You won't believe her nose, his flab, their hair

Actor Kidman alters her lovely looks, following in a grand cinema tradition

Film

January 12, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | By Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

For all the attention it's been getting, you'd think Nicole Kidman's nose was the star of The Hours, the much-acclaimed film, opening next week in Baltimore, about three women whose lives are affected by the works of author Virginia Woolf.

To portray Woolf, Kidman sports a fake proboscis that transforms one of Hollywood's most stunning beauties into, well, a frumpy intellectual. As the cover of last week's Entertain-ment Weekly promised: "You Won't Believe Your Eyes." That's true enough; the woman gazing out dourly from movie posters for The Hours bears little resemblance to the star of Moulin Rouge and Eyes Wide Shut.

But Kidman is hardly the first person to tinker with his or her appearance to satisfy the cinematic muse; heck, John Huston's The List of Adrian Messenger was really all about famous actors (Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, et. al.) wearing disguises. And anyone who's ever seen The Wizard of Oz -- here's betting you wouldn't have recognized Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion), Jack Haley (The Tin Woodsman) or Ray Bolger (The Scarecrow) if you'd run into them walking down the street.

So while it's a fact that Kidman's transformation is remarkable for both its subtlety and its effectiveness (amazing what a nose can do), she's following a path hundreds of other actors have trod before.

Here's a baker's dozen examples of famous faces (and other body parts) altered for the big screen:

* Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). The original movie chameleon, Chaney was so famous for changing his appearance to suit a role that fans were said to have no idea what he really looked like. In a career that included roles from an armless knife-thrower and a clown who makes a living getting slapped to Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, he was never more memorable -- nor more unrecognizable -- than in Phantom. With his eyes bugged out, his nostrils pinched and stretched and his hair all-but-obliterated, Chaney's visage was the stuff of nightmares. So startling was his appearance that lobby cards for the film were careful to blot out his face, to ensure that movie audiences jumped for real when Mary Philbin unmasked him. The strategy worked, and a horror icon for the ages was born.

* Boris Karloff in Franken-stein (1931). The opening credits for James Whale's horror classic list the Monster as played by... "??????." And the mystery only deepens when Henry Franken-stein's soulless creation first appears onscreen, his head the shape of a gallon pickle jar, bolts (electrodes, actually) protruding from both sides of his neck, his eyes so far receded that they seemed closer to the back of his skull than the front. It wasn't any fun for Karloff, wearing makeup-maestro Jack Pierce's brilliantly macabre creation (it took hours to apply every morning, and the actor was still feeling its painful effects for months afterward), but it made his career.

* Jose Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) and Steve Martin in Roxanne (1987). Nicole Kidman is certainly not the first actor to don a fake nose in the name of art -- not in a world where Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, about a man of letters with an oversized schnozz who writes love letters for his word-challenged friend, has been a dramatic staple for more than a century. Ferrer won an Oscar for his starring role in a screen version of Rostand's play, while Martin's film was a modern update, with the protagonist no longer a soldier, but a small-town fire chief.

* Grace Kelly in The Country Girl (1954) and Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). For years, the surest way for an actress to win critical acclaim was to play a role sans makeup; audiences would marvel at how plain she looked onscreen, critics would applaud her bravery and the awards would start rolling in. In 1954, two years before leaving Holly-wood to become a real-life princess, Grace Kelly glammed herself down to play the determined, obsessive wife of alcoholic Bing Crosby in The Country Girl, and won an Oscar (over Judy Garland, who should have won for A Star Is Born). For Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Elizabeth Taylor turned both frumpy and shrill; she, likewise, won the golden statue.

* Laurence Olivier in Richard III (1956). Olivier was handsome, dashing, athletic and one of the greatest actors ever. But only one of those traits -- the last -- was apparent in perhaps his greatest film performance, as Shakespeare's insidiously male-volent English monarch. The actor spent three hours each day putting on his prosthetics, including a fake nose, fake hand, hunched back and black wig, but the results were worth every minute. Oscar-nominated, he lost to Yul Brynner (he of the famously shaved head) in The King and I.

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