Oscar: Body Matters–Awards for Gaining/Losing Weight

The best way to win awards in Hollywood is to plaster a young face with old-age makeup. Artificial aging is interpreted as an infallible sign of “character” for those who confuse the art of acting with the art of disguise.

Andrew Sarris

Does anyone today remember Jocelyn LaGarde?  In 1966, LaGarde was inexplicably nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Hawaii, the tepid adaptation of James Michener’s sprawling novel.

The tale concerns a 1820s Yale divinity student (Max von Sydow), who becomes a missionary in the Hawaiian Islands. LaGarde had never acted before and didn’t even speak English; she learned the role phonetically with a coach. She gained attention solely based on her weight–north of 400 pounds!

Size, or rather weight, matters, when the Oscar race is concerned. This year, the three frontrunners for the Best Actor Oscar are all performers in some form of disguise. To play the legendary musician Ray Charles (who was blind) in “Ray,” Jamie Foxx had lost over 30 pounds. As the Spaniard writer Ramon Sampedro, who fought for three decades to end his life with dignity, Javier Bardem is playing a physically immobile man who’s much older than his own age. The brilliant Johnny Depp, who received a Best Actor nomination last year for plating an eccentric pirate in “The Pirates of the Carribean,” is back in the Oscar race this year with “Finding Neverland,” as Scottish playwright J. M. Barrie, working in London on the magical children’s play, “Peter Pan.”

The entire publicity campaign for the new, severely flawed indie, The Machinist, seems to revolve around the substantial weight loss of its star, Christian Bale, who several years ago gained publicity for putting on weight and pumping up iron to play the lead in “American Psycho.”

Last year, Oscar winner Charlize Theron did such a radical act of physical transformation–adding 30 pounds, wearing false teeth and heavy makeup–that she was barely recognizable in “Monster.” It did help that she played a flashy real-life role, serial-killer-prostitute-lesbian Aileen Wuornos. In 2002, Nicole Kidman did not gain or lose weight for playing Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” but there’s no doubt that the prosthetic nose and unglamorous wardrobe, which concealed her natural beauty and elegance, were major ingredients of her performance. Kidman’s co-winner that year, Adrien Brody, shed over 30 pounds to play the Holocaust survivor in “The Pianist.”

While there are many roads to getting Oscar nominations, some are more effective and success-proof than others. Various forms of eccentricity have characterized both the male and female Oscar-winning performers. And they go way beyond the genre in which their performance are contained. Actors have used tricks such as heavy makeup and onscreen aging to impress the Academy voters. These antics do not necessarily win awards, but they contribute to the overall impact of the performance. Tricks of the trade, such as John Wayne’s eye patch in “True Grit,” make decent acting jobs seem more striking and impressive than they actually are.

Weight–Gain and Loss

At the young age of 33, Elizabeth Taylor portrayed the older, fatter, gray-haired, and foul-mouthed wife of a college professor (Richard Burton) in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Playwright Edward Albee had originally wanted Bette Davis and James Mason for the lead roles. In what was perceived as an act of “courage,” Taylor aged herself to a frumpy fiftysomething woman by means of heavy makeup, weighing in at a hefty 155.

The Academy voters were impressed with Taylor not only downplaying but also subverting her glamorous persona on and off screen.

Taylor’s main competitor that year was Lynne Redgrave, in Georgy Girl, the British comedy that put her on the map. For a decade, Lynn couldn’t shake her screen image as a pathetic ugly duckling, weighing 180 pounds! In 1998, Redgrave received a second (supporting) nomination for “Gods and Monsters,” as director James Whale’s Hungarian housekeeper, for which she affected a thick accent.

Shelley Winters

Shelley Winters’ Oscar history (one lead and three supporting nominations) is a testament to the importance of physical transformation.

In 1951, Winters received her first (lead) nomination for playing a dejected, unappealing working-class girl in “A Place in the Sun.” She won her first Supporting Oscar in 1959 for “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as Mrs. Van Daan, for which she gained considerable weight and excessive mannerisms.

