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Getting ugly for Oscar

For Hollywood’s most beautiful people, masking their looks can help win awards. By Ellen A. Kim
/ Source: contributor

The biggest shock following last week’s Oscar nominations was not that “Cold Mountain” didn’t get nominated for best picture, or even that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman both got shut out.

The surprise was that Charlize Theron’s makeup artist was overlooked.

After all, the statuesque South African beauty needed more than acting chops to transform into the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster,” for which she received her first nomination. (She is widely considered the front-runner for best actress). She needed the prosthetics to make her skin dry and leathery, airbrushing to make her complexion mottled, and gelatin to make her eyelids droop. Add some ratty blond hair, shaved-off eyebrows, 30 extra pounds, fake teeth and a diet of potato chips, soy sauce and miso soup to upkeep her “bloated” look, and ta-da! Beauty is no longer the distraction.

Theron’s transformation is possibly the most brazen since Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds for “Raging Bull.” It’s the kind of performance critics call “brave” because the actor has gone the extra mile to demonstrate his or her dedication to a part.

Being taken seriously can be an uphill climb for stars more often found on People’s 50 Most Beautiful People list than on a critics’ choice list. To counteract those glossy images, stars dirty themselves up, wear funny wigs, gain or lose weight, and (gasp!) wear little or no makeup.

And Oscar has responded, handing its highest awards the last few years to glamorous actors who took unglamorous roles to showcase their range. Doing this also gives the star a new level of respect and a chance to break typecasting. But does going ugly always do the trick? See some of Hollywood’s most extreme make-unders and decide for yourself.

Brad Pitt, “Twelve Monkeys”
Pre-makeover roles: Golden hunk and Geena Davis boytoyTransforming role: Insane inmate Jeffrey GoinesHow he did it: He donned asylum scrubs, an uneven shave, plenty of bruises, self-cut hair and some crazy contact lenses. Plus, director Terry Gilliam reportedly took away his cigarettes to help him achieve his nervous, rapid speech pattern.Critics said: “Exuberant and nervous, and it looks as if Pitt is starting to learn something about his craft” (San Francisco Examiner)Payoff: Scored a Golden Globe and his only Oscar nomination to date, losing the supporting-actor category in 1996 to Kevin Spacey (“The Usual Suspects”). He hasn’t gone ugly since, unless you count his unintelligible Irish boxer in “Snatch.”

Hilary Swank, “Boys Don’t Cry”
Pre-makeover roles: “90210” single mom, Mr. Miyagi’s pupil in ‘The Next Karate Kid’Transforming role: Girl posing as a boy named Brandon TeenaHow she did it: She lost weight, strapped down breasts, cut her hair short (“I looked like Matt Damon,” she admitted), and adopted male mannerismsCritics said: “Extraordinary,” “a revelation” Payoff: Swank was the Cinderella of the 2000 Oscars, winning over Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep and Janet McTeer. Co-starring in “Insomnia” with Al Pacino helped boost her profile, but her career has stalled since.

Tom Cruise, “Born on the Fourth of July”
Pre-makeover roles: Cocky hotshot, charmer with a big grinTransforming role: Vietnam vet-turned-anti-war crusader Ron KovicHow he did it: He used wigs and props to become balding, mustachioed, straggly haired and wheelchair-bound.Critics said: “Brave, thoughtful, expansive performance”Payoff: While the guy known then for “Top Gun” and dancing in his underwear scored his first nomination, he lost to Daniel Day-Lewis for “My Left Foot.” But you can’t sink Cruise: he remained the box-office champ, scored two more nominations and has worked with a more diverse set of directors than anyone on the list (save for ex-wife Nicole).

Nicole Kidman, “The Hours”
Pre-makeover roles: Luminous heartbreaker, untouchable beauty, whether in period or action filmsTransforming role: Dowdy, sullen, suicidal writer Virginia WoolfHow she did it: She donned a mousy wig, changed her walk to a shuffle, slouched her shoulders, adopted a British accent, and – oh yeah – wore that prosthetic nose.Critics said: “The graceful, athletic Kidman morphs into an angular, tightly wound cerebral artist racked by hallucinations and voices.”Payoff: Kidman’s first Oscar, beating other best actress candidates Renee Zellweger, Julianne Moore, Salma Hayek and Diana Lane. Now she tops the A-list, with her pick of any indie project (“Dogville” with Lars Von Trier) or big-budget comedy, such as big-screen version of “Bewitched” that's coming soon.

Russell Crowe, “The Insider”
Pre-makeover roles: Brawny bully, sleek cyber villain to Denzel Washington in “Virtuosity”Transforming role: Timid, angry scientist/tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey WigandHow he did it: He put on 40 pounds, donned glasses, blond thinning hair and a few boring suits, and erased his rugged Australian accent. Critics said: “A triumph,” “virtually disappears”Payoff: Lost the best actor race to Kevin Spacey (“American Beauty”) but won the following year as the burly hero of “Gladiator.” Some say the win was partially to make up for his “Insider” loss. Continues to alter his appearance for the parts he wants. Received raves for “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

Honorable mentions
Halle Berry: Despite going haggard for “Jungle Fever” and “Losing Isaiah,” the ex-Miss Ohio was best known for babe roles. Then she pulled out a raw performance without makeup or hair styling as a Southern waitress in “Monster’s Ball” and walked off with best actress award in 2002. She’s since become a Bond girl, action star (“Catwoman” comes out this year), and Revlon spokesmodel.

Leonardo DiCaprio: The “Growing Pains” co-star was 19 when he wore a mouthpiece and attended autistic school to play Johnny Depp's mentally retarded brother in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” Though he lost 1994's best supporting actor award to Tommy Lee Jones (“The Fugitive”), he quickly bounced back with “Titanic,” still the highest-grossing movie of all time.

Adrien Brody: He played small roles in even smaller movies until he lost more than 30 pounds to play a Holocaust survivor in “The Pianist.” He won the best actor award (and a long smooch with Halle Berry) in 2003.

Elizabeth Taylor: She’d plummeted from the top of her game with the “Cleopatra” disaster when she took on the unglamorous role of a professor’s bickering wife in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” After gaining weight, not wearing makeup and graying her hair to appear older and more boozy, Taylor won her best reviews and her second best actress Oscar in 1967. A stalled career, many fragrances and even more marriages followed.

Ellen A. Kim is a free-lance writer living in Seattle.