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A Blue Hair’s Guide to the Best and Worst of Old-Guy Makeup

Whether turning women into old men or turning men into immortal vampires, there’s a real art to Hollywood makeup — unless you’re Leo in ‘J. Edgar’

During tomorrow’s Academy Awards, one of the awards given out will be for makeup. (Technically, the prize is Best Makeup and Hairstyling.) Admittedly, this isn’t among the evening’s most-anticipated awards, and you probably don’t even know who’s in the running this year. (We’ll just tell you: It’s Border, Mary Queen of Scots and Vice.) But it’s a good reminder of how crucial good makeup can be for a movie — and how disastrous it can be when the actors don’t look convincing.

In honor of Hollywood’s biggest night, we decided to do a quick overview of some of the best and worst examples of old-age makeup in movies. To be honest, the line between “good” and “bad” can be razor-thin. It’s almost a feel thing: You either buy that the actor has been transformed or you don’t. And when you don’t, well, it’s embarrassing for all involved.

GOOD MAKEUP: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The Scenario: Astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) has been sucked through a Star Gate, finding himself transported to a mysterious hotel where, amazingly, he sees older versions of himself — first as a senior citizen, and then on his deathbed.  

Why Is the Makeup So Good? 2001 director Stanley Kubrick was an infamous perfectionist, so it’s little surprise that the makeup in his sci-fi epic was first-rate. Makeup artist Stuart Freeborn had to do everything from envisioning realistic ape-men in the movie’s opening sequence to rendering Dullea at different ages. For Bowman’s aged looks, the trick was making sure that Dullea believably resembled those older versions of himself. In fact, it’s a little eerie: The actor is now 82, and he doesn’t look that different than the elderly Bowman from 2001’s ending.

Not that working with Kubrick was easy. “[Freeborn] never yelled at Stanley or anything like that, but he would just grin and bear it and suffer,” 2001 actor Daniel Richter said in Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece. “He showed a lot of stress, and he was a perfectionist just like Stanley was. He’d work and work for days to get something, and Stanley’d say, ‘No, that’s not right. Can you change it?’”

BAD MAKEUP: Back to the Future II (1989)

The Scenario: Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) goes into the future to see what happens to him and his family, while his girlfriend Jennifer (Lea Thompson) sneaks a peek at them as middle-aged parents.

Why Is the Makeup So Bad? Action-comedies don’t need to be super-realistic in terms of their makeup. But in Back to the Future II, Older Marty doesn’t look like he’s aged — rather, it appears that someone placed a horrible silicone mask over his face. As a result, it’s terribly painful to watch Older Marty in those brief scenes. But don’t feel too bad for Fox: Thompson’s old-age makeup is approximately 1,000 times worse.

GOOD MAKEUP: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

The Scenario: Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is cursed with a rare affliction — he ages backwards, which makes it tough when he falls in love with Daisy (Cate Blanchett).

Why Is the Makeup So Good? Greg Cannom, who also won an Oscar for Mrs. Doubtfire, took home Best Makeup for this David Fincher film, which required him to age several of the films’ characters. Because the passage of time is a key element to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it was crucial that Cannom get everybody’s look right from era to era, which meant he had to spend a laborious 18 months on the movie. “The makeup had to work or the film wouldn’t work,” he told Variety, and that’s true: Pitt’s old-man look isn’t too prune-like or alien. Even more impressive, we see Benjamin at several different ages, each of them older than Pitt was at the time. Dude looks good in each of them.

BAD MAKEUP: Forever Young (1992)

The Scenario: Bereft that his beloved Helen has fallen into a coma, Daniel (Mel Gibson) gets cytogenetically frozen. Waking up more than 50 years later, in the present day, he discovers that Helen woke up from the coma. He must find her, but his body starts aging rapidly. (And now, I’d like to present you with the lowest-quality YouTube video ever. Sorry, this is the only clip I could find…)  

Why Is the Makeup So Bad? Forever Young was written by an up-and-comer named J.J. Abrams, and the film has a clever premise. But we doubt the original screenplay said, “As Daniel gets older, he looks jaundiced and dead-eyed.”

It pains me to bring up this movie’s bad makeup, because it’s credited to (among others) the aforementioned Greg Cannom and Dick Smith, the godfather of cutting-edge makeup work. Smith, who died in 2014 at the age of 92, was responsible for everything from Marlon Brando’s jowls in The Godfather to Linda Blair’s possessed child in The Exorcist. And he was recognized as a pioneer in terms of making actors look believably old. But even the masters have a rare slip-up. Talking about his work on Forever Young, Smith once said, “[The producers] were terribly concerned, worried out of their minds, that the makeup would destroy the romantic star, and therefore, we were constantly cautioned, ‘Please, please, don’t overdo it. [Gibson] doesn’t have to be all that old.’” Instead, he just looks inhuman.

