Cinema has come a long way. Advancements such as computer-generated imagery, or CGI, have given filmmakers an opportunity to tell whatever stories they want on the big screen, no matter what limitations they previously faced. We live in an era where if a filmmaker sees it in his head, it can almost certainly be created. In the age of “Avatar,” the sky is the limit.
However, there is one exception. In one particular area, try as they might, the film industry can never seem to get it right. This, of course, is aging makeup. It is a strange cinematic landscape when James Cameron can create the planet Pandora out of thin air, yet filmmakers hit a wall whenever they attempt to make an actor look just 40 years older.
This has been a glaring problem forever, and it has reared its ugly head multiple times in 2011. The most-viewed example is undoubtedly the epilogue in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” in which the characters got together for a cringe-inducing sequence worthy of Internet fan fiction. Yet, this scene is not only distracting because of the material, which J.K. Rowling wrote herself, but also because the likes of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and company could not look less convincing as middle-aged parents. They look more like kids playing dress-up.
The most recent example is the profoundly flawed biopic “J. Edgar,” in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays the eponymous director of the FBI at just about every point in his life. Much of the film takes place in Hoover’s old age, and as a result much of DiCaprio’s performance is hindered by extensive makeup.
This is a problem because in Hollywood, where movies are so intent on casting well-known celebrities, it ruins the illusion when the stars begin to look the slightest bit unnatural. Only when all the elements of the film work – the performance, the script and the direction – does the makeup have a chance to pass unnoticed. In the case of “J. Edgar,” it winds up just looking like DiCaprio with a wrinkly face and a fat suit.
One can go on and on about several examples of aging makeup falling flat, such as Al Pacino’s in “The Godfather: Part III” and just about everyone in the “Back to the Future” series. However, it is also important to remember an example when it actually worked: Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” In that film, which tells the story of theater director Caden Cotard’s struggle to balance his private life as he looks to launch a new play. Cotard is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Hoffman’s makeup is applied slowly so that the change is more gradual. Thus, it is believable, though it also helps that the film’s execution was so darn brilliant.
If there’s a grand rule to be followed, it is that aging makeup should be avoided at all costs. It’s so nearly impossible to do well that it hardly ever seems worth all the trouble. If it absolutely must be done in order to effectively tell the story, then filmmakers need to remember that just a little can go a long way.