2010 Esquire interview that his face is “very period… I’m a bit of an oddity in a modern context… But I’ve tried very hard not to be typecast as the posh character in a period drama.” In that interview he also wondered what it would be like to be an actor with the face of, say, a Jake Gyllenhaal.

Whatever the actor or critics may say to or about his face, fans have been duly impressed with not only the physicality of his performance as the Creature in Frankenstein, but with his physique, so much so that Boyle ensured his actors were suitably covered during the National Theatre Live’s globally broadcast performance. Well aware of Internet fandom and interest in seeing the Creature up close and personal, the National Theatre did not want to limit the choice of camera angles during the play’s extended nude scene. The nature of NTL broadcasts makes the policing of illegal recordings impossible.

As the Creature, Cumberbatch’s body is on display, but the performance transforms the actor into an entirely new being.  The actor’s body is an instrument used in service of a role. Even so, some fan galleries display nude shots not only from the current play but screen caps from previous films or series in which Cumberbatch has bared all.

No role has inspired fangirl lust more than Sherlock. His lean body and striking cheekbones have captivated Cumberbatch’s fans, many who identify themselves as “Cumberbitches”. In addition to the tamer fan sites full of testimonials of those lucky enough to meet the actor in person, sexually explicit fan fiction and art adorn many a web site frequented by the actor’s increasing number of fans.

The actor is well aware of his growing fame and joked about the strangeness of fandom on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man television show. The fact that one Sherlock fan sent him a riding crop (a prop used in the series’ opening scene) made the actor chuckle at the fan’s cleverness and novelty. In the brave new world of celebrity, such gifts are to be expected.

The Unnatural Nature of Celebrity

“Celebrity” has become a cornerstone of popular culture, but who and where one achieves that designation often supersedes the reason behind being labeled as a celebrity. As Cumberbatch’s more frequent appearance on British talk or quiz shows indicates, he already is a celebrity in the UK. Global celebrity, however, most often is reserved for those who also achieve notoriety or fame in the US—a very ethnocentric notion about Americans as the determiners of international celebrity. However, there is a growing split between what is considered celebrity worthy and what, especially outside the US, is deemed artistically meritorious.

The notion of “celebrity” as defined in the US may be losing its luster, even as more people want to become celebrities and gain television or Internet fame. For example, if a Snooki is considered a “celebrity” because of a reality television show, the label no longer seems as exclusive as it was when only the highest paid movie stars primarily were celebrated as famous and had earned the right to be celebrities. Perhaps the discrepancy between art and celebrity became glaringly apparent with the recent selection of and payment for a “celebrity” guest speaker at Rutgers. The speaker fee promised to Jersey Shore’s Snooki was higher than that given to renowned author Toni Morrison. In the US in this decade, reality-television celebrity trumps traditional definitions of talent or career achievement.

Frankenstein

Frankenstein

Although the UK has its share of tabloid “celebrities”, the nature of celebrity is often more clearly demarcated from talent or artistic merit. Benedict Cumberbatch is a case in point. His work is well known (at least in the UK), and he has gained critical acclaim and international recognition for outstanding performances. However, because Cumberbatch’s primary claim to fame in the US is Sherlock, his value as “celebrity” is much lower in the US than abroad.

In the US he is largely unknown, except by a large Internet fandom who shares personal and professional information about the actor on fan sites like Benedict Cumberbatch Online, Benedict Cumberbatch Fan, or Cumberbatchweb. Fans in the UK who have greater access to the actor himself as well as his performances post blogs and tweet; they share links to British newspaper or magazine interviews and YouTube videos of UK talk and award shows. Although the National Theatre Live broadcasts and the popularity of Sherlock are helping Americans get to know Cumberbatch, Internet fandom provides a wealth of information that Americans are otherwise unable to receive.

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.

Lynnette Porter is the author of performance biography Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition (MX Publishing, 2013) and The Doctor Who Franchise (McFarland, 2013), and the author/editor of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century (McFarland, 2012), among many other books and chapters about television or film. Dr. Porter is a professor in the Humanities and Communication Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/139431-celebrity-and-the-celebration-of-art/