Maybe It’s Time to Get Rid of the Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar
Here’s a fun trivia question for you: What do the films Heartbeeps, Norbit, The Wolfman, and Suicide Squad have in common? Okay, yes, they’re all bad. But that’s not the answer I was looking for. The answer I was looking for is: Every single one of them is an Academy Award nominee because of the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category. The last two are even Academy Award winners! Every time you write the title Suicide Squad, remember that you can factually append the phrase “Academy Award winning film” to the front.
Any list of the worst movies to win Oscars (like this one, for example) will probably include more films from the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category than any other; all the movies above plus stuff like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Hook, and Bicentennial Man. Yes, some worthy films have received this award through the years, including The Fly, Terminator 2, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Mad Max: Fury Road. But the history of this category is as unsightly as a gold statuette sculpted by a toddler. It’s time to face facts: Something’s got to be done about this category. Or maybe we should get rid of it altogether.
I want to state right off the bat that I have a huge amount of respect for the work of movie makeup artists and hairstylists. They’ve contributed to the success of some of the greatest films ever made. Without Maurice Seiderman, Citizen Kane is about a 25-year-old kid awkwardly pretending to be an old newspaper tycoon. Dick Smith’s makeup application for The Godfather is so convincing that most modern audiences have no idea Marlon Brando was just 48 when he shot the film. These artists and craftsmen deserve recognition and praise for their creations. I’m just not sure that recognition and praise needs to be in the form of an Academy Award — at least in the way that Oscar is currently presented.
In its current form, it is an unreliable barometer. One obvious issue: The award actually recognizes two very different (albeit related) disciplines. Since 2012, the Best Makeup category was officially expanded to include hair. If makeup artists are worthy of Oscars, so are hairstylists; I’m just not sure they deserve to share one Oscar. Why combine two different fields? They don’t give one award for Best Cinematography And Editing. True, some artists work in both areas (and some prosthetic makeup includes hair design as well). But there’s still a significant gray area here. What if a movie has incredible makeup and incredibly crappy hairstyling? Does a winner have to excel in both disciplines or just one?
The category’s rules on the Academy website don’t offer an answer, though they do specify that in order to be nominated a film must provide the Makeup and Hairstylists Branch Executive Committee with “written descriptions explaining the procedures used to create the makeup and hairstyling achievements” and that an initial selection process results in a shortlist of seven movies that is then whittled down to three nominees by the votes of the full branch.
The rules also reveal one possible explanation as to why an inordinate number of unexceptional-to-outright-crappy movies get nominated in this category. When the full Makeup Artists and Hairstylists Branch meet to vote, they only view “excerpts” of the seven finalists, each totaling no more than “ten minutes in total running time.” In other words, they didn’t watch all of Suicide Squad, they just watched ten minutes that showed off the makeup and hair of the characters. If they had to sit through the other 380 minutes (estimated), I bet they would have felt differently about that one.
Even learning that surprising fact, I’m still genuinely perplexed by the list of movies honored in this category over the years, and by the sister list of movies with iconic makeup and hair that went completely overlooked. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for Monster, yet the incredible makeup that transformed her into Aileen Wuornos received no recognition. Tootsie earned 10 Oscar nominations in 1982, but didn’t receive a Best Makeup nod. Tropic Thunder had several actors completely transformed through hair and makeup; no nomination. The X-Men franchise has spanned 10 movies and some of the most impressive makeup effects of my lifetime, from the blue scales of Mystique to the horrific burns on Deadpool. Total nominations for the entire franchise: 0.
The award also has a very uneven record when it comes to honoring horror films. How else do you explain David B. Miller’s Freddy Krueger makeup — maybe the most memorable makeup of any kind of the last 50 years — receiving zero nominations? The same goes for Day of the Dead. And Videodrome. And Hellraiser. And The Thing, which boasts perhaps the most imaginatively terrifying use of prosthetic makeup in cinema history. A few worthy horror movies have won over the decades, including An American Werewolf in London and The Fly, but it’s been eight years since a horror film was even nominated in this category (2010’s The Wolfman). Clearly, the category has an anti-horror bias, one that extends to 2017 when the unforgettable makeup work in IT and The Shape of Water were both snubbed. (This year’s nominees are Victoria & Abdul, Wonder, and the movie that will almost surely win, Darkest Hour.)
The Academy Awards haven’t gotten rid of a category in a long time, but there is precedent for it. (The last Best Assistant Director Oscar was handed out in 1937.) Getting rid of this award helps alleviate every viewer’s number one complaint about the Oscars: They’re too long. The show is already so bloated that they’ve completely removed the annual Honorary Awards, shunting them to the untelevised Governor’s Awards banquet. Since that change was made in 2009, we’ve missed out on the opportunity to watch acceptance speeches from the likes of Gordon Willis, Roger Corman, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Martin, Angelina Jolie, Hayao Miyazaki, Spike Lee, Jackie Chan, and The Godfather’s Dick Smith. If you’re asking me which I’d rather have, awards for makeup or speeches by some of the greatest film artists in history every single year, I know what I would pick 100 times out of 100.
It’s worth noting that Dick Smith was particularly worthy of an Honorary Award because in his day there was no award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling; the category was created in 1981, supposedly in response to an outcry that the outstanding makeup in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man went unrecognized. Prior to that, achievements in makeup were only recognized with special awards; two were given in the 1960s — to William J. Tuttle for transforming Tony Randall into the title character of 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, and to John Chambers for his remarkable work on Planet of the Apes.
This seems like a reasonable model to return to; if someone achieves something truly special with makeup, give them a special Oscar. Or, if we want to continue the annual tradition, how about adding makeup and hairstyling to the Scientific and Technical Awards instead of the main show? (You could even add one or two other technical categories while you’re at it, shortening the telecast even further.) Or, if we are really intent on keeping the Best Makeup Oscar, how about expanding the nominees from three to five, so more great makeup (like IT or Shape of Water this year) is spotlighted? And how about doing away with the excerpts and making the voters actually watch the whole movie? It seems like, at the very least, an award for excellence in movies should be voted on by people who, y’know, have actually watched the movies.
Gallery - The Full List of Oscar Best Picture Winners: