Makeup artists change the way we see movies. They can transform actors completely, rendering them unrecognizable. Or they can alter their looks just enough that we’re convinced they’re someone else. They can make people older or younger, turn them into historical figures who are long gone, or into monsters we’ve never encountered before. And when it’s done really well, we, as viewers, don’t even realize it’s happening. Below are just a few epic Oscar-winning movie transformations worth rewatching—and the makers behind the magic.
In this John Landis film, two college students backpacking through Britain are attacked by a wolf. One dies and the other is left with a large bite—one that might just turn him into a werewolf. The special effects makeup here is the genius work of Rick Baker, lifelong “monster kid” and record-holding winner of seven Academy Awards for Makeup (out of 12 nominations). An American Werewolf in London landed Baker his first Oscar in the category. It was also the first ever awarded; the category was established that year and has since evolved to encompass both hairstyling and makeup. Watch Baker’s acceptance speech here.
David Cronenberg’s The Fly is arguably the film that launched Jeff Goldblum to fame. In it, Goldblum stars as scientist Seth Brundle, who, while experimenting with his teleportation device, transforms into a man/fly hybrid known as Brundlefly. The changes start off subtle, like blotchy skin, and grow more and more grotesque, including splitting skin and a fly tongue. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is a feat of makeup artistry. Watch as Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis win the Oscar for Makeup for their painstaking work on the film.
Say it three times fast. For Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice—about a dead couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) that hires a ghoul to help them get rid of the family that’s taken over their house—makeup artist Ve Neill and Burton collaborated closely on what the final character would look like. Going off Burton’s initial sketches, Neill created a Beetlejuice that looked like “a nasty old derelict,” too creepy for a dark comedy. The team shifted gears; using pastel skin tones, decaying teeth and a prosthetic nose, Michael Keaton’s final Beetlejuice transformation was complete. The film earned Neill her first of three Oscars (the other two were for Mrs. Doubtfire and Ed Wood). Watch as she, Steve LaPorte and Robert Short receive the Oscar.
Jim Carrey spends the entirety of this Ron Howard Christmas film as the titular grinch—which means he spent hours in the makeup chair each time the getup had to be applied (for a total of 92 days). The actor even consulted a CIA expert on how to stay calm during countless hours in the makeup chair; Carrey considered the process akin to “being buried alive.” Behind all the prosthetics and yak hair and yellow contact lenses were the legendary Rick Baker, Gail Ryan and Kazuhiro Tsuji—along with 150 other professionals who pulled off a believable Whoville. Watch as Baker and Ryan receive the Oscar for Makeup.
Not all effective movie transformations implicate werewolves or monsters. Sometimes, the best effects simply age actors significantly—or, in the case of Benjamin Button, age them in reverse. In this David Fincher film, Button (played by Brad Pitt) is “born” as an elderly man in a New Orleans nursing home, and ages backward, propelled by a lifelong relationship with a woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett). Makeup artist Greg Cannom’s team did intense makeup tests for every age for weeks leading up to shooting. He said, rightly, “The makeup had to work or the film wouldn’t work.” Watch as Cannom accepts the Oscar for Makeup.
In Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep is Margaret Thatcher—thanks to an Oscar-worthy performance, but also to Oscar-worthy makeup. Prosthetics genius Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland (Streep’s makeup artist for over four decades) led a team of artists in turning Streep into the British Prime Minister, relying on a prosthetic nose, dentures and painted-in wrinkles to complete the transformation. Even her hands were painted with liver spots; Streep also wore rubber bands on her wrists to make her veins more noticeable onscreen. Watch as Coulier and Helland accept their Oscar. (For more Oscar-winning political figure transformations, check out Darkest Hour and Vice.)