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Is Oscar Just a Weighting Game? Thesps Go to Physical Extremes

Actors who have changed their physique for their roles have wowed their peers — and endangered their health

The 40-50 pounds that Christian Bale packed on to play inveterate conman Irving Rosenfeld in David O. Russell’s upcoming “American Hustle” appears all the more shocking when juxtaposed with the actor’s reedthin crackhead Dicky Eklund in “The Fighter,” his previous collaboration with the director.

“I think he might win a prize,” Russell joked to Variety when reminded of Bale’s feat for “American Hustle,” which opens Dec. 13.

The Motion Picture Academy has certainly been impressed by this kind of complete physical immersion in the past, awarding Oscars to Robert De Niro, who gained 60 pounds to play Jake LaMotta in blustery decline in “Raging Bull,” and Charlize Theron, whose supermodel looks were concealed by makeup and abnormal girth as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” Renee Zellweger, too, earned the Academy’s respect after she plumped up considerably for “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” earning a nomination for her effort.

Although not as visually obvious, actors who went on extreme diets — Natalie Portman as a self-starving ballerina in “Black Swan,” Anne Hathaway reduced to a street urchin in “Les Miserables,” Adrien Brody withering away in the Warsaw Ghetto in “The Pianist” — also managed to win Oscars.

Of course, more than just dramatic fluctuations in weight were responsible for the kudos, but such extremes certainly show the drastic degree of commitment to the roles. Bale might be the poster boy for this kind of determination. The six-foot actor reportedly went from 185 to 122 pounds for “The Machinist” (2004) to a pumped-up 220 pounds for “Batman Begins” (2005) — seesawing almost 100 pounds in a startlingly short period.

This year, other actors have gone to extremes to add physical verisimilitude to their performances, including Matthew McConaughey, who lost almost 50 pounds to play HIV-stricken homophobe Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club,” as well as his co-star, Jared Leto, who shrunk to a skeletal 112 pounds to portray the transsexual HIV-afflicted Rayon, who becomes Woodroof’s unlikely accomplice in peddling FDA-unapproved meds to fellow patients.

Recently, Leto told NPR’s Terry Gross that in one instance after a day’s shoot on “Buyers Club,” while washing off his makeup, “I was like, ‘Man they did a great job, I’m lookin’ real sick.’ And then I got a hot towel and put it on my face again and then I washed it again and I realize that it wasn’t the makeup anymore, it was just my face.”

McConaughey has said in interviews that he consulted with Tom Hanks, who dropped weight for “Philadelphia” (yep, an Oscar win) and 55 pounds for “Cast Away” (a nomination) for his weightloss regimen.

But if all these fluctuations in weight have refl ected supreme dedication to the actor’s craft, they’ve also proven to be a health hazard. Hanks has admitted he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, reportedly attributed to the oscillations. Without knowing Hanks’ method of putting the weight back on, which, after a film like “Cast Away,” ideally combines exercise and the right food groups over a long period, Rachele Dependahl, a registered dietitian with a practice in Beverly Hills, said, “The weight itself can cause insulin resistance and what’s called metabolic disorder.” This translates, she added, to increased levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar.

Charlotte Roberts, also an RD and certified diabetes educator, noted that severe weight loss can result in reduced muscle mass. “Then if you end up putting the weight (back) on really quickly, you’re not putting muscle mass back on; you’re putting fat weight back on.”

“American Hustle” exec producer Jon Gordon told Variety that Bale “developed a herniated disk as a result (of his weight gain), and still has problems.”

Leto informed NPR that when he gained 60 pounds to play Mark David Chapman in “Chapter 27” (2007), he had gone from a “young healthy guy” to someone whose cholesterol had skyrocketed to alarming levels, requiring him to take Lipitor.

“At the end of that shoot, I was literally taking a wheelchair to (the) set because I was in so much pain,” he said. “I couldn’t walk down a hallway without hobbling.”

McConaughey and Leto, for their parts, appear to be of the opinion that weight loss is less dangerous than weight gain. McConaughey has said he was “uncontainable” with energy on the “Buyers Club” set, adding that “all the acuity, energy and power I lost from the neck down transferred to the neck up.”

“Overall, I think it was an incredibly healthy thing I did for myself,” he told Parade. “It was a six-month fast, and that’s good I think mentally and spiritually. The human body is incredibly resilient.”

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