It wasn’t just the nose. Or the hooded eyelids. Or the protruding gums in the small mouth that almost never smiled. It was the total demeanor. The flat tones of his speech, punctuated by frequent pauses. The ego that prompted him to identify himself as “The Golden Eagle.”
It was the transformed funny-man, Steve Carell, taking on the persona of the self-proclaimed “ornithologist, philatelist and philanthropist,” John du Pont, heir to one of the largest family fortunes in the country.
Carell’s stunning performance earned him an Oscar nomination for a role in a film that few went to see. The film was “Foxcatcher,” named for the massive estate to which du Pont brought his “band of brothers,” champion wrestlers that he aspired to coach into immortality. Du Pont was neither a wrestler nor a coach, but when you have that much money you can, presumably, convince people that you are anyone you say you are.
And so du Pont “seduced” these men, including two brothers who had each won gold medals in the 1984 Olympics, by supplying them with the lifestyle of landed squires and feeding them with dreams of glory.
In return, he worked them mercilessly and boasted that he had become like a father to them. For an introverted man preoccupied with only himself, who had never had a real friend in his life, the acquisition of an entourage of servile sycophants was a decisive triumph.
The Olympic gold medalists, Mark and David Schultz, fatherless at an early age and impoverished, could not turn down the money that du Pont offered them. And Mark, who was exceptionally needy, bought into du Pont’s pitch about patriotism and teaching the next generation the values he believed in. Mark even bought into du Pont’s demand that he “become his own man” and distance himself from his older brother, David.
David, who was a gregarious, easygoing man, was also a superior wrestling coach, and du Pont soon began to exhibit a subliminal envy, not only for his prowess, but also for his happy home life — a wife who obviously adored him and two loving kids.
Du Pont also had a troubled relationship with his mother. She was an accomplished horsewoman who crowded out his wrestling trophies from the family “Trophy Room” with excessive hardware of her own. An insensitive taskmaster, she consistently chided him for his devotion to wrestling, which she considered a “low” sport. And however much he tried to win her approval, she never gave it.
Eventually, for somewhat trivial reasons, the warm relationship between Mark and du Pont soured. Mark won a gold medal for Team Foxcatcher at the 1987 World Wrestling Championships, but — having been introduced to cocaine by du Pont, who was a heavy user — he drifted into a drug habit augmented by heavy drinking.
Disillusioned by continual rebuffs by du Pont and assaults on his fragile self-esteem, Mark finally left Foxcatcher, and wrestling. He urged Dave to leave as well, but Dave remained until one fateful day in January 1996, when, inexplicably, du Pont committed murder. After holding off the police for 48 hours, du Pont was captured and became the central figure in a notorious trial.
This true story was made into a book by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman and subsequently into a film produced and directed by Bennett Miller. Miller, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for the film, won the Best Director Award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
In addition to Carell’s nomination for Best Actor at the 87th Academy Awards ceremony, Mark Ruffalo, who played David, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman were nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Bill Corso and Dennis Lilliard were nominated for Best Makeup and Hair Styling.
Other members of the stellar cast included Channing Tatum as Mark, a somewhat na√Øve and befuddled champion, and Vanessa Redgrave, du Pont’s starchy, Victorian mother. Fortunately, she died before she had to endure the indignity of seeing her name besmirched as her son stood on trial for murder.
Du Pont served 15 years of a 30-year sentence before he died in 2010 from heart disease and emphysema. One would hope that, during the time he was incarcerated, this complex, troubled and lonely man would have at least acquired a friend.
The film, which was released in time for the Oscars, will be re-released in Los Angeles this month.