GOOD MAKEUP: Suspiria (2018)

The Scenario: Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf) is a wizened German psychiatrist in the 1970s who becomes convinced that his erratic patient (Chloë Grace Moretz) is part of a diabolical dance troupe that’s actually a witches’ coven.

Why Is the Makeup So Good? The first audiences to see this remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria were confused: Who’s this Lutz Ebersdorf guy? Where did director Luca Guadagnino find him? Turns out, it was a hoax: The performer was just Tilda Swinton (who also plays two other characters in the film) buried under makeup. Even if people figured out the ruse, forcing Swinton to own up to the subterfuge, it was a neat trick: She convincingly pulled off playing an elderly German man.

But for the Oscar-winning actress, it was more than a gimmick. “Lutz Ebersdorf was a new face — it was very important that it wasn’t an actor, anybody recognizable at all,” she said last year. “It was very important in terms of the grain of the performance that it should be not remotely showy, that it should be basically somebody sort of learning the lines and turning up. [It had to feel] — I can’t believe I’m saying this — ‘authentic’ and not grandstanding in any way and also rather mysterious.”

The expert work from designer Mark Coulier helped sell the mystery — it’s stunning the film didn’t get a Best Makeup nomination.

BAD MAKEUP: Mr. Saturday Night (1992)

The Scenario: Buddy Young Jr. (director and cowriter Billy Crystal) dreams of stand-up glory, but his personal shortcomings bring about his downfall, which he has plenty of time to think about in his golden years.

Why Is the Makeup So Bad? Buddy is a tragic figure in some ways, undone by his ego and hubris. But especially when he’s elderly, he mostly comes across as pathetic, and that’s entirely because of how dopey he looks. Crystal doesn’t appear “older” as much as he just seems puffy. Weirdly enough, his Mr. Saturday Night character was actually inspired by a running bit Crystal did on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere. To be honest, Buddy sorta looked better back then, mostly because the character is supposed to be ridiculous, whereas Mr. Saturday Night is meant to be a bittersweet drama.

GOOD MAKEUP: Bad Grandpa (2013)

The Scenario: Uncouth octogenarian Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville) goes on a road trip with his grandson. Lots of terrible, hilarious things happen.

Why Is the Makeup So Good? Stephen Prouty has been doing makeup for more than 30 years, but before Bad Grandpa, he’d never gotten an Oscar nomination. (Plus, no Jackass movie had ever been nominated.) Transforming a relatively young man into a rather older one is tricky in any situation, but it was especially difficult here since Knoxville would be doing hidden-camera stunts with unsuspecting bystanders, and so the makeup had to be convincing. Speaking to IndieWire, Prouty (who worked on the previous Jackass films) said, “The film hinged on the fact that people were going to be fooled by this makeup every day. There were days when he was inches from people’s faces and in direct sunlight with no special lighting. That was our biggest challenge.” Mission accomplished.

BAD MAKEUP: J. Edgar (2011)

The Scenario: J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) rules the FBI with an iron fist, refusing to let go of power over his lengthy reign.

Why Is the Makeup So Bad? J. Edgar spans decades, and while DiCaprio is more than capable during Hoover’s younger years, he struggles as the racist, tormented man grows older. But it’s not really the actor’s fault: The film has the unenviable challenge of both aging DiCaprio and making him look like Hoover did as a more mature man. Instead, poor Leo looks like he’s suffocating behind all that makeup. You also have to wonder if director Clint Eastwood deserves some of the blame: He’s a filmmaker who’s known for shooting quickly and not fussing over details. Never forget that fake baby he allowed in American Sniper.

GOOD MAKEUP: Dracula (1992)

The Scenario: Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) is a centuries-old vampire out to woo Mina (Winona Ryder), whom he’s convinced is his reincarnated former love.

Why Is the Makeup So Good? Because it’s Cannom again. It’s hard enough to make an actor look, say, 70 years old. But for someone who’s positively ancient like Count Dracula, it’s even tougher because you have to extrapolate what a human being would look like at that advanced age. “I did an old-age makeup on [Oldman],” Cannom recalled this month, “and it was beautiful, but it didn’t look like him at all. I was using pictures, and then I started to really look at his face cast and learned from that. I’m pretty good at doing old-age makeups, but keeping it [to] look like the actor, which is really hard to do.”

Cannom won an Oscar for Dracula, and he could win his fourth on Sunday. He did the makeup for Vice, pulling off perhaps his great trick yet — turning the super-handsome Christian Bale into the super-doughy and bald Dick Cheney.