Has Hollywood’s Prosthetics Problem Become Too Distracting for Cinema?

Jared Leto is unrecognizable as Paolo Gucci in 'House of Gucci' Credit: United Artists Releasing
Underneath all of that makeup, bodysuits, fake noses, and layers of prosthetics are the actors that we were all excepting to see on screen. 

Acting is about transforming oneself into another being both psychologically and physically. Many well-known actors take this transformation seriously, adopting the character’s persona for their own during the time of filming. 

This is method acting. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the acting technique, actors have started to become the character quite literally. From weight gain to weight loss to hours of makeup, the physical change of the actors' bodies to make them look like someone else has become a stunt to get people talking, and it works. 

The newest transformation requires latex, turning well-known stars into unrecognizable people—a compliment to any prestige film or series if an actor is labeled as "unrecognizable." This effect is created through makeup, costume, and "natural-looking" prosthetics

Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball in 'Being the Ricardos'Credit: Amazon Studios

Prosthetics seems to be the hot go-to effect this season as it is used for Jessica Chastain's as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp in Impeachment: American Crime Story, Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos, and for Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci. The craft is very theatrical, taking a technique used for the stage and finding a place for it in modern-day cinema to make actors look like the real-life person.

To play Paolo in House of Gucci, the part-time rock star and cult leader dons a bald cap and heavy layer of prosthetics on his face and body to make his nose more bulbous, cheeks plumper, and achieve a double chin without gaining weight. While Leto does look unrecognizable in the role, he doesn’t look or transform into Paolo Gucci. Instead, he looks kind of like Paolo Gucci. 

Leto’s performance of Paolo was fun with his Super Mario accent and layers of sweat pouring down his brightly colored suits, but was he embodying the character he was supposed to be? There might have been other actors out there that could have captured Paolo’s essence, but they wouldn’t have had Leto’s box-office allure. 

Jared Leto as Paolo Gucci in 'House of Gucci'Credit: United Artists Releasing

The problem many have with prosthetics is that it has become a distraction and a form of Hollywood gatekeeping, only allowing beloved actors who look similar or nothing like the character they are portraying to become the character through layers of latex and bodysuits. "Unrecognizable" becomes when they’ve erased themselves for a character that looks uncanny and unfamiliar. 

The uncanny feeling could be the result of excess, which seems to be the point in House of Gucci. In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the prosthetics round out Chastain’s tarantula-like mascara and hard-line eyebrows to accentuate the character’s inability to find the woman she is—to a point. Tammy Faye eventually learns who she is and what she wants from her televised persona. Some feel the prosthetic Chastain can’t translate that to the screen. 

It is hard for people playing heavily televised or photographed characters to not want to tweak their appearance to look like characters, yet the result pushes the actors into the uncanny valley of overly literal biopics. Think of when Charlize Theron wore prosthetic eyelids and got plugs in her nose to make it resemble Megyn Kelly’s nose for Bombshell.

Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly in 'Bombshell'Credit: Lionsgate

Biopics attempt to adopt the real world through prosthetics but often fail to make the story feel real because of messy development and facts that skew the story. Fiction begins to fill the gaps, and we are left with a story that is inspired by the truth, but that doesn't seem to be good enough. 

It may be easier to think about an actor’s physical transformation rather than ask why we care so much about the illusion of historical accuracy. Many of these transformations take place when a light-skinned, thin, able-bodied, conventionally attractive performer is cast and transformed to look other for a part before they return to the privileges of their status once the job is over. Sarah Paulson quickly got over the fact that she wore a fat suit for her role as Tripp in Impeachment after telling Los Angeles Times that when she considers everything she went through for the part, she regrets, “...not thinking about [the fat suit] fully.” 

What is considered acceptable and praisable is allowing well-known actors to become what they are not instead of allowing other actors whose looks resemble the character to be cast. Consider the history of blackface, yellowface, and brownface in cinema that is still happening. Do we value imitation over acting? 

