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

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'J. Edgar'

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

To be fair, "Cloud Atlas" is so overrun by goofy makeup you suspect an intentional playfulness at the edges. On the other hand, as Burwell told me, "because we are surrounded by human faces every day, makeup artists don't have to do very much before they are unintentionally creating, like, monsters, repellent things."

Like, oh, last year's "J. Edgar?" A film in which Leonardo DiCaprio, in the title role, played a bulldog/human hybrid, and Armie Hammer, as his longtime confidant, aged from a G Man into the Incredible Melting Man.

It was science fiction.

Are filmmakers too close to their work to see this? Don't their makeup people see what audiences plainly see?

"Yes, we do. We talk about this all the time," Howard Berger told me. His makeup career stretches back to Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead II." He's one the makeup guys on TV's "The Walking Dead." He won an Oscar in 2006 for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." And this fall he has crammed Anthony Hopkins into an impressive fat suit to play director Alfred Hitchcock in the upcoming "Hitchcock."

"The key to getting it right is testing," Berger said. "You always need time. I had many weeks to test with Anthony Hopkins. We went through six different looks. The first one, frankly, was very Fat Bastard (as in Austin Powers). You never get it straight unless you test and test and test. And then see what it looks like on film. Our Fat Bastard, though, we thought he looked great, until we saw the dailies. It was not great. Truthfully, first thing the filmmakers said was, 'No "J. Edgar." We don't want "J. Edgar."' I said the way to avoid 'J. Edgar' is (to) test."

The challenge, he said, was preserving the "essence" of Hitchcock without losing the feel of Hopkins. That said, "actual film is more forgiving than digital, which blows up every crease. There is no hiding anymore."

"Hitchcock" shot digitally.

Which may be why, as impressive as Berger's Hitchcock makeup is, as crease-free as the prosthetics appear, you wonder if Hopkins is wearing a helmet made of meat. It's a feeling, I think, that doesn't have a lot to do with the makeup artist and more to do with casting. Bill Murray can get away with just a pair of fake teeth while playing FDR in the upcoming "Hyde Park on Hudson" because the film never really attempts to make him look like the former president. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Looper," after a moment of adjustment, seems to be given only slightly flatter features, just enough to suggest he's playing a young Bruce Willis.

But casting Hopkins, who looks nothing like Hitchcock, somewhat creates a problem. As Burwell said: "The big thing is you don't try to put one face on top of another. That's the key. You want them to look believable as a character, not the same. You are not cloning people. But if you focus on a few key elements, it will work."

Of course, it helps "Lincoln" that Day-Lewis — whom Spielberg films in extreme close-ups, as though daring you to find a flaw in his appearance — is vaguely physically reminiscent of the Great Emancipator.

"My kids get really upset when we cast them by body shape and type and look, but that is a really painful lesson in casting," said Julie Ann Robinson, the theater director at Glenbrook North. It's also why she said she will not slap some gray on a student's temples and cast him as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman." In fact, she won't stage the play at all. She can't believably age anyone into the role, and even if she could, she doesn't feel any of her students could summon enough existential pain to make us forget the makeup.

But that didn't stop her from declaring this "the year of deformed protagonists" at Glenbrook North. She put on "Phantom of the Opera" last spring and "Elephant Man" last month.

"Next month we're doing 'Scapino,' a silly play. I'll have some students as cranky old men, give them a brow line, some shading in their faces, maybe facial hair. But we're not going to make it obvious — we're not doing 'Cloud Atlas' here."

Twitter @borrelli

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