Actresses at Their Best When Roles Demand They Look Their Worst

Actresses win kudos for their least glamorous roles.

Oct. 18, 2010— -- In Hollywood it's all about beauty, glamour and allure. But those standards get set aside when Tinseltown's most bankable actresses decide to go totally ugly for a role.

Juliette Lewis is the latest one to nail a radically deglamorized performance.

In "Conviction," a new movie based on a true story of an unjust imprisonment, Lewis plays Roseanna Perry, a witness whose testimony put Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) behind bars. Kenny's sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) gets a law degree with the sole purpose of finding evidence that will exonerate her sibling.

Lewis' performance is what film critics love to call "vanity-free." When the crime occurs, Roseanna already is showing signs of a tough life -- too much alcohol, sloppy speech and not enough dental care. Years later, her appearance has been transformed for the worse, so much so that some viewers might not even recognize the actress behind the makeup.

Although she doesn't get much screen time, Lewis' high-impact performance is memorable. And at awards' time, these celluloid transformations are often what stick in the minds of voters. Ask Charlize Theron.

Theron won the 2003 best-actress Oscar for portraying Aileen Wuornos, the prostitute convicted of murder, in the movie "Monster." By the time Theron had put on about 30 pounds, donned prosthetic teeth, given her mouth a perpetually downturned scowl, and entrusted makeup artists to render her skin woefully splotchy, she was pretty much unrecognizable.

In an interview with, Theron said, "I think her [Wuornos'] body represented a lot of demons for her."

After Theron had read one of Wuornos' letters, she told her director she wanted to put on some weight.

"We never discussed it like this big thing, like some aim -- 'We're gonna gain 30 pounds,'" said Theron. "It wasn't about getting fat. Aileen wasn't fat. Aileen carried scars on her body from her lifestyle, and if I'd gone to make this movie with my body -- physically I'm very athletic -- I don't know that I would have felt the things Aileen felt with her body. It was about getting to a place where I felt closer to how Aileen was living."

Theron's Oscar followed the one awarded to Nicole Kidman the year before. In "The Hours," Kidman portrayed the novelist Virginia Woolf, wearing a large prosthetic nose.

In an interview with, Kidman said they went through three different noses, and that applying the prosthetic took two-and-a-half hours.

"The main thing was saying, 'Do we really want to go this route?' Was it going to be a distraction or was it going to help create the character?" she said. "When I had the nose on, I wasn't recognized at all."

More recently, Christina Ricci donned a pig snout to portray the title character from "Penelope," who was born with a porcine nose.

"We had a couple different noses that they tested at one point," Ricci told

She said some on the project wanted the "really cute Miss Piggy snout," while others wanted "this really hideous, awfully unattractive snout."

The snout she eventually wore fell somewhere in the middle.

Last year, Mariah Carey went drab and makeup-less -- and sprouting a facial mustache -- for her much-praised performance as the empathetic social worker in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."

In an interview with Newsweek, Carey described the mustache as "hideous."

"It's beyond no makeup," Carey said. "Did you not see the redness under my eyes, nose -- and the mustache? That's the only thing I care about. I lost all the vanity stuff, but when people really started analyzing, they have to ask about the mustache."

Despite the potential lure of accolades and awards, why would actresses and celebrities who take on movie roles decide that having the public see them at their most physically unflattering is a good idea?

"Film is a close-up medium where actresses are expected to be glamorous and, because of this, beauty is seen as a commodity," said Gregg Kilday, film editor at The Hollywood Reporter. "So when an actress has an opportunity to play down her glamour, it's more dramatic on film and considered a riskier move."

But just because an actress's character takes on an ugly look, he said, citing Emma Thompson's turn as "Nanny McPhee," it doesn't guarantee an award.

"Audiences and critics have their eyes on roles that convey real dramatic challenges," said Kilday.

"There aren't many great parts for women," said Bradley Jacobs, film editor for Us Weekly. "Even Gwyneth Paltrow, who won an Oscar, was cast in the supporting 'girlfriend' role in the "Iron Man" movies. So when an opportunity to downplay their looks for a role comes along, it can be a chance to bite into something real."

Besides, said Jacobs, "Viewers are often so used to seeing these actresses gorgeous that seeing them ugly is kind of intriguing and even fun."

In speaking to about her character, Penelope, who doesn't leave the house, Ricci said, "People are not experiencing life because they are so insecure that they are literally crippled and trapped."

She called that sentiment "a huge message," and that the movie's message is self-acceptance.

Perhaps otherwise gorgeous actresses playing ugly -- even though it's only in a two-hour movie -- are exactly what viewers need to see in order to gain some of that self-acceptance for themselves.