Monday, February 21, 2011

The Uglification of Bette Davis & the Oscars

The Oscars are just around the corner and in thinking of these awards, I'm reminded how, in the past 10 years or so, the Academy has favored actresses who have transformed themselves physically for their movie role with nominations and/or Oscar statuettes. In an industry that is so focused on a specific type of beauty, the fact that these actresses were willing to sacrifice what they had in order to throw themselves into a role that they believed in is in many ways admirable. Let's look at a few examples:

Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry (1999) - won
Salma Hayek in Frida (2002) - nominated
Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002) - won
Charlize Theron in Monster (2003) - won
Mo'Nique in Precious (2009) - won

While this seems like a recent trend, it has happened in the past. Certain classic film actresses chose to strip their makeup and expose themselves to the harsh unforgiving lens of the movie camera in order to honor their character's role in the film. One that comes to mind is Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938). Yes I know it's one of her "prestige" films and she donned wigs, makeup and fabulous period costumes throughout the film. But at the end of the movie, when Marie Antoinette is imprisoned and about to be beheaded, there is a poignant scene with Norma Shearer, sans makeup and with a worn and fearful expression on her countenance all of which makes you forget that she is the Queen of MGM.

The best example I can think of, of a classic film actress undergoing a dramatic physical transformation is Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Essex and Elizabeth (1939). Davis was determined, at all costs, to look the part of Queen Elizabeth I. And in a time when historical pictures were frivolous with facts and details, it's admirable to see how devoted Davis was to being as historically accurate as possible.

From the book, Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis by Lawrence J. Quirk

[Makeup artist] Perc Westmore... shaved Davis's hair back two inches, thus underlining the reality of baldness under the red wigs and hairpieces. He then applied white, pasty makeup and shaved off her eyebrows, replacing them with thin lines that, in Robert Lord's words, 'made her look like a baby in a Halloween mask and costume.'
Davis spent much time studying portrait reproductions provided by the research department, seeking to approximate Elizabeth's actual appearance as accurately as possible. Her own appearance meant nothing to her - only historical accuracy. 'Make me up horribly, and dress me outlandishly - I don't care, so long as you get the essence of the original,' she told Perc Westmore and [costume designer] Orry-Kelly. 

Yet Bette Davis didn't win the Oscar for this performance. She wasn't even nominated for it. Instead, the Academy favored her performance in Dark Victory (1939) more and she was nominated for that role. If Bette Davis had done the same two performances in today's day and age, would she have won for Private Lives of Essex and Elizabeth instead?


  1. Very interesting post. Bette Davis was decades ahead of her time!

  2. While I am not sure I would call Bette Davis's transformation into Queen Elizabeth I "uglification," she certainly did go a long way to look like the Queen!

  3. Thanks for the neat post and neat blog!

  4. She won for Dangerous and Jezebel not Dark Victory although she was nominated for it.

  5. Bette was a true actress, never a pin-up type. I also thought of her part in Now, Voyager, at the beginning when she is fat, plain Charlotte in an ugly dress and clunky shoes. She really allowed herself to look awful, and was as a result wonderful. Of course later in the movie she looks marvelous! And remember Mr. Skeffington, after she starts looking really old? Wow.

    Of course her ugliest look has to be Baby Jane. That woman had guts! I really enjoyed your discussion about Bette as Elizabeth!

  6. no doubt bette was an "actress" first and foremost! as far back as of Human Bondage and Marked Woman she always had the guts to play it "right" and if that meant not looking glamorous then so be it, it was about the role, the story and the final product not the "image". she certainly didnt feel the need to play a likeable character either, which i really admire! she always went for it with both knees and she was so forceful and dynamic and believable which is the bottom line really.
    i admire her work (and Flynn's as well) in Essex but admittedly i find that film to be a HUGE disappointment. it's possible the academy also found it disappointing and chose to recognize her work in what is, to me anyway, a far far better film. today i think the concensus would be the same, great performance in a dull movie. i'm kinda bummed actually that its the only film bette made in technicolor back then. Olivia made 5, Bette, just that one :(

    speaking of, i would say another transformation an actress made that was quite unusual back then was Olivia gaining 20+ lbs to play her character Jodie Norris as an older woman in To Each His Own. i dont recall any other actress gaining weight for a role back in those days.

    great post Quelle!!!!

  7. I am little bit different. I am not interested to hurt Davis because she too put more effort in her make up to become queen Elizabeth. Even though she didn,t win Oscar award, she tried for that. I am highly appreciating that folks!

    free old movies,no bs

  9. ClassicBecky's comment really says it: Bette was a great actress w/guts. She really cared only about the truth of the character she was playing, not about her own looks. She really goes all the way in that respect in "Baby Jane," for which she received an Oscar nomination, but didn't win.

    2 other actresses who won Oscars by altering their looks: Jane Wyman in "Johnny Belinda," in which she cut her hair really short and made herself look plain; as well as playing the whole film w/sign language & not one spoken line! The other is Olivia deHavilland in her wonderful performance in "The Heiress," in which she let her eyebrows grow and made herself look almost homely - but she does so much w/her eyes & facial expressions; a really fine piece of acting.


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