What Do Actors Lose When Prosthetics Become the Star?

Photo-Illustration: Susanna Hayward; Photos by MGM and Krista Kennell / Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Acting is about transformation both psychological and physical. When it comes to the flashiest endeavors, the last ones come to mind the most. Gaining weight, losing weight, building muscle, shaving hair – in the most extreme examples, the oblations that actors perform for their craft can serve as stunts for the press. You can think of these rituals as one more aspect of preparing along the lines of following someone in the field or learning fight choreography. The actor’s body is, after all, an acting tool, one that can be trained and molded for a role.

And then there is the kind of transformation that requires latex. It is considered a compliment to any prestigious movie or series if an actor is called “unrecognizable,” an effect that is achieved through makeup, costumes, and most drastically, prosthetics. And this season’s sales are full of the latest: there’s Jessica Chastain, “unrecognizable” as Tammy Faye Bakker in Tammy Faye’s eyes. There is Sarah Paulson with false teeth as Linda Tripp in Indictment: American Crime Story. The recent trailer for Being the ricardos, On December 10, he revealed a Nicole Kidman with her cheek, turned into a little alien in an effort to make her look like Lucille Ball. And reigning over them all is Jared Leto at Ridley Scott’s Gucci house. To play Paolo Gucci, a man who infuriated his family by launching his own Gucci-branded business before his father was kicked out of the company and sent to jail for tax evasion, Leto dons a bald cap and a lot. more, with eyes looking from behind. a newly acquired bulbous nose, puffy cheeks and a double chin.

Seeing the long-time locked-in rock god of rock, pretending to be the fashion flop with chrome domes, is enough for anyone to ponder the strangeness of the Hollywood prosthetic habit. Not the kind used to turn an actor into a monster or the recent recipient of a head injury, in the Lon Chaney tradition nearly a century ago in The Phantom of the Opera, warping his own nose by driving wires into his nostrils, but the kind that is used to make them look like a person who really existed through fat suits and synthetic double chin. There is something so old-fashioned, so laborious, so artistic. It is a glaring reminder that despite how often it is talked about, acting is not always an alchemical process involving the mysteries of an inner landscape. According to Laurence Olivier, a man who knew how to get around a false nose, it is also “the business of showing off.”

These real-life-inspired prosthetics are meant to bring authenticity, but they have a wicked way of achieving the opposite. Leto has a history of doing his best for his papers – he gained nearly £ 70 per Chapter 27. He waxed most of his body Dallas Buyers Club. His new look as Paolo Gucci seems to have freed him enough to poke fun at his own version of the Joker, including an accent that is best summed up as “the complete Super Mario.” It is the type of performance that is described as “fun”, although it is not clear if it is the audience or the actor who should enjoy it. There are many actors who manage to slim on top and thicken the jaw without help. It’s just that few of them have Leto’s expected box office appeal. When we praise an actor by saying that he has become unrecognizable, we are implying that he is generally very recognizable; It’s not an achievement worth mentioning if no one knows what you look like in the first place. It’s an odd compliment to an actor anyway, as if his greatest feats involve not building a character, but erasing himself from sight.

At least in Gucci house, excess, rather than realism, is the point. On Tammy Faye’s eyes, Chastain adopts the disgraced televangelist’s tarantula-like mascara and hard-lined eyebrows, as well as prosthetics that round the lower face, but never finds the real woman underneath all the trimmings. Playing such televised people as Bakker and Ball seems to make prosthetic adjustments irresistible, but the result generally leads the actor into the unsettling valley of overly literal biopics, reminiscent of Charlize Theron putting nose plugs to look alike. more like Megyn Kelly. by Bomb and it ended up looking like neither her nor her theme.

To focus on the rigors of an actor’s impression is to divert attention from the choices that must be made to bring a life to the screen. Like many similar projects, Tammy Faye’s eyes it concludes with pictures of real people, in his case a clip of Chastain in character along with pictures of the real Bakker, the two delivering the same line almost in unison. This type of coda is intended to emphasize how close the performance came to replicating reality, although even the most researched films are, at best, inspired by the truth. They work in the service of a story. Doing so means avoiding inconvenient facts, truncating messy developments, leaning toward fiction to bridge the gaps. It means privileging some perspectives and discarding others. The viewer understands this. So why insist on comparing the fake with the original?

It is perhaps easier to talk about the physical transformation of an actor than to ask why we are so concerned with the illusion of historical accuracy. Or at least it used to be. The flashback that Paulson got over the fat suit he wears as Tripp in The impeachment process led her to admit in Los Angeles Times that when he considers what happened on the role, he regrets “not having thought more thoroughly.” These transformations seem to go only in one direction, with fair-skinned, lean, healthy, and conventionally attractive artists seeking a role in another way before reverting to the privileges of their status quo after the job is done. What is considered permissible to play a role is under constant re-evaluation – consider the not-so-distant history of blackface and yellowface. The question here is whether we value acting on imitation.

It’s no coincidence that one of the most talked about performances this fall involves an actress who doesn’t particularly look like the famous figure she plays. The movie Spencer it is announced as a “fable of a true tragedy”, clearing the space to play with fiction within the basic contours of the facts. Kristen Stewart, like Princess Diana, does not try to replicate it so much as to offer an interpretation. Stewart’s jaw is different from Diana’s. She is five inches shorter. His eyes are green instead of blue. And none of that matters because Stewart is clearly destined to play a character. Trying to recreate the face of one of the most photographed women in the world would be useless and distracting. SpencerDiana, who is experiencing something of a meltdown during a suffocating Christmas vacation towards the end of her marriage, comes to life without the restraints of her chin. We are aware that it is a version of the princess dreamed of by screenwriter Steven Knight and director Pablo Larraín, one with an inner life that has been imagined, although her environment is grounded in real details.

Acting is an innate absurdity. Prosthetics can highlight that, but they can also be a shock absorber, a protective veil between the actor and the audience. Olivier, who often sought what he called “the protective haven of nasal putty,” related in his 1982 autobiography that when he was 16 years old, a drama and voice teacher ran her finger down the center of his forehead until he rested. on top of her schnoz, where she informed him that she had “weakness.” Whether he was diagnosing a deficiency in spirit or nasal contours, Olivier spent the rest of his legendary career feeling relieved whenever a role allowed him to make additions to his face, to “avoid something as embarrassing as self-portrayal.” Maybe that’s the real benefit of becoming unrecognizable – it’s less an act of artistic devotion than self-protection, a way to go unnoticed even when you’re on screen.

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