Just smile: ‘Joker’ makeup team en route to first Oscar nomination thanks to physically transforming Joaquin Phoenix

On Monday the Makeup Artists & Hair Stylists Guild jump-started the Oscar derby by announcing its nominations for the 2019 calendar year. Warner Bros’ “Joker” came away with two nominations — period/character makeup and contemporary hairstyling — for the way in which the film’s artisans physically transformed Joaquin Phoenix into the mentally deranged Arthur Fleck, aka the Joker. Could the makeup team be en route to its first Oscar nomination for Best Makeup & Hairstyling?

The guild nominated three people in the category of Best Period and/or Character Makeup: makeup designer/department head Nicki Ledermann, an Emmy winner for “Boardwalk Empire” (2011), key makeup artist Tania Ribalow, two-time Emmy nominee for “Vinyl” (2016) and “The Knick” (2016), and key makeup artist Sunday Englis, three-time Emmy contender for “Vinyl” (2016) and “The Knick” (2015 & 2016). As for Best Contemporary Hair Styling, the MUAHS guild nominated hair department head Kay Georgiou, an Emmy champion for “Behind the Candelabra (2013), and Vanessa Anderson.

Remember, the eventual Oscar winner for this category often comes down to which film has the most noticeable makeup and hairstyling. Recent success stories include “Vice” (2018) transforming Christian Bale into veep Dick Cheney, “Darkest Hour” (2017) turning Gary Oldman into a dead ringer for Winston Churchill, and “Suicide Squad” (2016) making A-listers like Margot Robbie and Jared Leto into comic book characters Harley Quinn and the Joker.

Also in “Joker’s” favor is the fact that its makeup and hair is integral to the story, which succeeds in keeping voters’ attention always on the craft. Phoenix’s character experiments with several different makeup techniques throughout the film, eventually settling on the now-iconic clown-like white face paint, red faux smile, blue eye triangles and lime green hair.

The aforementioned “Suicide Squad” victory meant it was the second such Oscar victory this century for a film depicting the Joker, following Heath Ledger‘s posthumous Best Supporting Actor triumph in “The Dark Knight” (2008). Do Oscar voters simply have a soft spot for the DC Comics baddie? If so, that bodes well for “Joker’s” chances at the 2020 ceremony.

Many awards watchers thought “The Dark Knight” would make it into the Best Picture lineup in 2009. After all, it had a 94% score at Rotten Tomatoes and earned eight overall Oscar noms including — yep — Best Makeup & Hairstyling thanks mostly to Ledger’s impressive Joker getup. Following an outcry over its snub for Best Picture, the following year the Academy Awards doubled the number of Best Picture contenders in the hopes more box office-friendly films would earn recognition. Now, 11 years later, “Joker” could take advantage of that rule change as it comes in eighth place in Gold Derby’s racetrack odds for Best Picture.

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