In an era of unprecedented movie wizardry, makeup remains a curious obstacle. And few consistently get it right.
by Christopher Borrelli
Later this week, while you’re watching the final installment in the “Twilight” series, if the quality of the new film is consistent with the earlier films, well, you will probably find yourself wondering if it’s just you or do all these bloodsuckers look as though they were dipped in flour. You will ask yourself if their pale faces were courtesy of a two-for-one makeup deal with a road show Kabuki production. You will curse, as I often do lately, the movie makeup gods for pulling you out of the story again and dragging your attention toward laughably dumb-looking face paint, wrinkles and noses. You may even wonder, as I did during the Tom Hanks scenes in “Cloud Atlas,” how $100 million can buy whole imaginary worlds but not convincing aging makeup.
I offer hope.
The first evidence of it is Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and in particular makeup artist Lois Burwell, whose delicate transformation of Daniel Day-Lewis into Lincoln comes as a reminder that movie makeup needn’t be amateur hour. She told me his makeup took only 90 minutes a day to apply. She painted every mark on his face, worked primarily by eye (without using photos for consistency). They sat in silence most days. Later, no digital embellishment was added. “The thing about makeup,” she said, “is you’re doing a good job when people don’t notice it. Which means, you’re doing yourself a disservice. But the alternative is worse.”
Another bright spot is Sean Alvarez.
He is a senior at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook. Last month, while “Cloud Atlas” was sweating overtime to suggest Halle Berry could play a Caucasian society wife and Hugo Weaving was a Korean heavy, Alvarez, cast as Joseph Merrick in his high school production of “The Elephant Man,” was playing an infamously deformed man by wearing no makeup at all. Instead he walked with a cane, hunched a shoulder upward slightly and moved at a timid angle to the other actors onstage; when the time came for him to expound on his plight, he did not attempt a mangled, slurping croak but an odd, lilting British chirp.
In the notes of his 1977 play, author Bernard Pomerance anticipates bad makeup: He suggests reproducing Merrick’s appearance would be “counterproductive.” Though prosthetics are tempting.
“At first I did wonder if going up there with (no makeup) was a mistake,” Alvarez said. “Except I hate bad makeup. It draws you out. I knew it would be less annoying to an audience to not wear prosthetics. Audiences have imaginations.”
Out of the mouth of babes.
Can someone at Warner Bros. give this kid $1 million for consulting?
Of course, to be fair, there is a difference between stage makeup, seen from a distance by a live audience, and film makeup on an actor whose visage is several stories high. Or is there?
Photo of Nan Zabriskie (left), MALS Student and head of the makeup department at DePaul University’s Theatre School.
“Not really,” said Nan Zabriskie, the longtime head of the makeup department at DePaul University’s Theatre School. She has experience in both mediums. “Ideally, a convincing makeup job should look believable two or 50 feet away,” she said. Coincidentally, I saw one of her recent makeup jobs from at least 50 feet away: She did the makeup for Chicago actor Michael Shannon in the Broadway production of “Grace.” In the show, Shannon, whose character was in a car accident that left half of his face disfigured, is always in the makeup, and he rarely leaves the stage.
The script called for bandages. Zabriskie had a better idea: deep, pale scars, mostly obscured beneath a plastic medical mask. From my lousy last-row seat at the Cort Theatre in New York, the effect was eerie.
After a while I didn’t really think about makeup or notice it. It’s a lesson in less-is-more, Zabriskie said. Consider the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, which recently complained about non-Asian actors in “Cloud Atlas” playing Asians. The group sounded more aesthetically offended than racially offended.
“Every major male character in the Korean (part of the film) is played by non-Asian actors in really bad yellowface makeup,” the group’s president told London’s Guardian newspaper. “The Asian-Americans at the screening burst out laughing.”
As we head into Oscar season — a marvelous time when latex abounds — this is not a minor point.
It is, rather, a blind spot, a weirdly persistent problem for a business increasingly committed to fantasy universes and extraordinarily believable fake things. Movies still can’t get human beings right. In the trailer for the upcoming “Gangster Squad,” Sean Penn, playing real-life mobster Mickey Cohen, peers out beneath so much head-widening latex that he resembles an “Outer Limits” alien. Or no: one of the caricatures from Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy.” And that’s not even the worse noggin I’ve seen in a movie lately: “Cloud Atlas,” again, with its cast playing multiple roles set in different time periods and worlds, is like a master class on bad makeup.
