Actors who went ugly for awards glory, for better and for worse

Winning an Oscar isn’t just about putting in an amazing performance. The Academy likes to reward stars who go “on a journey” for their art. For Leonardo DiCaprio to finally bag an Oscar, he had to undergo a legendarily gruelling shoot on The Revenant. For Matthew McConaughey, it was his quest for authenticity after years in the rom-com wilderness that was rewarded in Dallas Buyers’ Club.

The physical transformation is like catnip to Academy voters, and the more unrecognisable an actor becomes, the more likely they are to achieve awards glory. Charlize Theron’s transformation into Aileen Wournos for Monster (2003) is perhaps the most memorable and delivered an enviable collection of trophies, including that coveted little gold man.

But, as winning tactics go, it’s far from goof proof…

Jennifer Aniston – Overlooked

Jennifer Aniston was far from her usual glam self in <i>Cake</i>.
Jennifer Aniston was far from her usual glam self in Cake.

Her most dramatic attempt to shake off the ghost of Rachel came in 2014 with Cake, where she played a chronic pain sufferer. Gone was the immaculate hair and make-up, on went the weight, the dark circles under the eyes, the dowdy clothes and the prosthetic scars. Glossy Jen was no more. But, when it came to the awards season, it was a look that met with mixed results.

Heavily tipped for a Golden Globes nomination, she got one, alongside a SAG nod, but there was no Oscar recognition. The Best Actress trophy that year went to Julianne Moore in Still Alice – with the bare minimum of make-up.

Javier Bardem – Won

Javier’s hairdresser? He Bardem.
Javier’s hairdresser? He Bardem.

From shoulder length curls (Goya’s Ghosts), a comb over (Love In The Time Of Cholera) to a cut that looked like he’d stuck his fingers in an electric socket (The Counselor) – haircuts are part of Bardem’s stock in trade. But none stick in the mind quite like the bizarre bob that was such an integral part in creating the terrifying Anton Chigurh in the No Country For Old Men (2007). Going ugly paid off.

Not that he’s ever acknowledged his hideous hair’s – reputedly based on a photo from a book about Mexican brothels – contribution to winning Best Supporting Actor. In his winner’s speech he referred to it as “one of the most horrible haircuts in history”. Some years later, he was still adamant that “I’ll never forgive them [the Coens] for that damn haircut.” There’s gratitude for you.

Christian Bale – Missed out

Christian Bale herniated a disc getting plump for <i>American Hustle</i>.
Christian Bale herniated a disc getting plump for American Hustle.

The man has form. He dropped a staggering 63 lbs to achieve his death-like appearance in The Machinist, but for American Hustle (2013) he piled on 43 lbs, all the result of the tried and tested method of eating whatever he wanted. It didn’t stop with the pot belly: he grew out his beard and acquired a pitiful comb over for the full grotesque effect. The intense weight gain even caused the star to herniate a disc in his back. Along came that Best Actor Oscar nod, plus Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations, but none translated into trophies.

It was Matthew McConaughey’s year for Dallas Buyers Club, which saw him take a leaf out of Bale’s book by shedding 47 lbs. No matter. Bale already had an Oscar in his cabinet for The Fighter. Another could be on its way for Vice.

Steve Carell – Outshone

Steve Carell donned a fake beak to play an eccentric millionaire in <i>Foxcatcher</i>.
Steve Carell donned a fake beak to play an eccentric millionaire in Foxcatcher.

Currently lurking behind a toothy grin as Donald Rumsfeld in Vice, Carell turned away from comedy to play multi-millionaire John du Pont in stranger-than-fiction Foxcatcher (2014). Three hours every morning in the make-up chair made him repellently unrecognisable: a huge prosthetic nose and false teeth were just the start and, reputedly, his look was so off-putting nobody on set wanted to be around him. A delayed release date of 2014 did little to help Carell’s award chances.

Oscar, BAFTA, Globe and SAG nods all came his way, but the trophies didn’t. He lost out to Eddie Redmayne in The Theory Of Everything at the Academy Awards, who underwent his own transformation, but for different reasons.

George Clooney – Won, but at a cost

The Cloonster piled on the pounds and won an Oscar for his efforts.
The Cloonster piled on the pounds and won an Oscar for his efforts.

The usually smooth ‘n’ suave George went both ugly and downright scruffy to play a CIA agent in Syriana (2005), growing a dark beard, shaving his hairline and putting on 30lbs in a month because of his last minute casting. At one point eating nine meals a day, he reportedly hated piling on the pounds and subsequently described the weight gain as “pretty stupid”, especially as it contributed to a spinal injury during a stunt which left him bed-ridden and suicidal for a month after the shoot.

His manicure went for a burton during the film as well. But he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, beating fellow co-star William Hurt who was nominated for A History Of Violence. George’s was Syriana’s only Oscar.

Nicole Kidman – Won ‘by a nose’

Nicole Kidman went unrecognisable as Virginia Woolf.
Nicole Kidman went unrecognisable as Virginia Woolf.

The elegant Kidman’s delicate features and porcelain skin disappeared under layers of cosmetics, a dark wig and a large prosthetic nose to play dowdy novelist Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002). Spending three hours every day in make-up produced her dazzling-to-dull transformation, one that gave her a certain anonymity which she relished. She was more surprised, however, when early audiences failed to recognise her on screen.

She shouldn’t have worried, as she went on to receive the Best Actress Oscar that year from Denzel Washington, who described her win as “by a nose.” The BAFTAs and Golden Globes felt the same way. For her current movie Destroyer, she’s gone as un-glam as you can get, but this time there’s not a prosthetic in sight.

Melissa Leo – Won

Melissa Leo dressed down to play Christian Bale’s mother in <i>The Fighter</i>.
Melissa Leo dressed down to play Christian Bale’s mother in The Fighter.

The natural red head went blonde – with the obligatory dark roots – and brassy to play the boxing matriarch in David O Russell’s The Fighter (2010). That backcombed wig, coupled with heavy eyeliner, a taste for bling and a cigarette almost permanently lodged between her fingers, threw glamour out of the window but, for once, prosthetics didn’t get a look-in.

Leo may not have spent as long in the make-up chair as others, but it was still a remarkable make over and produced a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, with a Golden Globe and a SAG award to keep it company. Sometimes you don’t have to suffer too much for your art.

Rooney Mara – Lost to Streep

Rooney Mara went full cyber-goth for David Fincher.
Rooney Mara went full cyber-goth for David Fincher.

Lisbeth Salander was never meant to be attractive or sexy – certainly not in David Fincher’s incarnation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) – so Rooney Mara’s fragile looks were replaced with a dyed black, wonky hair cut, bleached eyebrows, piercings and boyish clothes. No wonder she could walk down the street after a day’s filming and remain totally anonymous.

Recognition came her way, though, in the shape of critical acclaim, followed swiftly by Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. In truth, she was always an outside bet and the Academy Award, as well as the Globe, went to Tinsel Town favourite Meryl Streep, playing the Iron Lady. She had a distinctive hairstyle of her own.

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