There’s an old joke in Hollywood; how do you depict an ugly woman in a movie? You take a beautiful woman and put glasses on her.
The most notorious example is 1991’s Frankie and Johnny, in which the role of dowdy waitress Frankie was rewritten from the 1966 original for Kathy Bates and the part went to Michelle Pfeiffer.
In movieland, where they don’t have ugly, fat, untalented, retarded or stupid people, it’s the ultimate statement of dedication to your craft (and a dead cert for at least an Oscar nomination) to portray a disabled or plain-looking character under layers of careful performance and prosthetic make-up. Think Sean Penn (I Am Sam), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) or Nicole Kidman (The Hours).
Child star and TV personality Danny Bonaduce recently summed up the new de rigeur by describing ‘ugly as the new retarded’, referring to the character of choice for today’s ‘serious’ actors in indie or vanity projects.
It’s easy to be cynical about Hollywood films that win awards on the strength of beautiful people ‘dressing down’. From their security-patrolled, diamond-encrusted fishbowl, being ugly, poor, disabled or desperate must be really interesting to watch.
When moviemakers embrace aspects of life that are par for the course for the vast majority of humanity, it’s a curiously groundbreaking, world-beating film experience for them.
Think 1995’s Heavy, which depicted a sensitive fat guy who thought he’d never find love because of his weight and won every award under the sun for it! Top marks for the writer for realising that there’s someone in the world who can’t afford plastic surgery’
Ironically, the sharpest barb at the whole downward-transformation phenomenon actors and award-hungry producers love came from Hollywood itself, when the heroine from 2001’s Not Another Teen Movie was ‘the pretty ugly girl’.
Played by the appropriately attractive 20 year old Chyler Leigh, several references are made throughout the movie to her being ugly because she has a ponytail, glasses, and overalls stained with paint. She only needs to put on a gorgeous prom dress to be transformed into an utter babe.
Some will remember a similar character in Tony Danza vehicle She’s Out of Control, where the geeky, dorky girl (Ami Dolenz) is made a teenage goddess simply by removing braces and getting contact lenses. More recently, Sandra Bullock is portrayed as a misfit in eccentric clothes in Two Weeks Notice until she falls in love with millionaire playboy Hugh Grant and starts dressing normally, whereupon we can see her as beautiful like he can.
But in the last couple of years, the practice of ‘uglying up’ for a serious role has been taken to media-buzz level. All the talk about Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose last year as Virginia Woolf drowned out any critical comment on the movie (and overshadowed the fact that many people found her performance ay below par).
And now we see one of the most svelte women in Hollywood, Charlize Theron, winning the highest accolade there is for her portrayal of trailer trash serial killer Aileen Wuornos. She put on a pile of weight (changing her body shape to that of a real woman instead of a drinking straw with tits), and much ado was made of the fact that the only prosthetics attached to Theron were the teeth.
The greasy mullet hair and pasty, patchy skin on her face was the result of the makeup trailer, and the trash-talking southern scrag was entirely her performance. But there’s a snag; Theron’s performance — while good — was forced, uncomfortable and probably not deserving of an Oscar.
Maybe it was a slow year for female actor in a leading role? Hardly. Most critics were floored by Naomi Watts in 21 Grams, and Keisha Castle-Hughes out-acted a whole Oscar after party worth of bleached bimbos in the single school performance scene in Whale Rider.
No, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (to say nothing of the mainstream American filmmaking establishment) just love it when a beautiful female star makes a strong statement by making herself so physically repulsive for her craft it’s enough to have executive screenings collectively choking on their Evian water.
To the rest of us it’s amazing not because of the transformation of a previously stunning woman, but because we’re so unused to seeing people on the movie screens who look like the rest of us.
It’s enough to make you wonder why they didn’t just get some pasty-faced, trash-talking, out of work actor from Florida to do the part in the first place.