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Inside the Oscar’s Makeup and Hairstyling Award Bakeoff

Every year, potential nominees gather to prove they deserve to make it to the big show.

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A few weeks ago, a small, round man named Alexander Bartolazzi looked wonderingly around a Beverly Hills screening room and declared, “I’m Italian, and for Italians, it’s much easier to be the Pope than be here.” His audience laughed appreciatively — it was a nice reminder that though this particular screening room is, at first glance, just one among many of its kind in Los Angeles, it is in fact possessed of a unique brand of power and significance.

The room in question belongs to the Academy of Arts and Motion Picture Sciences; Bertolazzi was sitting on its stage because he was being considered for an Oscar nomination for his work on the hair and makeup of the film Suicide Squad. It was the 30th or 40th edition — no one seemed quite sure, but it’s a long-standing tradition, anyway — of The Makeup & Hairstyling Award Bakeoff.

The general concept of the bakeoff is itself a Hollywood tradition. This kind does not involve yeast, flour, butter, or sugar, sadly, but instead serves as a shorthand for a particular winnowing process: in this case, rounding up a list of seven potential nominees and asking voting members of the Makeup and Hairstyling branch of the Academy to decide which three should become the actual nominees, to be voted on by general Academy membership ahead of the February 26th awards ceremony. Each potential nominee screens ten minutes’ worth of clips from the film and then answers questions about their work on it.

The Oscars are known for being the most glamorous night in one of the most glamorous towns in the world, but pretty much everything that leads up to them is dominated by this kind of wonkery: bylaws, governors, regulations, Saturday mornings in screening rooms populated by unassuming men and women in their industry uniform of black on black on black (in this instance, very good ankle boots on women, everything from kilts to leather fanny packs on men).

The vast majority of awards are won by people whose names the watching public has never heard before and won’t remember on Monday morning, but their impact is still deeply felt throughout the industry across its various silos. Even as the general public continues to question the number of old white men in its ranks, the Academy remains a force to be reckoned with, and an institution its honorees take very, very seriously.

Well, not so seriously, maybe: the Bakeoff was an afternoon of deep-geek shop talk mixed with behind-the-scenes trivia (the actor who played Killa Croc in Suicide Squad was allergic to most types of glue, so the makeup team spent a lot of their prep time trying to figure out how to affix his painted latex and foam costume to his skin; “thinned-down prozate” turned out to be the answer) and set gossip — the director and cinematographer on A Man Called Ove loved the actress who played Ove’s wife so much that even in scenes where she was supposed to be in age makeup, they insisted that her hands be left untouched so that she would still be “pretty.”

This kind of kid-glove beauty treatment is not necessarily reserved for women — the studio behind Deadpool, wary after a past version of the film had failed, did days’ worth of tests before agreeing to the makeup for Ryan Reynolds’ version of the disfigured lead. Ultimately the artist in charge, Bill Corso, went for a layered, translucent look that could appear different in different lights — Deadpool is “deformed, not scarred,” he noted, his body capable of healing otherwise fatal injuries in seconds, so it made sense that his skin would always be adapting itself, mutating even from moment to moment.

And apparently Hugh Grant, who has to remove a stunt wig from Meryl Streep at one point in Florence Foster Jenkins, is “very dexterous.”

We tend to think of movie makeup as a glamorizing affair, all spray tans and false eyelashes — what’s known as straight makeup, as opposed to the effects makeup that the Academy actually awards. Most of the films up for consideration required significant, obvious transformations: one was sci-fi (Star Trek), two comic book-based (Deadpool and Suicide Squad), plus another three period pieces (Hail, Caesar!, The Dressmaker, and Florence Foster Jenkins). There was, however, one contemporary realistic film: A Man Called Ove, which had earned its spot due to the work that Love Larson and Eva von Bahr had done to age actor Rolf Lassgård into an exhausted Swedish politician instead of the hale, hearty, professionally attractive actor he is.

Larson and von Bahr’s inclusion — and the fact that they won a nomination, alongside Suicide Squad and Star Trek — suggests the complex and subtle transformations that are required of this particular breed of makeup artists and hairstylists, who do everything from creating the look for entire races of alien species to turning professionally good-looking people with elastically attractive features into slightly more regular, specific versions of themselves. Sometimes you’re buying a mop to turn into the wig that will make Cara Delevingne look like a lonely cave monster (“She has no friends, no conditioner!” Bertolazzi reminded us); sometimes, you’re convincing an actress to go without lipstick and look her unglamorous age, as Shane Thomas and Ivana Primorac did with Judy Davis in The Dressmaker.

It’s moments like those that create the most difficulty — we’re so accustomed to seeing beauty on the screen that artists have to be careful when the task is to create a character, not a fantasy — and never more so than when they’re working from life. Meryl Streep played a historical figure as the titular Florence in Florence Foster Jenkins, and “[Florence] had those eyebrows,” noted J. Roy Helland, her makeup artist and hairstylist. “She had those eyebrows! What are you gonna do, you gotta do ‘em. So we did.” Which required a delicate balancing out: “We wanted her to be accessible, but she had to look like she did,” he said. Accessible was a word that recurred frequently: This was a group of artists practiced at navigating the tangle of desires and demands made on them by their studio bosses, their creative inspiration, and what a viewing public will and will not accept on screen.

Anyone who’s spent time on sets knows that movie magic is built on the back of detail work: the nerdy obsessives who do as much in pre-production as they do during shooting, whose names are listed “below the line” but whose work is in fact highly visible on the screen, and, in this case, on its stars. They bring the full force of their technical knowledge as well as their creative imaginations to work on literally reshaping the world around them to look the way they need it to look.

And, as evidenced by the mop and the thinned-down prozate, the stories of lace-front and punch-through wigs, the hand-painted latex and foam and the phrase “I used his own nape and sideburns,” which was actually uttered at one point, they can take anything and make it their material. Not only that, but once they’re done with it for its initial purpose, they’ll find a way to use it again. Cydney Cornell worked for the Coen brothers on Miller’s Crossing and saved his wigs from the 1990 shoot. When he got called in for 2016’s Hail, Caesar!, a kaleidoscopic reel of movies-within-movies that required him to recreate a variety of genre looks as they would have been done in the ‘50s, he brought them out again. He cut and burned them, and just like that, what had been the hairpieces for a bunch of Prohibition-era gangsters had a new life: He put them, newly ruined, on the titular Caesar’s slaves.

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