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The Big O: Want to Win Oscar’s Heart? Put Down the Mascara and Hide the Comb

The Big O: Want to Win Oscar’s Heart? Put Down the Mascara and Hide the Comb

Yep, they are falling for it again. Call it glamming down, uglifying, or letting yourself go, but more actresses than usual are forgoing makeup and regular shampoos in order to impress those empowered with the responsibility of deciding who goes home with various acting trophies this year.

And no one is trying harder – and actually succeeding – than Jennifer Aniston. The rom-com queen suppressed her trademark golden-girl bubbliness once before with 2002’s The Good Girl as an unhappy small-town sales clerk who engages in an ill-advised affair with a disturbed co-worker (Jake Gyllenhaal, also attracting awards traction for his against-type creep In Nightcrawler). Aniston received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her troubles then, but was not invited to sit at the grown-ups’ table – namely, the Oscars.

A few days ago, though, I received a “For Your Consideration” email touting the movie Cake. It was a poster with an image of the film’s star, Aniston, staring grimly into the great beyond.

This was no magazine-cover touch-up job. If anything, the photo emphasized her disheveled appearance. Messy hair. No makeup. Piercing eyes. A less-than-flattering fleece sweater around her usually comely shoulders. She would still be pretty recognizable to someone who regularly watched Friends for ten seasons or wasted their money to see Horrible Bosses 2.

But Aniston did look different. In fact, she looked serious. Very serious.

Apparently, the members of the Screen Actors Guild, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association thought so, too. Last week, Aniston suddenly became part of the awards-season conversation after being nominated for a SAG Award, a Golden Globe, and a Critics Choice Award for her tart-tongued chronic-pain sufferer and pill addict in the dark comedy-drama, which doesn’t officially open until January 23.

The weird thing is, the early reactions to Cake, which premiered at the Toronto film festival this year, were not so sweet – it currently comes in at just 50% positive on Rotten Tomatoes — even if reviewers were kinder to its star. While Variety’s Justin Chang criticized the film’s final-act softening of its off-putting heroine, he still appreciated Aniston’s effort.

“Aniston leads with her scowl here, in the sort of performance that often gets called ‘brave’ but is more accurately described as a well-executed change of pace,” he writes. “But despite all the behind-the-scenes efforts to make the actress look as dowdy and unattractive as possible … her natural spark can’t help but shine through all that fastidious uglification.” 

Maybe Chang didn’t completely buy into Aniston’s plain Jane act. But plenty of others did, judging by the PR-curated pull quotes that decorate the email image.

A sampling:

“With greasy hair, no makeup, and a fire she’s never before displayed onscreen, Jennifer Aniston gives a riveting performance.” -People

“One has to see Aniston in Cake to believe it. From the first frame, you forget it’s her on the screen. She completely loses herself in the role, sans makeup, except for the scars throughout her body. It’s not a stretch, rather an effortless performance. Jennifer Aniston is a bona fide Oscar contender in the best actress slot.” -Deadline

“Just how far does Jennifer Aniston go in shedding her vanity? Let’s put it this way. Cake is her Monster.” -Vulture

That last entry, by the way, is the money quote. If any performance proved that denying one’s outward beauty can increase your chances of claiming an Academy Award and substantially improve your career outlook, it was Charlize Theron’s amazing transformation into serial killer Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s Monster.

Few of her previous roles, usually as the leading man’s love interest in such flops as Reindeer Games and The Legend of Bagger Vance, even hinted at the fierce intensity she achieved in that small-budget vehicle directed by Patty Jenkins.

Packing on 30 pounds and donning hideous prosthetic teeth while decked out in grimy trailer-park garb did not hurt. But that Theron was finally allowed to go beyond simply being eye candy and display what she was capable of as an actress is why her performance was so powerful. She was a tiger unleashed, and it took a female director who saw beyond her glossy surface to let her loose on screen. That is the reason Roger Ebert would call Theron in Monster “one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.”

There is nothing new about good-looking movie stars dimming their natural glow in order to focus eyes on their performance. Think Olivia de Havilland in 1949’s The Heiress, in which she plays a plain young woman of wealth who defies her father by falling for a suspected gold-digger. The role would win her a second Oscar.

In the more recent past, Cher tossed aside her outsized pop-goddess image and gave a transformative performance as Meryl Streep’s sad-sack lesbian co-worker in 1983’s Silkwood and was rewarded with a supporting-actress Oscar nomination.

She would go on to win a lead trophy as the dowdy Italian widow who blossoms in 1987’s Moonstruck.

But the Oscar-winning role that probably did the most to encourage actresses to play against type was Hilary Swank’s trans man Brandon Teena in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. What Robert De Niro’s weight-gaining stunt in 1980’s Raging Bull did for actors, Swank’s performance did for actresses who were tired of being judged only by their looks by setting a new standard for sacrificing yourself for your art.

Since Monster, however, more female Oscar nominees than ever have engaged in some sort of image-altering. Lead-actress winners include Helen Mirren in 2006’s The Queen, Marion Cotillard in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, and Kate Winslet in 2008’s The Reader.

Among supporting winners, Mo’Nique in 2009’s Precious went so far as to grow out her armpit hair and encourage her face to break out to bring to life her terrifying abusive-mother character. Anne Hathaway in 2011’s Les Miserables topped that by allowing her own long, lustrous hair to be chopped off on camera before she sang I Dreamed a Dream.

Even Oscar’s favorite actress, Streep, has tried the ploy. She wore haggard old-age makeup for much of her portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 2012’s The Iron Lady, the source of her third Oscar. And she was a coarse, pill-popping, chain-smoking, and nearly bald cancer victim in 2013’s August: Osage County, which increased her acting-nomination Oscar record to 18.

Streep is likely to extend that number to 19 with her supporting performance as the Witch in the fairy-tale-inspired musical Into the Woods, a role that affords her the chance to be both a wretched crone as well as a restored beauty.

Other possible Oscar candidates this year who might gain a few bonus points for their lack of vanity in various degrees include Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Reese Witherspoon in Wild, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer, Swank in The Homesman, Emma Stone in Birdman, and Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game (no period gowns this time).

As much as we support any recognition for female talent, there is something not quite healthy about this growing obsession with makeovers — or, rather, make-unders — as an acting tool.

Yes, men engage in this same practice. Just check out Steve Carell (fake nose, mottled skin), Mark Ruffalo (unbecoming haircut, dimple-obscuring beard) and Channing Tatum (lots of frowning, bad hair) in Foxcatcher.

But flip through any gossip rag these days and whole pages are devoted to famous women caught in the act of looking less than perfect. Google “stars no makeup” and up pops 88.5 million results, most of them photo galleries of Maybelline-free female celebrities.

Theron, however, pulled the smartest counter-move when she did 2011’s Young Adult. The Diablo Cody-penned comedy works as a sort of anti-Monster, with the actress as a model-pretty high-school prom queen turned writer whose ugly personality keeps her imprisoned in the past. Alas, the Golden Globe-nominated role did not lead to an Oscar nod. But it did earn her plenty of respect.

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