The list of performers to have benefited from a radical gain/loss of weight is too long to recite in its entirety, so here is a brief sample. Victor Buono, as a mother-dominated fat boy in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” Newcomer Cathy Burns received her first Oscar nomination for playing a tormented and bullied overweight girl in “Last Summer.” The otherwise sexy and beautiful Ann-Margret gained at least twenty pounds to play Jack Nicholson’s girlfriend in “Carnal Knowledge.”

Robert De Niro gained fifty-six pounds to play the gluttonous Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” forcing the production to shut down for four months to allow the actor reach the 225 pounds required for the role. LaMotta himself supervised De Niro’s food regime and training for the prizefighting scenes.

James Coco received Academy recognition for playing a hysterical overweight actor in “Only When I Laugh.” Jack Nicholson also bloated for playing the aging, amorous astronaut in “Terms of Endearment” and as mafia don in “Prizzi’s Honor.”

Russell Crowe

Crowe gained considerable weight for “The Insider,” then lost it for “Gladiator.” To impersonate the celeb-prizefighter in “Ali,” Will Smith not only gained weight but also changed his entire posture, physical gestures, and behavioral manners.

Rene Zellweger received considerable attention, and first Oscar nomination, for Bridget Jones’ Diary, for which she gained weight the old-fashioned way, by eating lots of chocolate and pizzas.

Physical Transformation

Based on a lengthy and honorable theatrical tradition, the art of disguise encourages stage players to exploit mimicry and makeup as forms of sensationalism and attention-grabbing. In film, too, heavy makeup and onscreen aging have are embraced by actors to impress the Academy members.

Emil Jannings, the very first Best Actor winner, changed identities from a former Russian general to a Hollywood extra in “The Way of All Flesh.” Fredric March’s makeup transformation in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was of course necessary, contributing to the overall effectiveness of the film itself. March’s makeup man was the first to be acknowledged in his Oscar acceptance speech.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix aged considerably during the thirty-year-span of “Cimarron.” In “Mrs. Parkington,” a story spanning half-a-century, Greer Garson progressed from a boarding-house slave to a wealthy matriarch.

Peter O’Toole changed identities in The Ruling Class with the effortless facility of changing hats. O’Toole played a man who, after the death of his father, becomes the Earl of Gurney, but has enough money and persuasion powers to make people believe he’s Jesus Christ, only to change identities again and become Jack the Ripper.

In 1980, two of the Oscar frontrunners, Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man,” dealt with grotesque human beings. British actor John Hurt received a lead nomination for playing John Merrick, a hideously deformed man who becomes a freak show for the upper class in turn-of-the century England.

Tom Hanks in Big

In “Big,” Tom Hanks played a boy who, frustrated by the restrictions imposed on his age group, wakes up with the body of a thirty-year-old man blessed with a twelve-year-old sensibility. Hanks received the first of his two consecutive Oscars for “Philadelphia,” as a dying person with AIDS, and another lead nomination for “Cast Away,” which closed production so that Hanks can lose one third of his frame (0ver 50 pounds) to play convincingly the second part of the story.

Deglamorizing Women

Attractive leading ladies and movie stars have been rewarded for deglamorizing their good looks and for their willingness to appear drab and frumpy. In recent years, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Rene Zellweger (supporting winner for “Cold Mountain”) have joined the distinguished company of many vet stars.

In “Now, Voyager,” Bette Davis wore padding on her legs, donned thick glasses, and pulled her hair back tight. Olivia de Havilland played an ugly duckling in “The Heiress,” and not a particularly attractive woman in “Hold Back the Dawn.” Joan Crawford played a waitress in a greasy-spoon restaurant in “Mildred Pierce.”

Grace Kelly won the Best Actress for “The Country Girl,” as an embittered, humiliated wife, wearing the most unflattering wardrobe in her career. That same year, Kelly flaunted some of Edith Head’s most stylish dresses in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder.”

Cher in Silkwood

Cher was deglamorized as Karen Silkwood’s lesbian-laborer roommate in Silkwood, for which she received a supporting nomination, and she received an Oscar four years later for “Moonstruck,” in which she transformed herself effectively from a dowdy bookkeeper to a glamorous and desirable woman.