Bennett Miller’s new film, “Foxcatcher”, is bound to catch a few Oscar nominations, and I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t bag one for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. A sombre true-crime tragicomedy, “Foxcatcher” features Steve Carell as John du Pont, a delusional Pennsylvania billionaire who uses his Citizen Kane-level wealth to set himself up as an Olympic wrestling coach. But you would be forgiven for not realising that Carell was in the film at all. In an effort to help us forget his lighter comic roles in “Anchorman” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”, he has been given a broad, pale, puffy face with an overhanging brow and heavy-lidded eyes. More significantly, he has been given the nose to end all noses. Carell’s own smelling apparatus, sans make-up, isn’t exactly discreet, but in “Foxcatcher” he has a conk like a walrus’s flipper. As more than one critic has noted, the arrow-shaped schnoz his animated character has in “Despicable Me” is only marginally smaller.
It’s such a transformative make-up job that when Carell first appeared onscreen, I was stunned. The trouble is that, for the rest of the film, I didn’t stop being stunned. I couldn’t lose myself in the story because I was fixated on the weirdness of hearing Carell’s voice coming out of such a grotesque death mask. Instead of thinking of the character, I thought about how many hours the actor must have spent in the make-up trailer every morning.
I don’t think they were worth it. Not many of us know what the real John du Pont looked like, so it wouldn’t have mattered whether Carell resembled him or not. The comprehensive disguise is almost insulting to Carell—it suggests that viewers wouldn’t have accepted him in the role if he hadn’t been buried under his own bodyweight in latex and greasepaint. But in fact the make-up renders him less believable, not more.
He never seems as human as his co-stars. They, too, have been subjected to extreme make-overs: Mark Ruffalo has had his upper forehead shaved to create a receding hairline, and Channing Tatum has been landed with cauliflower ears and a wider jaw. But these alterations are far less distracting than Carell’s. The result is that when they share a scene with him, it’s like seeing Frodo and Sam talking to Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”: two of the people onscreen are flesh and blood; one of them is a special effect.
Curiously, we can go along with the idea that a movie star is a secret agent, or a wizard, or a medieval princess, but if they muck about with their facial features, it’s almost impossible to suspend our disbelief. Perhaps it’s because we are bombarded with so many images of stars that we know where every last wrinkle and freckle should be. Or maybe it’s more atavistic. Facial recognition is such a fundamental survival skill that it sets off all sorts of alarm bells when a face is almost but not quite familiar (the horrified reaction, for instance, to Renée Zellweger’s new incarnation last October). Whatever the reason, critics were united in their mockery of Nicole Kidman’s bulbous false nose when she played Virginia Woolf in “The Hours”, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the duck’s bill glued to Olivia Colman’s face in “The Iron Lady”. As in “Foxcatcher”, it was pointless. If Colman hadn’t had the prosthetics, no one would have marched out of the cinema huffing, “How absurd! Carol Thatcher’s nose was nothing like that!”
As for the real John du Pont, I’ve just looked him up on Wikipedia and he didn’t look anywhere near as gargoyle-like as he does in “Foxcatcher”. In some photographs he could have been Tony Bennett’s more handsome brother. And, actually, he bore quite a resemblance to Steve Carell.
Foxcatcher is released in Britain on Jan 9th. Out now in America
Read more Tom Shone on how "Foxcatcher" gets under your skin