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The curious case of old-age makeup

How hard was it to make Leonardo DiCaprio look 77 in ”J. Edgar”? As any makeup artist will tell you, turning the clock forward is one of Hollywood’s toughest tricks

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Think of movie makeup and you’ll likely conjure up images of gruesome zombies, vampires, and aliens. However, if you really want to send a shiver down a makeup artist’s spine, bring up the granddaddy of all challenges: making someone older. Just ask Sian Grigg, who was tasked with transforming the 36-year-old (and still cherubic) Leonardo DiCaprio into a 77-year-old J. Edgar Hoover for Clint Eastwood’s biopic J. Edgar (in theaters Nov. 9). ”You’ve got a battle on your hands because Hoover looked very different from Leo,” says Grigg. ”We wanted him to look like Hoover, but not in a way that was distracting.”

DiCaprio’s makeup ultimately took four and a half hours each morning and involved wearing a full bald cap with punched-in hair, fake teeth, contact lenses, a ”fat suit,” and silicone prosthetics glued onto his forehead, cheeks, mouth, neck, and hands. Yet judging by the online reaction to the movie’s trailer, the jury’s still out on whether Grigg and her team succeeded. Some IMDb users approved; others noted that DiCaprio’s face ”looks like it’s been covered with putty.” The debate raises a valid question: Why is it so tricky to create aging effects that satisfy everyone?

The art of movie makeup has come a long way since Orson Welles endured six to seven hours of prep time to play a wrinkled Charles Foster Kane in 1941’s Citizen Kane. Many of the subsequent innovations can be traced to legendary makeup designer Dick Smith, who’ll receive an honorary Oscar this month for his contributions to such movies as The Exorcist and Amadeus. His work on the 1970 film Little Big Man — turning a then-33-year-old Dustin Hoffman into a 121-year-old man — is still considered a watershed moment. Hoffman would have traditionally been asked to wear a full mask, but ”the problem with a mask is trying to glue everything on,” explains Dick’s son David Smith, a former makeup artist. ”It’s really difficult to get a precise fit.” His dad’s solution was to break the makeup into separate overlapping prosthetics — a technique still employed today.

Even the most convincing makeup, however, can be sabotaged by factors outside the artist’s control — like, for example, an antsy actor. ”Adam Sandler is the nicest guy in the world, but he can’t sit still for more than five minutes,” says Bill Corso, who aged Sandler for the 2006 comedy Click. ”I would get the makeup about 70 percent finished and then he would leave, and I would be fixing it the rest of the day as we shot.” One designer recalls a prominent actress who, upon seeing herself in old-age makeup, refused to leave her trailer because she looked like a ”hideous old hag.” (The star’s makeup was subsequently reduced for the film.)

As computer-generated effects become more affordable, movies are finishing more makeup in postproduction. ”’We’ll fix it in post!’ has become the mantra,” says Christien Tinsley, who designed the old-age makeup for Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer in J. Edgar. ”There’s no replacement for getting it right on set. But that requires time and patience, which don’t seem to exist anymore.” (According to Tinsley, J. Edgar was minimally touched up after filming.)

Still, the craft of old-age makeup is swiftly heading toward a digital future. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which won the Oscar for makeup in 2009, relied on CGI for a hefty amount of Brad Pitt’s aging. A decade or two from now, ”I don’t think you’ll see Leo in four-hour makeup,” predicts Tinsley. His performance will be recorded by motion-capture sensors and then adjusted — younger, older, shorter, taller — in a computer. Undoubtedly, some moviegoers will still sigh that it doesn’t look quite right.

Aging Gracefully — or Not So Gracefully
Citizen Kane
Orson Welles (1941)
Maurice Seiderman used molded plastic foam to make Welles’ face droop. Cutting-edge for its time, the makeup seems a bit stiff by today’s standards. B

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Elizabeth Taylor (1966)
Gordon Bau believably transformed the beautiful Taylor, then 33, into the profane, 50ish Martha. A-

Little Big Man
Dustin Hoffman (1970)
Dick Smith created, for the first time, tissue-thin eyelids for Hoffman to wear as the 121-year-old Jack Crabb. This is about as good as it gets. A

Back to the Future Part II
Michael J. Fox (1989)
In 2015 (four more years!), we’ll all have pasty, rubbery skin — at least, that’s how the future McFly clan looks in this time-jumping sequel. D+

Edward Scissorhands
Winona Ryder (1990)
Ve Neill and Stan Winston earned an Oscar nod for their work, which included turning Ryder, then 18, into a convincing grandma. B+

Mr. Saturday Night
Billy Crystal (1992)
Toupees and distracting prosthetics abound. Crystal’s mouth looks oddly puffy, while his eyes appear too youthful — a dead giveaway of a poor job. C-

A Beautiful Mind
Jennifer Connelly (2001)
The Oscar-nominated aging done on Russell Crowe was delicately handled. The same can’t be said for Connelly. B-

Love in the Time of Cholera
Javier Bardem (2007)
”Horrendous,” says one makeup artist. ”The design, color scheme, hair work — it just wasn’t good.” We couldn’t agree more. D

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Brad Pitt (2008)
For the first 52 minutes, the title character’s head is CGI. After that, Pitt wears a membrane-like forehead piece by Oscar winner Greg Cannom. Both tactics work. A