SPECIAL EFFECTS AND EXTREME MAKEUP
In which the art of the actor shines through the special effects and extreme makeup
Andy Serkis is one of the most accomplished actors of our time. His movies are often hits: According to Box Office Mojo, he outranks A-list names like Don Cheadle, Ben Stiller and Brad Pitt. But Serkis isn’t a familiar face — his success comes from disappearing into roles like Caesar in his new blockbuster, “War for the Planet of the Apes.”
Serkis is among several actors we’ve singled out for delivering great performances that transcend the special effects or extreme makeup that define their characters. Many of Serkis’ major roles, like Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” involve performance capture, in which an actor’s movements and facial expressions are recorded and then digitally rendered in postproduction with a totally different look.
Here are 10 other memorable performances where actors made us forget the alterations, while also rendering themselves unrecognizable.
Robin Williams, ‘Bicentennial Man’ (1999)
Williams, at his sappy best, played Andrew Martin, a familyfriendly household android in “Bicentennial Man,” trying to find his way in the world as he develops the use of emotion and increasingly desires freedom. As The New York Times put it at the time, Williams “wants to tickle our funny bones while going for the emotional jugular with drippy, sugar-coated New Age sentiments.”
While the movie has the brilliant physical gags that Williams became synonymous with — Hey, look, it’s an android falling out a window! — it’s the more vulnerable moments that elevate his performance, especially as Andrew deals with the aging and death of those he cares about while going on to live himself.
Brad Pitt, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’ 2008
In another movie dealing with mortality, Pitt turned in a masterful performance in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — a David Fincher film about de-aging. Pitt was nominated for an Oscar for this role, in which he deftly navigates playing an old man who knows very little about the world and grows younger until he is a dying baby who has seen it all.
And in a testament to the computer generation skills behind the movie, the film won three Oscars: best achievement in art direction, makeup, and visual effects.
Boris Karloff, ‘Frankenstein’ (1931)
A Mount Rushmore for horror movie performances would surely include Karloff ’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel. Karloff ’s role, mostly delivered in grunts, was terrifying, imposing, and showed a cold detachment that has made the movie a part of pop culture lore.
The makeup, which showed grisly bolts sticking out of the monster’s neck, added to the ghoulishness that accompanied Karloff ’s performance.
There are glimpses of a monster that tries (and fails) to grasp the world, captured by an actor whose name appears in the opening credits as “?”
Karloff’s title role was a small part of a large body of work — but it is the monster for which he is most known. Zoe Saldana, ‘Avatar’ (2009) Saldana didn’t just have to master performance capture for her portrayal of the warrior Neytiri in “Avatar.”
She also had to learn a made-up language: Na’vi.
“Avatar” is a dizzying visual journey, but to supplement the film’s resplendent effects, Saldana said she had a skill that enhanced her performance.
“I think I would have never booked ‘Avatar’ if it weren’t for my ballet background,” Saldana told The New York Times in May. “The actress James Cameron wanted was physically able. I thank god for something like ballet, which gave that space for me to be by myself and find peace. Ballet was my meditation, my therapy, my escape, my answer.”
Jim Carrey, ‘Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ (2000)
The New York Times review called the movie “shrill,” “overstuffed,” “spiritless,” — you get the point.
But this list isn’t about movies. It’s about performances. And Carrey’s portrayal of the Grinch, a beloved character penned by Dr. Seuss, was the lone bright spot in an otherwise dreary movie.
While most roles requiring heavy makeup or computer generated effects feature the performer disappearing into the character, Carrey amplifies the tendencies he is best known for: loud, obnoxious, over-the-top and exaggerated. It is quintessential Jim Carrey and he somewhat rescues a movie that might otherwise be viewed as a pointless retread.
Andy Serkis, ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ (2001)
Serkis’ riveting turn as Gollum was spread out over three “Lord of the Rings” films and in one of the “Hobbit” prequels. The role, like much of the visual effects work by the director Peter Jackson, was groundbreaking. Serkis, without ever showing his face, nimbly displayed the manic and depressive mannerisms of the creature and combined them with a grating, scratchy voice to portray emotions ranging from extreme despair to intoxicating joy.
A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times that this role, along with Serkis’ part in “King Kong,” showed that he was “redefining screen acting for the digital age.”
Eddie Murphy, ‘The Nutty Professor’ (1996)
Here is the full list of characters that Murphy played: Sherman Klump, Buddy Love, Lance Perkins, Papa Klump, Mama Klump, Grandma Klump and Ernie Klump.
That’s a lot of Klumps. That’s a lot of physical comedy. And more important, it’s a lot of Eddie Murphy at his best. It was billed as a comeback and the makeup work was deemed “mind-boggling” in the New York Times review. And more:
“Murphy proves himself a surprisingly strong actor here, playing Sherman with sweetness and poignancy, not to mention loads of funny weight-related humour,” Janet Maslin wrote at the time.
John Hurt, ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980)
Hurt, who died in January, was almost wholly unrecognizable in his 1980 turn as “Elephant Man,” for which he was Oscar-nominated. His performance was hailed as “extraordinary,” and the director of the film, David Lynch, called Hurt “the greatest actor in the world” a decade after its release.
James Earl Jones, David Prowse, ‘Star Wars’ (1977)
The role of Darth Vader has permeated pop culture. It was famously a dual performance (Prowse played the physical role, and Jones re-recorded Prowse’s lines to provide the voice) in the original trio of “Star Wars” movies.
Jones’ voice — deep, monotone and raspy — gets most of the attention for the role. But the threatening lines that are so quotable now — “I find your lack of faith disturbing!” — are made possible by the sheer imposing presence of Prowse, a tall former bodybuilder, and an allblack costume, punctuated by the threatening mask.
Helena Bonham Carter, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (2010)
Tim Burton’s adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” received critically mixed reviews. It received only a 52 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. The New York Times said it was a “long fall turned long haul, despite the Burtonian flourishes.” But there was undeniable acclaim for the visual effects of the movie, which won two Oscars for best achievement in costume design and art direction.
Bonham Carter was the Red Queen, and she inserted casual cruelty with a hint of the charm that she brought to the “Harry Potter” series with delightful skill. It was the kind of quirky part that was perfect for Bonham Carter — requiring a total buy-in, which she did with witty gusto.
Neytiri, voiced by Zoe Saldana, left, and the character Jake, voiced by Sam Worthington in “Avatar.”
Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis, in a scene from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
Jim Carrey, as the Grinch in the movie adaptation of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”
Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland.”
Brad Pitt in a scene from, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”