Oscars: How Best Makeup and Hairstyling boosts the lead acting categories

For casual moviegoers, there may only be a peripheral connection between the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category at the Oscars and the lead acting contenders on which that makeup is applied and whose hair is styled. For the longest time, this race was all about the special FX makeup, prosthetics and the like for genre films. The original 1968 “Planet of the Apes,” Rick Baker’s work on “An American Werewolf in London” in 1981, and the makeup effects for David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” are all examples of that.

In recent years, it has become more about making an actor look like the real-life person they’re playing. In fact, I wrote more about this very thing last year when “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “House of Gucci” were in the mix, although only the former helped actress Jessica Chastain on her way to winning her first Oscar. Neither Lady Gaga nor Jared Leto were nominated for “Gucci,” and it only received that single Oscar nomination for its hair and makeup.

It’s somewhat of a given that actors starring in biopics, portraying well-known people, may require some added makeup to make them look more like the people they’re portraying. That fact has created an undeniable link between the two categories, where the hair and makeup teams that worked on an Oscar-nominated actor will often get their own nomination. Bear in mind that there are 20 acting slots and only five Best Makeup and Hairstyling nominations each year, so it doesn’t always happen, though it’s regular enough to be considered a trend.

Let’s look at a few examples of the movies and performances where this was the case. Similar to Chastain transforming into Tammy Faye Baker, Meryl Streep required quite a lot of makeup to make her look more like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” in 2011. Streep gave a performance worthy of her 17th nomination – she’s gotten four more since then – and few were surprised when both she and her makeup team won that year.

In 2018, Gary Oldman finally won his first Oscar for playing a British Prime Minster in “Darkest Hour,” in this case playing Winston Churchill, which required a lot of makeup to give Oldman the proper girth to play the famously big-boned Churchill. Oldman and the makeup and hair by Kazu Hiro, David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick were the film’s only two wins. Hiro would win a second Oscar two years later for his work on “Bombshell,” most likely for helping turn John Lithgow into the lecherous and overweight Fox leader Roger Aisles, although the two-time Oscar nominee himself wasn’t nominated. That was also the only Oscar that movie won.

The year before that, “Vice” won the Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar, and three of the movie’s actors received nominations, but clearly, the work done to transform Christian Bale into former Vice President Dick Cheney played a large part in that movie’s sole Oscar win.

2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club” featured performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto that were deserving of their wins in their respective categories. Right along with them was the nomination for makeup and hair specialists, Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews, who made them look more like the real people they were playing.

Marion Cotillard was mostly unknown in the States before she won an Oscar for portraying Edith Piaf in the 2007 biopic “La Vie en Rose,” so maybe it wasn’t as clear how much makeup was involved to transform her. Sure enough, that was the only other Oscar category the film won.

Another example of a makeup/hairstyling winner that helped an actor transform into a real person was that for “Frida,” and though Salma Hayek didn’t win for her portrayal of Frida Kahlo, she did get a nomination.

This year should be particularly interesting, because there are two Best Makeup and Hairstyling nominees, “Elvis” and “The Whale,” that directly connect to an actor’s performance. Austin Butler is playing a real person, i.e. Elvis Presley in the former, which might give him a slight advantage in the category, but the prosthetic makeup used to turn Brendan Fraser into a 600-pound shut-in is favorited to win its category. Although Fraser isn’t playing a real person, a lot of his performance was enhanced by having to wear such heavy prosthetics while giving said performance, and Academy members should realize that. (This year’s Best Actress race doesn’t have a corresponding makeup/hairstyling nomination.)

Oddly, “The Batman” also received a Best Makeup and Hairstyling nomination, primarily for the makeup used to turn Colin Farrell into The Penguin, while Farrell is also in the race for Best Actor against Butler and Fraser but for a different movie, “The Banshees of Inisherin.” That’s a good example of special makeup effects for a genre film being nominated, although it’s unlikely this will pull a surprise win the way “Suicide Squad” did in 2016.

That’s also not to discount the great work done by the makeup and hairstyling teams on “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but it’s harder to make a mark without a single standout performance that shows off that work. Fortunately, those movies are nominated in enough other categories that being an outlier in this category shouldn’t matter much.

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