Oscars: Why So Many A-List Actresses Are Ditching the Makeup

Cake Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Cake Still - H 2014

Raw? Vulnerable? Hey, that’s what visible pores communicate this awards season as Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and other glamour gals deliberately go au naturel: "They seem to love the relief of authenticity"

When actors dramatically alter their matinee-idol good looks -- as Matthew McConaughey did last year, wasting away for Dallas Buyers Club, and Daniel Day-Lewis did the year before, stretching and stippling his skin in Lincoln -- they are rewarded with Oscars. But for actresses looking to be taken seriously, the transformative trick can be as simple as removing their makeup -- which, of course, is actually far from a simple proposition.

Leading actresses all feel the pervasive pressure to be a "Hollywood beauty," both onscreen and off. (Well, maybe Judi Dench is immune, but no one else seems to be.) But 2014 is shaping up to be the year that glamour girls eschew the pancake.

Now, when Melissa McCarthy takes off her makeup for St. Vincent, it's hardly big news. And one expects a certain unadorned reality in a movie like Birdman, with its warts-and-all take on the New York theater scene. As the movie's makeup artist Judy Chin explains, Lindsay Duncan, who plays a terrifying New York Times theater critic, "wouldn't waste precious time putting on makeup. She has no tolerance for anything remotely insincere. Lindsay was very into the look, and all our ladies -- Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts -- wore very little foundation; I hate to hide an actor's skin behind foundation. There's definitely a sense of raw reality in this film."

But when Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Patricia Arquette and Hilary Swank set aside their pretty-girl exteriors to play roughened characters whom life has kicked around, then we are witnessing a genuine trend. (Or, at least, the revival of one, since the tactic helped Halle Berry and Charlize Theron earn Oscars for Monster's Ball and Monster, respectively.)

When Witherspoon first met with director Jean-Marc Vallee to discuss playing Cheryl Strayed in Wild, which opens Dec. 5, he told her there would be no hair and makeup -- and he ordered the mirrors covered in her dressing room. "We even made her look worse in the drug scenes, we even put bags under her eyes," says Wild makeup artist Robin Mathews. "Jean-Marc wanted raw, gritty. Reese wanted a little makeup -- she thought it might be harsh for the audience to look at that for two hours. But she did it Jean-Marc's way. We had no help from lighting, as outdoors it was all ambient light. We didn't want the Hollywood version of Reese, but making her look downtrodden was actually difficult to do." Without makeup, the critics have noted, the actress is more emotionally naked, vulnerable and serious -- which is to say, more worthy of an Oscar. "If Cheryl was brave enough to give up every part of her vanity in the book," Witherspoon has said, "I have to be brave enough to show myself like that onscreen."

In Boyhood, Arquette not only aged 12 years -- quite literally -- she also had to look like something of a beleaguered frump while doing it. "I knew the audience would watch me getting older," Arquette tells THR. "That's what was exciting about it. It's authentic, revealing, very human. We all agreed we needed to look like real people. Real people don't have the finances to live constantly curated lives. It's all about her kids. She doesn't have a hairstylist all the time. She can't be bothered to look like those kind of Hollywood people stuck in the cheerleader phase." As a consequence of Boyhood's success, Arquette thinks movie studios might want to reconsider "what they think people want to see. We gave them real life, and they seem to love the relief of authenticity. This movie has a subtle beauty that people appreciate honestly -- I think they even respond emotionally to my changing, unmade-up face."

Swank, who's won two Oscars by going au naturel in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, went makeup-free once again to play an unmarried prairie woman who constantly is referred to as "plain." "If you're playing a character who is not wearing makeup, you're not really wearing makeup," Swank tells THR. "I feel like it's so important to be honest in any portrayal of any character you are playing. You shouldn't be a part of telling a story if you don't want to tell it as honestly as possible, and that constitutes the way that you look. We have to constantly break down these labels and try and defy stereotypes. People in the movie call her plain, but to me she's one of the most beautiful characters I've played because of who she is on the inside and who she is as a person."

Aniston has it the toughest, though, in Cake, which will have an awards-qualifying run in Los Angeles beginning Dec. 31. She not only portrays a woman who, post-car accident, is in real pain, but she also has a big scar running down her unmade-up face. "I didn't want her to wear a stitch of makeup," director Daniel Barnz has said. "You can see wrinkles and pores -- this is a woman who doesn't take care of herself." Aniston, speaking at a recent Q&A, admitted, "When I read the script, I was ready to disappear." Being without makeup, explained Aniston, was "so fabulous, so dreamy and empowering and liberating. The only time I had to sit in the makeup chair was just for the scars!" Will it pay off? Aniston's name is already being bandied about as Oscar-worthy. Perhaps that raw talent was just waiting to be discovered beneath those blond highlights and mascara all along?

This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.