In which the art of the ac­tor shines through the spe­cial ef­fects and ex­treme makeup

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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.”

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