Makeup and Hairstyling make the man (and woman) when it comes to biopics at the Oscars

“Actor X loses him/herself in a role.” “So-and-so’s performance was transformative.” “They literally become this real-life person.”

We’ve heard statements along those lines so many times over the years when critics and movie journalists are talking about an actor’s performance in a biopic. Usually, that praise is well-earned, but rarely is the work by the makeup artists and hair stylists adequately acknowledged, especially the prosthetics makeup artists who need to do a lot of the often-overlooked work to alter an actor’s features to be more in line with the real-life people they’re portraying.

Whether it’s Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” or Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” the actors pull off near-perfect impersonations with help from the prosthetics that do a lot of the heavy lifting in transforming them.

In the past few years we’ve seen many makeup nominees come from biographical movies. Last year the artists on “Hillbilly Elegy” didn’t win the Oscar for their work making Glenn Close look like the more age-worn Mamaw, but they did help Close get her astounding eighth nomination. The Oscar for Makeup and Hairstyling instead went to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in large part for making Oscar nominee Viola Davis look like the real-life title character. Makeup and hairstyling certainly helped them become their characters and thus earn their nominations.

Adam McKay’s “Vice” (2018) got eight Oscar nominations, including three acting noms, but the prize it won was Best Makeup and Hairstyling for turning Christian Bale into former veep Dick Cheney. Jay Roach’s “Bombshell” (2019) was less of an Oscar player overall with just three nominations, but it was the makeup team’s work transforming Best Actress contender Charlize Theron into Fox News personality Megyn Kelly and the non-nominated John Lithgow into slimy Fox News leader Roger Ailes that won that movie its Oscar.

This year two biographical movies have been shortlisted for Makeup and Hairstyling at the Oscars, as well as receiving multiple nominations from the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild (MUAHS): the Ridley Scott-directed “House of Gucci” and Michael Showalter‘s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” In both cases, actual makeup artists and hair stylists who regularly work on making actors look good in film and television decide the contenders, singling out the fine work done by their peers.

In Gold Derby’s combined Best Makeup and Hairstyling odds at the Oscars, “Tammy Faye” is the current favorite to win, though “Gucci” also has heavy support for a nomination. In the Best Actress race, Jessica Chastain (“Tammy Faye”) and Lady Gaga (“Gucci”) are both likely nominees as of this writing. The deciding factor in the makeup face-off may end up being if Leto receives a nomination in Best Supporting Actor for a “Gucci” performance that has divided the critics. His transformation into Paolo Gucci, the black sheep of the fashion empire, couldn’t have been achieved without adding many pounds and quite a bit of age and hair loss to the good-looking rock star/actor. Leto received a SAG nomination, as did Chastain and Gaga, which is always a good sign for Oscars.

Similarly, the glamorous Chastain’s physical transformation into televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker helped people believe her as the high-profile television star who more people probably know than Paolo Gucci, which may be why Gold Derby predictors trust in “Tammy Faye.” It could be “Vice” and “Bombshell” and “Darkest Hour” all over again, where the crafts award goes to the film that turned its star into a more familiar biographical figure.

We can go back in time to find a number of other biopics that won the Oscar in the Makeup and Hairstyling category. “Frida,” starring Best Actress nominee Salma Hayek as artist Frida Khalo; “La Vie en Rose,” starring Best Actress winner Marion Cotillard as singer Edith Piaf; and Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” featuring Best Supporting Actor winner Martin Landau as actor Bela Lugosi are a few other examples of winners that helped actors transform.

Makeup artists and hairstylists rarely get the attention they deserve despite having so much to do with helping actors inhabit these roles, which require those actors to work even harder to perform through the necessary makeup, not to mention spending many, many hours in the makeup chair each day. But at least the Oscars are there to take notice.

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