It’s actors’ job to completely immerse themselves in the characters they portray. Some have gone the way of gaining or losing varying amounts of weight in order to alter their appearance for a role. But, there’s only so many physical alterations these performers can make to their features. For the rest we rely on the magic (or lack thereof) of movie make-up and prosthetics. At their best, prosthetics ease the viewer into their suspension of disbelief, at their worst, they become distractions that hamper the performance at stake. In Foxcatcher, Steve Carell’s chilling transformation into John du Pont is aided by a prosthetic nose. It will be up to viewers to decide how convincing that transformation is. To help you decide where Carell’s nose falls on the prosthetic scale, here are the five best and five worst movie prosthetics:
*I’m steering clear of including many of the famous or infamous horror/sci-fi prosthetics so we can appreciate the variance of the art form.
5. Nick Stahl- Sin City
When Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City blasted its way into theatres in 2005, audiences were mesmerized by the film’s stylistic choices. But none of the computer generated effects would have carried any weight if it wasn’t for the fantastic prosthetics work by the make-up department. While Mickey Rourke’s transformation into Marv is definitely noteworthy, Nick Stahl’s Yellow Bastard is the highlight of the film. Covered with a prosthetic nose, ears, head, and stomach, Stahl is unrecognizable and utterly convincing in taking on the absurdity of the character
4. Gary Oldman- Hannibal
Gary Oldman is one of the great chameleons of the acting world and his turn as Mason Verger in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal gave new meaning to that notion. He performed the role anonymously by having his name removed from the billing and credits during the film’s theatrical run. With his face and neck completely covered in latex skin, all traces of Oldman’s features were removed. The result is one of disturbingly realistic uses of prosthetics.
3. Joseph Gordon Levitt- Looper
In Rian Johnson’s time-travel film, Looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt donned a prosthetic nose and lips in order to create a greater resemblance to Bruce Willis. Some have claimed the results were distracting, partially because we have so much photographic evidence of what young Bruce Willis looked like. But the effects work is so wonderfully done that it’s easy to forget what Gordon-Levitt actually looks like. The prosthetics in Looper allowed for one of the most creative depictions of a character in two different timelines, played by different actors.
2. Dustin Hoffman-Little Big Man
In Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, 33 year-old Dustin Hoffman was transformed into the 121 Jack Crabb. Dick Smith (who died earlier this year) created a prosthetic face piece for Hoffman by using photographic references to design every wrinkle. Even by today’s make-up standards the results hold up extremely well, especially considering that age effects are one of the hardest to do convincingly. Little Big Man was one of Smith’s first make-up jobs outside of the television industry. He went on to work on The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, Scanners, Amadeus, and the final film on this portion of the list.
1. Marlon Brando- The Godfather
Marlon Brando’s physical transformation into Don Vito Corleone is so simplistically successful that it was years after seeing the film before I knew there was any prosthetic work involved at all. Dick Smith fitted Brando’s mouth with a dental device that filled his jaws in order to give him the jowly look that also altered his speech patterns. The device was only used because Brando refused to sit through the application of other age altering appliances. So who’s the genius on this one? Brando or Smith?
Honorable Mention: Nicole Kidman in The Hours
5. Leonardo DiCaprio-J. Edgar
The actors in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar fall victim to the use of too many prosthetic appliances. The make-up looks too heavy and DiCaprio’s prosthetic cheeks, and chin have a noticeable plasticity to them. This is an instance of a director not relying on the power of the actors’ performances, and as a result, the effects artists try too hard to turn the actors into exact replicas of the historical figures they’re playing, a result that could never be effectively achieved.
4. John Travolta-Hairspray
Never go full Klump, Travolta! I don’t know much about the original musical, so I don’t know if a man traditionally plays the role of Edna Turnblad, but in any case John Travolta’s bosomy transformation is disturbing to say the least. Fit with rubbery looking facial prosthetics that were never enough to hide his masculine features, Travolta tried his hardest to be comically convincing in Adam Shankman’s Hairspray. While there’s an understandable lack of realism in many musicals, I think we can all agree this is a step too far.
3. Winonna Ryder in Edward Scissorhands
Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton’s most beautiful movie, and excluding the old age prosthetics used in the film’s bookends, it’s may be his finest work. Instead of making Winona Ryder’s Kim Boggs into a gracefully aging woman, Burton decided to turn her into an apple head doll. This is the stuff of nightmares.
2. Shawn Wayans and Marlon Wayans White Chicks
Race-bending just doesn’t work in movies. The only time it’s been effective was for the self-aware satirical purposes of Tropic Thunder and the thematic purposes of Cloud Atlas. The Wayans Brothers assaulted our minds and eyes with their atrocious looking prosthetic faces. The prosthetics never seemed to cling tightly enough to their faces to make them look like they weren’t melting. I don’t know if such a thing could ever be done well, but I surely hope no one ever attempts to try again.
1. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
I think this speaks for itself, and no, the time period in which it was made does not excuse it.
Dishonorable Mention: John Travolta in Battlefield Earth (Sorry Travolta!)