Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Playing Ugly" for Oscar Nods

With Oscar noms coming out, it's time to look at what role beauty plays in which women—rather, which women's roles—are selected for top honors. I find this take at the Allure blog interesting; it asks if in order to be given the legitimacy of an Oscar nod, an actress has to "temper her beauty."

It's a good question and one I'll look at later, but for now I'm interested in the upside-notion presented here: Annette Bening and Michelle Williams are singled out here for their "makeunders." And it's true that neither actress was at her most glamorous in their nominated roles—but does that mean their beauty was being tempered? I see it instead as us as the audience being so used to the glamour element that's the norm in films that when an actress plays a role that isn't a glamourpuss, we  legitimately use the shorthand "playing ugly" to describe what's actually a perfectly normal look, in which one's beauty is either a relative non-factor, or is assessed by different means than we'd assess a traditional starlet role. Michelle Williams has the same face she did in Synecdoche, New York, and though she wasn't singled out for her beauty in that role, neither was anyone commenting on her downplaying her beauty. She was wearing standard leading-lady makeup and hair there; ergo, no comment.

Charlize Theron in Monster certainly "tempered" her appearance, to the point of utter transformation, but that's in a different league. The actresses mentioned here weren't onscreen looking disheveled and unkempt as Theron as Aileen Wuornos did—because their characters lived in secure shelters, not at road stops, and could do the things most women do to look standard: comb their hair, apply moisturizer, etc. They looked like normal people—beautiful normal people, to be sure—but normal people. Maybe normal people's looks are tempered by some definitions, but isn't is that what we're used to seeing is so exaggerated that we notice it when it's not there?


  1. Well, it's amazing what by Hollywood standards is "playing ugly" or looking plain. Hollywood puts forth this ideal for stars that NO ONE can achieve--not even these stars themselves. Hence this amazing scandal when photos are published of a celebrity without make up, so shocking that it makes the newspaper ( When you see these people without their "look" on, the effect is almost shocking for a lot of us commoners, but realistically, the average person doesn't realize the investment of time, energy, product, planning, and manpower that goes into manufacturing these slick, sleek packages of sex that we admire and adore.
    Brad Pitt in his off time looks like he should be playing an acoustic guitar at the Union Square subway platform--badly--with that hillbilly beard, but on the red carpet, he owns that title of The Sexiest Man Alive.

    Interesting and unsurprising, though, how the standard does seem to apply more readily to females than to males. No one took DeNiro MORE seriously when he turned himself into a fat swearing pig for Raging Bull, because no one took him less seriously in other roles where he was trim and put together. No one talks about how Bobby D looks off schedule (I've met him. Answer: long beard, salt & pepper, beret, slightly pudgey, middle aged, a Dad) because no one has every said "He got that role for being good looking."

    For women, there is always the pressure to be MORE THAN. Heaven forbid you're an attractive woman and in a position of power...
    You have to be SMARTER THAN the other (male or female) applicant for the promotion, MORE CUTTHROAT, work longer hours, take on more responsibility, etc in order to be taken as seriously, because at the end of the day, some jerk somewhere will minimize your ability and accuse you of using your looks to get ahead!

  2. It's interesting that there's been a heightened visibility of the idea that celebrities are just people and don't emerge out of bed looking smashing every day (the no-makeup pics, knowledge of Photoshop) but that more than ever people want to look like them. It's a weird dichotomy that I don't understand!

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