The Cynic’s Oscars: Best Costume Design and Best Makeup Are the Halloween Categories

By  · Published on October 28th, 2012

As any of us who’ve dressed up as movie characters for Halloween know, it’s the distinctly designed roles that make for the most interesting costumes. Nobody is dressing up as Alex Cross or Aaron Cross this year – not because their movies weren’t popular, but because the characters don’t have a very recognizable look. Peruse the popular suits for sale and clever homemade ideas this year and you’ll find mostly characters who wouldn’t be what they are without the craftwork of costume designers and makeup artists. That’s why I consider theirs the Halloween categories at the Oscars. And yet, the best and most common outfits and frightening faces aren’t necessarily those that tend to be recognized by the Academy.

This year’s list of popular movie-related costumes predominantly consists of superheroes, which has been the norm for a while, but there are even more timely examples represented now thanks to the The Avengers featuring so many masked and caped crusaders. Also, we had another movie starring the Caped Crusader. And while once again Linda Hemming will be nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award for a Batman movie (she was nominated for Batman Begins and won for The Dark Knight), it’s very unlikely that The Dark Knight Rises will earn her a second Oscar nomination let alone win (she won her first time nominated, for Topsy-Turvy).

Does the Academy think that because superhero costumes originate in comic books that their cinematic adaptations, in spite of their need for performance practicality and a mix of familiar and fresh takes on the uniforms (see never-nominated Kim Barrett’s effort for The Amazing Spider-Man), aren’t as worthy? There is probably more of a difficulty with these than the period outfits that are regularly recognized. At least those are usually based on real fashions that once were worn. A lot of comic book characters’ clothes are drawn on the page in ways that make them seem either magically adhering to the body or just painted onto naked muscle.

As for makeup (and hairstyling, since possibly thanks to Meryl Streep the Oscar category is now for that too), The Dark Knight did get a nod, but that was due to the designs for The Joker and Two-Face. The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t have villains with similar face-painting and molding going on. The Academy does actually honor a lot of genre work in the makeup category, though. You’ve got aliens, ape-men, werewolves, vampires, monsters, grinches and ghosts with the mosts. But the thing that makes a lot of the nominees less likely to translate to Halloween is how amazing the work is. If anything, a lot of the characters accomplished through makeup translate to masks for us less crafty types.

Now there are a growing amount of contenders in the makeup category that involve the portrayal of real-life people, as we’ve seen with the transformation work done to turn Marion Cotillard into Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose and Streep into Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. According to major Oscar blogs, two of this year’s nods will probably go to Lincoln and Hitchcock due to their similar alterations to Daniel Day-Lewis and Anthony Hopkins in order to make them better resemble the respective title characters (does Joseph Gordon-Levitt made to look more like a young Bruce Willis in Looper count?). Part of this is to do with a growing trend of Oscar-bait acting roles but it also may have to do with better makeup tools available to artists.

There is something to the idea, though, that these are less characters that we might dress up as – even if Abraham Lincoln has always been an easy costume – as they are characters that movie stars are “going as” for their career, in a profession that is sometimes like living Halloween every day.

While, in its young existence as a category, some makeup nods have gone to movie geek favorites like Rick Baker and Stan Winston, it is shocking how so many major horror, sci-fi and fantasy films of the ’80s in particular were not honored. Where is the Academy recognition of David B. Miller (Swamp Thing; A Nightmare On Elm Street), for instance, and where are the lines drawn on makeup effects that are more related to visual effects recognition or costume design recognition anyway? As the horror geeks remind me, some of the best makeup work this year can be seen in The Cabin in the Woods, Prometheus, V/H/S, Antiviral, The Collection, Exit Humanity and ABCs of Horror. It’s doubtful any of these will, if eligible, be honored by the Academy.

And some of the best costumes (and also more great makeup) can be seen in The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Hunger Games, Cloud Atlas, John Carter, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman and Dark Shadows. Unfortunately, unlike the Costume Designers Guild Awards, there isn’t a division of period, contemporary and fantasy categories, and too often (though far from always) the last of those types are ignored. Also, if we see more Sacha Baron Cohen-type documentaries like Kumare being made, there might be need for another category added for them – not that too much artistry went into that film’s guru disguise, but it’s worth something that it fooled so many real people who became the title character’s followers.

One big genre movie that hasn’t arrived yet that should be represented in both the costume and makeup categories this year is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But how often do people dress up for Halloween as characters from movies released after October?

What films do you think deserve praise for costume design and makeup (and hair) that won’t likely get an Oscar nomination?

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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.