Actors Can Stop Altering Their Appearance For an Oscar Now

By  · Published on September 24th, 2015

Sony Pictures Classics

If Johnny Depp winds up snubbed by the Academy in January but Michael Fassbender is nominated, that could send a big message that actors don’t need to transform their appearance for an Oscar. Especially for biopics.

Since our first look at Fassbender in Steve Jobs, there was concern that he didn’t look enough like the Apple co-founder. Then people saw the movie, celebrated Fassbender’s performance, recognizing that it didn’t matter that the resemblance isn’t there, and now he’s one of the shoo-ins for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Depp’s portrayal of Whitey Bulger in Black Mass is still seen as a strong contender, but there’s also a lot of discussion about whether the performance would still be great without the physical transformation. How much credit goes to the hair and makeup team compared to Depp’s own contributions?

However, Depp’s appearance in the role isn’t just about an attempt to look like Bulger. If the movie had been distributed by Universal I’d say he was literally trying to get the character added to the stable of that studio’s famous monsters. His Bulger owes as much to Dracula as the actual gangster. The transformation isn’t the same as the usual forced authenticity found with biopic makeovers these days.

Resemblance and mimicry hasn’t historically been what’s required of an Oscar-worthy biopic, but we’ve also seen plenty of actors receive anything from buzz to actual Academy Awards with help from prosthetics, particularly fake noses. In some cases, actors like Jon Voight and Charlize Theron have all but worn full masks in order to disappear in a role that won them accolades.

Without even needing that sort of assistance, though, Ashton Kutcher looks a lot like Jobs in Jobs, and it’s not enough. But Jesse Eisenberg looks nothing like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, but he owns the character that he delivers, and he was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for what that performance is for the movie it’s in, not for how much it aligns with the real figure it represents.

Last year, Steve Carell earned a nomination for his portrayal of John du Pont in Foxcatcher and we all wondered what his prosthetic nose alone had brought to the performance. Especially given the lack of public familiarity with the real guy, Carell didn’t need such a physical transformation. Would we have accepted him in such a serious role without it, though? Without the talking point of how the usually comedic actor was unrecognizable in the part?

Carell is in another potential Oscar contender this year, The Big Short, and again he’s transformed, this time with a shaggy blonde wig and another accent. In the trailer released this week, he looks sort of goofy, as do Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale as his co-stars. In trying to make them look like their real-life counterparts, the makers of this movie may have created too much of a distraction from the more important aspects of the performances and the movie.

Meanwhile, in another new trailer that dropped this week, Robert Redford just looks like himself while portraying famous news anchor Dan Rather in Truth. There is some natural resemblance there, especially if you squint, but it doesn’t matter. Early reviews claim as much, that the performance is commanding enough that we buy Redford as Rather regardless of what he physically looks like.

I expect that one could go down with others (Val Kilmer in The Doors, Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line) where audiences imagine there being more likeness than there actually is (and in the case of Phoenix that goes for his voice even more than his face). If so, it would be because the acting succeeds in making us accept the performer as the person, blind to discrepancies in mouth shape or hair color.

Two more performances this year that have risen above initial dismissals for lack of resemblance: John Cusack and Paul Dano sharing the portrayal of Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. As Kate Erbland partly noted in her review for FSR, their achievement is in their ability to embody the role without bothering with impersonation, let alone attempting to be a wax figure stand-ins for the music icon.

No actor, not even Depp, seems to have devoted so much to inhabiting his biopic role this year than Ben Foster, whose devotion to method acting for his portrayal of Lance Armstrong in The Program even led him to take performance enhancement drugs. He also seems to have employed some external components (definitely a new hairline if not additional prosthetics) to better channel the disgraced cyclist. And in the end, the movie is getting mixed reviews and has dropped way behind in the Oscar race.

I don’t expect Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of Philippe Petit in The Walk to continue as a big awards contender, either, in spite of the obvious physical and vocal efforts the actor makes to identically represent the French tightrope walker – poorly from what I can tell. In fact those efforts can be a turn off, especially when there’s also a difficult accent involved.

I’m much more interested in seeing his work in Snowden (which is now going to be a 2016 release), as he bears little resemblance to Edward Snowden but also won’t be drawing so much attention to his physical appearance to the point of it causing interference. Director Oliver Stone knows how to get the job done for biopics without the need for full transformation, too. Just see Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, for which they made a last-minute decision not to have the actor wear a fake nose.

Ironically, the primary frontrunner for this year’s Best Actor race is someone who seems to have made the greatest transformation for his performance. Eddie Redmayne, who just won an Oscar for the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, now portrays a real-life transgender woman in The Danish Girl, and while he certainly had to alter his physical appearance, it’s not in a way that has him looking exactly like the actual Lili Elbe.

Redmayne spends much of the movie, before his character comes out and then fully transitions through sex reassignment surgery, looking like himself. Ultimately, he’s portraying a transformation more than he’s transforming, himself. It’s complicated, for sure, and that will continue to make for an interesting part of the awards season conversation as we further see how few other portrayals enhanced by make-up, wigs, etc., fall to the wayside in favor of performances trusted to be great enough that they don’t need to hide behind a mask.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.