Where to begin?
Korean actress Doona Bae, given freckles, white face paint and a fussy courtesan Britishness, had me thinking about the intentionally stylized works of artist Cindy Sherman, known for transforming her physical appearance in photographs. It also had me thinking of the “Uncanny Valley,” the term that engineers use to describe the slight sense of unease people get when they see a robot that comes across as a little too lifelike.
The Un-Uncanny Valley, anyone?
To be fair, “Cloud Atlas” is so overrun by goofy makeup you suspect an intentional playfulness at the edges. On the other hand, as Burwell told me, “because we are surrounded by human faces every day, makeup artists don’t have to do very much before they are unintentionally creating, like, monsters, repellent things.”
Like, oh, last year’s “J. Edgar?” A film in which Leonardo DiCaprio, in the title role, played a bulldog/human hybrid, and Armie Hammer, as his longtime confidant, aged from a G Man into the Incredible Melting Man.
It was science fiction.
Are filmmakers too close to their work to see this? Don’t their makeup people see what audiences plainly see?
“Yes, we do. We talk about this all the time,” Howard Berger told me. His makeup career stretches back to Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II.” He’s one the makeup guys on TV’s “The Walking Dead.” He won an Oscar in 2006 for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” And this fall he has crammed Anthony Hopkins into an impressive fat suit to play director Alfred Hitchcock in the upcoming “Hitchcock.”
“The key to getting it right is testing,” Berger said. “You always need time. I had many weeks to test with Anthony Hopkins. We went through six different looks. The first one, frankly, was very Fat Bastard (as in Austin Powers). You never get it straight unless you test and test and test. And then see what it looks like on film. Our Fat Bastard, though, we thought he looked great, until we saw the dailies. It was not great. Truthfully, first thing the filmmakers said was, ‘No “J. Edgar.” We don’t want “J. Edgar.”‘ I said the way to avoid ‘J. Edgar’ is (to) test.”
The challenge, he said, was preserving the “essence” of Hitchcock without losing the feel of Hopkins. That said, “actual film is more forgiving than digital, which blows up every crease. There is no hiding anymore.”
“Hitchcock” shot digitally.
Which may be why, as impressive as Berger’s Hitchcock makeup is, as crease-free as the prosthetics appear, you wonder if Hopkins is wearing a helmet made of meat. It’s a feeling, I think, that doesn’t have a lot to do with the makeup artist and more to do with casting. Bill Murray can get away with just a pair of fake teeth while playing FDR in the upcoming “Hyde Park on Hudson” because the film never really attempts to make him look like the former president. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Looper,” after a moment of adjustment, seems to be given only slightly flatter features, just enough to suggest he’s playing a young Bruce Willis.
But casting Hopkins, who looks nothing like Hitchcock, somewhat creates a problem. As Burwell said: “The big thing is you don’t try to put one face on top of another. That’s the key. You want them to look believable as a character, not the same. You are not cloning people. But if you focus on a few key elements, it will work.”
Of course, it helps “Lincoln” that Day-Lewis — whom Spielberg films in extreme close-ups, as though daring you to find a flaw in his appearance — is vaguely physically reminiscent of the Great Emancipator.
“My kids get really upset when we cast them by body shape and type and look, but that is a really painful lesson in casting,” said Julie Ann Robinson, the theater director at Glenbrook North. It’s also why she said she will not slap some gray on a student’s temples and cast him as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.” In fact, she won’t stage the play at all. She can’t believably age anyone into the role, and even if she could, she doesn’t feel any of her students could summon enough existential pain to make us forget the makeup.
But that didn’t stop her from declaring this “the year of deformed protagonists” at Glenbrook North. She put on “Phantom of the Opera” last spring and “Elephant Man” last month.
“Next month we’re doing ‘Scapino,’ a silly play. I’ll have some students as cranky old men, give them a brow line, some shading in their faces, maybe facial hair. But we’re not going to make it obvious — we’re not doing ‘Cloud Atlas’ here.”
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