Movie makeup: The good, the bad and the 'J. Edgar'

In an era of unprecedented movie wizardry, makeup remains a curious obstacle. And few consistently get it right.

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'J. Edgar'

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in "J. Edgar." (November 9, 2012)

Attention, vampires.

Later this week, while you're watching the final installment in the "Twilight" series, if the quality of the new film is consistent with the earlier films, well, you will probably find yourself wondering if it's just you or do all these bloodsuckers look as though they were dipped in flour. You will ask yourself if their pale faces were courtesy of a two-for-one makeup deal with a road show Kabuki production. You will curse, as I often do lately, the movie makeup gods for pulling you out of the story again and dragging your attention toward laughably dumb-looking face paint, wrinkles and noses. You may even wonder, as I did during the Tom Hanks scenes in "Cloud Atlas," how $100 million can buy whole imaginary worlds but not convincing aging makeup.

I offer hope.

The first evidence of it is Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," and in particular makeup artist Lois Burwell, whose delicate transformation of Daniel Day-Lewis into Lincoln comes as a reminder that movie makeup needn't be amateur hour. She told me his makeup took only 90 minutes a day to apply. She painted every mark on his face, worked primarily by eye (without using photos for consistency). They sat in silence most days. Later, no digital embellishment was added. "The thing about makeup," she said, "is you're doing a good job when people don't notice it. Which means, you're doing yourself a disservice. But the alternative is worse."

Another bright spot is Sean Alvarez.

He is a senior at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook. Last month, while "Cloud Atlas" was sweating overtime to suggest Halle Berry could play a Caucasian society wife and Hugo Weaving was a Korean heavy, Alvarez, cast as Joseph Merrick in his high school production of "The Elephant Man," was playing an infamously deformed man by wearing no makeup at all. Instead he walked with a cane, hunched a shoulder upward slightly and moved at a timid angle to the other actors onstage; when the time came for him to expound on his plight, he did not attempt a mangled, slurping croak but an odd, lilting British chirp.

In the notes of his 1977 play, author Bernard Pomerance anticipates bad makeup: He suggests reproducing Merrick's appearance would be "counterproductive." Though prosthetics are tempting.

"At first I did wonder if going up there with (no makeup) was a mistake," Alvarez said. "Except I hate bad makeup. It draws you out. I knew it would be less annoying to an audience to not wear prosthetics. Audiences have imaginations."

Out of the mouth of babes.

Can someone at Warner Bros. give this kid $1 million for consulting?

Of course, to be fair, there is a difference between stage makeup, seen from a distance by a live audience, and film makeup on an actor whose visage is several stories high. Or is there?

"Not really," said Nan Zabriskie, the longtime head of the makeup department at DePaul University's Theatre School. She has experience in both mediums. "Ideally, a convincing makeup job should look believable two or 50 feet away," she said. Coincidentally, I saw one of her recent makeup jobs from at least 50 feet away: She did the makeup for Chicago actor Michael Shannon in the Broadway production of "Grace." In the show, Shannon, whose character was in a car accident that left half of his face disfigured, is always in the makeup, and he rarely leaves the stage.

The script called for bandages. Zabriskie had a better idea: deep, pale scars, mostly obscured beneath a plastic medical mask. From my lousy last-row seat at the Cort Theatre in New York, the effect was eerie.

After a while I didn't really think about makeup or notice it. It's a lesson in less-is-more, Zabriskie said. Consider the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, which recently complained about non-Asian actors in "Cloud Atlas" playing Asians. The group sounded more aesthetically offended than racially offended.

"Every major male character in the Korean (part of the film) is played by non-Asian actors in really bad yellowface makeup," the group's president told London's Guardian newspaper. "The Asian-Americans at the screening burst out laughing."

As we head into Oscar season — a marvelous time when latex abounds — this is not a minor point.

It is, rather, a blind spot, a weirdly persistent problem for a business increasingly committed to fantasy universes and extraordinarily believable fake things. Movies still can't get human beings right. In the trailer for the upcoming "Gangster Squad," Sean Penn, playing real-life mobster Mickey Cohen, peers out beneath so much head-widening latex that he resembles an "Outer Limits" alien. Or no: one of the caricatures from Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy." And that's not even the worse noggin I've seen in a movie lately: "Cloud Atlas," again, with its cast playing multiple roles set in different time periods and worlds, is like a master class on bad makeup.

Where to begin?

Korean actress Doona Bae, given freckles, white face paint and a fussy courtesan Britishness, had me thinking about the intentionally stylized works of artist Cindy Sherman, known for transforming her physical appearance in photographs. It also had me thinking of the "Uncanny Valley," the term that engineers use to describe the slight sense of unease people get when they see a robot that comes across as a little too lifelike.

The Un-Uncanny Valley, anyone?

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