Well, some commentators were, anyway. But just as many were quick to laugh, scream, splutter, and ask what on Earth was going on. “Dude looks like he got bit by a radioactive Jeffrey Tambor,” wrote William Hughes at AV Club,” [or] a high school senior who has started to apply old age make-up and somehow forgotten to ever stop.” Elsewhere, the source of scorn wasn’t the quality of the wig and the fake nose, but the fact that they had been used at all. “Why is Jared Leto in this role?” asked John Nugent in Empire Magazine. “Why didn’t they cast someone who actually looked like the character?”
Is that a fair question? Should actors have to resemble the people they are playing? Or should we just marvel at the skill that goes into transforming them into someone entirely different? The issue has become a contentious one. When Jessica Chastain’s jaw and cheeks were broadened to chipmunk-ish proportions for her recent role as Tammy Faye Bakker, the puppeteering televangelist, in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, one critic, Matt Zoller Seitz, tweeted: “I love her, but it bothers me that they didn’t even think about casting somebody who was physically closer to that type.” And when Sarah Paulson wore a fat suit to play Linda Tripp in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: Impeachment, her decision was condemned by… errr… Sarah Paulson. “There’s a lot of controversy around actors and fat suits, and I think that controversy is a legitimate one,” she told the Los Angeles Times in August ahead of the series’ premiere. “I think fat phobia is real. I think to pretend otherwise causes further harm. And it is a very important conversation to be had… I wouldn’t make the same choice going forward.”
On the other hand, Paulson continued, she wouldn’t want to condemn “the magic of hair and make-up departments and costumers and cinematographers that has been part of moviemaking, and suspension of belief, since the invention of cinema”.
The history of actorly transformation
For that matter, most of this magic has been around since long before moviemaking and the invention of cinema. The wonder of theatre has always involved the use of costumes and make-up to change the actors’ appearances. Casting “someone who actually looked like the character” was certainly never an option in Shakespeare’s day, when every actor was male. But Paulson is right about the peculiarly cinematic magic of the most extreme transformations. Seeing someone in a strikingly unusual guise on stage may be impressive, but when we see them in close-up on a screen, and we can study every millimetre of their face, the change can seem miraculous. It’s one reason why so many adaptations of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde were produced in cinema’s formative years (there were three in 1920 alone): viewers could make an immediate before-and-after comparison as an actor switched from one persona to another.
The horror genre has kept on showcasing such magic. In 1925’s The Phantom of The Opera, Lon Chaney terrified audiences with his skull-like visage. In 1931’s Frankenstein, Boris Karloff was given the breezeblock-shaped head that has defined the monster ever since. It was Rick Baker’s ground-breaking work on An American Werewolf in London that won the inaugural Make-up Oscar in 1982, and from then on the Academy has rarely honoured subtle applications of eyeshadow and blusher. The most radical metamorphosis tends to get the prize, whether the film in question is a fantasy (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Pan’s Labyrinth), a comedy (Mrs Doubtfire, The Nutty Professor) or a celebrity biopic (The Iron Lady, Vice). A full-on transformation doesn’t harm your chances of winning an acting Oscar, either. Gain or lose half your body weight, or sit in the make-up chair for four hours every morning, and Academy voters will notice: just ask Charlize Theron (Monster), Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), Robert De Niro (Raging Bull) and Marlon Brando (The Godfather).