Awards analysis is provided by Sean from @MathTeacherMovies.
This year, House of Gucci and The Eyes of Tammy Faye are feeling more and more like strong contenders for this year’s awards race. Most likely, the Academy will honor them in the performance categories because when an actor is heavily made up, that often leads to a win or a nomination whether it’s earned or not. House of Gucci has yet to be released and so can’t be judged yet. However, Jessica Chastain does a terrific job playing the titular role in The Eyes of Tammy Faye and the jury is out on whether the makeup was a distraction or a crutch.
This is a pattern in the Academy over the last twenty years. The heavily made up actors stand out and are likely to win an award for their performance even if the makeup is the one doing the work. This shouldn’t diminish the quality of their performance. In some instances, the performances are flawless, but in others, as the film ages, it becomes evident that it was all makeup.
Most of the time, makeup is caked on an actor’s face in order to portray a real life figure to make them look as identical to that person as possible. Sometimes, the heavily made up character is fictional and part of a rather cooky story. Regardless, the makeup draws everyone in, including awards voters.
There are some actors that do this frequently. Charlize Theron made herself look eerily like Megyn Kelly and Aileen Wuornos in Bombshell and Monster, respectively. She was nominated for both performances and won the award for Monster. These accolades are deserved as Theron acts through the makeup and uses it as a tool.
Meryl Streep is another frequent flyer in the makeup chair who has been nominated for and won several awards in the past two decades. She won for The Iron Lady as Margaret Thatcher and then as fictional characters in The Devil Wears Prada and Into the Woods. She changed many aspects of her appearance for these performances and they enhanced rather than diminished the impact of her performances.
Actors have the hardest time when having to play real characters as they have to avoid sounding like just an impression while still embodying the character. Otherwise it looks silly. The makeup helps them sell the performance. Some will criticize the actor by saying there is no performance and it’s only the makeup doing the work, which is said more often than is true.
Many actors and actresses have won for their transformations into real people and all of them were at least assisted, if not carried by, their makeup. Renee Zellwegger practically hid her face in Judy, while Gary Oldman was unrecognizable in The Darkest Hour, yet both of their performances still reach that emotion. Helen Mirren was also done up quite differently to portray the titular role in The Queen, while Philip Seymour Hoffman changed his look and many other aspects of his usual performances to play the titular role in Capote. Cate Blanchett did a charming impression of Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator and the makeup helped her along the way. Daniel Day-Lewis gave a pitch perfect performance with Lincoln and the makeup department did him many favors by giving him the exact look of Abe. The same goes for Marion Cotillard who put everything into her performance in La Vie En Rose as she was transformed by stellar makeup artists. While Allison Janney didn’t have to worry about authenticity while playing a much less famous real person in I,Tonya, she was still made up to look just like her and her cool delivery and physical accuracy earned her an Oscar win. Many of these people won the Oscar based on their performances and caught the eye of the voter with their different physical appearance.
Other actors simply scored nominations for their portrayals of real life people they most likely got there for their physical transformations as well. Christian Bale often fluctuates weights and never looks the same way twice, but he hit the motherload when portraying Dick Cheney in Vice and became the man in every affectation with some intense makeup. Steve Carrell received his first and only Oscar nomination for Foxcatcher and was truly, deeply scary through his performance and his makeup. Frank Langella attempts the very difficult task of trying to become Nixon in Frost/Nixon, but he does his own thing with the character and the makeup department got creative, which left voters fascinated by this unique portrayal of a public figure.
Sometimes Oscar wins and nominations are given to actors who play fictional characters but not as many as actual real life characters mainly because there is somewhere to draw a comparison while a fictional character has no limits to imagination and there’s no limit to whether or not they are right. Christian Bale also got made up for his role in American Hustle that was a full blown transformation. Finally, the most prime example of a heavily made up performance of a fictional character was Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight where Ledger is unrecognizable. Both Bale and Ledger give performances that transcend the makeup but they also used that look to enhance their characters.
There’s no doubt that makeup can enhance a performance, but it more often affects the perception of the performance. Too often people judge the makeup and not the performance, so as we watch House of Gucci, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and many others, let us remember that makeup is separate from the performance.