In the same conversation about prosthetics, one of the most talked-about performances this fall is Kristen Stewart’s interpretation of Princess Diana in Spencer. The film is billed as a “fable from a true tragedy,” creating a space between the real-life incident and the fictional telling of the tragic famous figure’s breakdown and newfound strength over the Christmas festivities. Stewart doesn’t look like Diana. In fact, Stewart’s jawline is different, she is five inches shorter, and her eyes are green instead of blue, yet the critics and general public don’t seem to be bothered by this. 

Kristen Stewart's portrayal of Princess Diana in 'Spencer'Credit: Neon

The same can be said for Lady Gaga’s character in House of Gucci. To age Gaga up, prosthetics were considered, but her team opted to use makeup instead, lightening Gaga’s skin tone and using taupe colors to bring out nasal folds. Changing Gaga’s face completely would have taken the audience out of the story as we stare at the unrecognizable actress, wondering why they would make her look so different as she sits in a courtroom, trying to convince us she didn’t murder her husband. 

We are aware that this story is just that—a story dreamed up by the screenwriter and director. It’s an imagining of what could have been happening rather than what did happen. 

Perhaps the benefit of making yourself look unrecognizable is to hide the self, allowing you to transform into the character by physically being them. It is a layer of protection, armor to shield yourself from the critiques and comments on how you don't look like the person, but you could almost be them if your nose was smaller or jawline was not as sharp. By stripping away the self, there is somebody else on screen, free to be who everyone else wants them to be. 

What are your thoughts on actors making themselves unrecognizable? Is the transformation distracting or an achievement? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!      

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3 Comments

Imagine my surprise when I couldn’t find John Hurt anywhere in The Elephant Man! Yes, this prosthetics business has to stop.

November 29, 2021 at 6:29AM

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No.

November 29, 2021 at 9:36AM

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Grant Vetters
Director
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Eh. Sorry. I came to this article with an open mind waiting to hear what the problem is but I don't see it. The comparison between Jared Leto putting on prosthetics to someone wearing blackface is faulty to say the least. Blackface, brownface, etc are all terribly offensive because they are simultaneously mocking a race of people while also removing their representation on-screen. It's offensive and cruel. None of the examples cited above, however, come close to that standard.

Speaking strictly from a craft perspective, the idea that we should identify the best actor for the part based on their looks alone is backwards and I would argue is problematic in and of itself. We want to cast actors who can actually act and who the audience will enjoy watching. After all, this is meant to be entertaining. Just because an actor looks the part doesn't mean they're any good at playing it. Yes, you might be able to find someone who looks more like Paolo Gucci than Jared Leto but are they any good at acting? Can they draw an audience into a film like House of Gucci (which is already struggling at the Box Office when it's facing COVID and competing with Encanto)?

This argument is also problematic in that it places value on what the actor looks like rather than their talent as an actor. The scrutiny of Kristen Stewart's jawline and height is just silly and borderline offensive. She was able to play the part because she has talent that she has nurtured over many years. Actors can nurture talent. Beyond plastic surgery, they can't nurture their jawline or height. Prosthetics simply give the filmmakers a way to maintain suspension of disbelief and create a look more similar to the real-life figure. You can argue about whether it worked but to sit there and say that the shape of her jawline is problematic is borderline body shaming.

It's also just laughable that we would call this a representation problem. "How dare they cast a white American woman to play a white British woman!" Come on.

I don't think Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman or any of the other examples cited above were stealing a role from underrepresented minorities. It is certainly fair to say that we must be open to new talent and give roles to actors who maybe aren't as famous. But we don't know what the casting process looked like or what the calculus was in hiring these more famous actors to play the parts. Maybe they tried to find someone new and couldn't. Or maybe the producers simply felt they needed a big name to draw an audience in to see an adult drama at the theater (a genre that's struggling more and more these days). At the end of the day, the actors chosen seem to have been chosen based on the merit of their talents and were simply made to look more like the parts they were playing which made the movies more interesting to watch. You can argue about whether they pulled it off or if it was distracting but the argument that it's problematic seems half-baked.

December 1, 2021 at 5:49AM, Edited December 1, 5:59AM

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Dale Raphael Goldberg
Writer / Director
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