When actresses are praised for 'going ugly' in a film role

Jennifer Aniston earned her first Golden Globe film nomination for 'Cake'.

Jennifer Aniston earned her first Golden Globe film nomination for 'Cake'.

On Friday Jennifer Aniston earned her first Golden Globe film nomination for Cake - a role she 'fugged up' for. That is to say, she wears bad makeup and her hair is shorter, darker and unwashed in the movie. Entertainment Weekly went so far as to say that 'people might not even recognise her'.

Really? In the parlance of Ainston herself, may I say 'huh'. It's been called 'pulling a Theron', (a reference to Charlize Theron's physical transformation in Monster), when actresses go the full ugly in a bid for Oscar. EJ Dickson, writing for the Daily Dot, made the excellent point that a dichotomy exists for women in Hollywood: you can be beautiful or you can be credible, but you can't be both.

We know Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her fake nose. But pulling a Theron has a rich history! Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for 'ugging it up' for Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Remember Meryl Streep in Evil Angels? What about Cameron Diaz's pitch-perfect transition from girlfriend roles to serious contender via bad hair in Being John Malcovich?

Actress Charlize Theron in the film 'Monster'.

Actress Charlize Theron in the film 'Monster'.

Critics are falling all over Reese Witherspoon's 'brave' decision to go makeup-free for her portrayal of Cheryl Strayed in the forthcoming Wild. Renee Zellweger put on 20kg for Bridget Jones - a middling rom-com - and scored an Oscar nomination for it.

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But it's – shock! – different for men. Time was, they gained weight to prove their acting chops. Robert De Niro in Raging Bull is the gold standard. But the trend to play someone who is physically or mentally challenged has gained serious traction in the last 30 years. The list is extensive: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day Lewis, Sean Penn, Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Robert De Niro and of course, Tom Hanks. Al Pacino did peerless work in Godfather I and II and Dog Day Afternoon. But he didn't win an Oscar until he played– HOO HAA – a blind man in Scent of a Woman.

More recently, dramatic weight loss has also become a reliable predictor for an Oscar nod. This is because, for men, thinness is a signifier of sickness, suffering and death. Tom Hanks did it in Philadelphia. Christian Bale did it in The Fighter. Jake Gyllenhaal was just nominated for a Golden Globe in Nightcrawler - a movie he looks positively gaunt in. And lest we forget, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who both won Oscars for the same movie - Dallas Buyer's Club. Hmm. Remember what Tina Fey said about that? 

Critics are falling all over Reese Witherspoon's 'brave' decision to go makeup-free for her portrayal of Cheryl Strayed ...

Critics are falling all over Reese Witherspoon's 'brave' decision to go makeup-free for her portrayal of Cheryl Strayed in the forthcoming Wild.

"Matthew McConaughey did amazing work this year. For his role in Dallas Buyers Club, he lost 45 pounds. Or what actresses call being in a movie."

Fey touched on the hideous reality: men get awards for what women do just to stay employed. Now, apart from being offensive to people who have disabilities, (an excellent essay by Scott Jordan Harris on 'disability drag' explains this better than I can) it also tells us something fascinating about what constitutes personal power for men and for women in the acting industry.

Actresses who portray traumatised people, addicts, drunks, murderers, survivors, villains - and God help me - less than stunning writers - can only play them, they can't become them. Last year Witherspoon screamed at a policeman 'Do you know who I am? while in a drunken rage. Do we expect her to spend a year in isolation as Cheryl Strayed did? Can Witherspoon get herself addicted to heroin, hit rock bottom and then grope about for a sense of the divine in the American wilderness? Of course not. Witherspoon can only sympathise - by going without makeup!

McConaughey speaks fluent stoner, dolling out comically cosmic, self-aggrandizing platitudes at official events. Do we expect him to comprehend the grief and trauma of being struck down by a terminal disease, especially one that carries the stigma of AIDS? But he sure can lose weight! Well all right all right all – you get it.

See, this is the mechanism actors employ to suspend our disbelief and show they're not the extraordinarily privileged, crazy people we suspect they are. They pay penance. It's a subtexural admission that sure, they didn't actually endure what the real person they played endured, but they did still suffer!

All of this would be laughable if it weren't for the grave reality that the greatest penance a woman can make in Hollywood is to sacrifice her beauty - this is her abdication of power so that the award Gods may redeem her. But for a man, the equivalent gesture means portraying the sick, the suffering or the dying.

Do you get it? Well. Let me lay it on the line for you: the entertainment industry is telling us that for an actress, there is no harder, or more debilitating condition to portray than being an ugly woman.  And, judging from the box office, the mouth-foaming critics and the award shows, it's a paradigm that works.