1. Charlize Theron, Monster (2003)
Charlize Theron’s starring turn in Monster as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos quickly became the go-to example to illustrate the theory that the best way for an attractive star to win an Oscar is to selflessly “go ugly” for a role. And Theron does go impressively ugly as Wuornos, with lank hair, scabby skin, puffy eyes, and crude, graceless mannerisms. But Theron doesn’t just fall back on her makeup artists: She does an impressive job of embodying Wuornos’ unflatteringly rough, alternately weak and arrogant personality. Watching Theron struggle, sob, and snarl her way through Monster, it’s hard to believe she was ever considered attractive, before or since, though it’s easy enough to understand why she won that Oscar: It’s a striking, respectable, fully embodied performance.
2. Joaquin Phoenix, I’m Still Here (2010)
Whether you love I’m Still Here, hate it, or remain completely indifferent to it—as so many did—it’s hard to argue that it failed to adequately de-glam its star. The supposed documentary about Joaquin Phoenix’s “lost year” of quitting acting and trying to make a go of a rap career was eventually revealed as a put-on, but in order to make it work, Phoenix gained weight, grew his hair and beard out into a greasy, unkempt mountain-man shag, and slurred, whined, stumbled, or stared his way through a series of public appearances. He certainly came across as what he pretended to be: a celebrity on the slide, losing control of his body, image, and mind. It’s an impressively egoless acting job, and a remarkable case of a performer de-glamming himself more successfully than his peers often do even when they have a studio full of designers, makeup artists, and acting coaches.
3. Johnny Depp, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)
When playing a character whose menu for a road trip to Las Vegas consists of, among other things, “two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, (and) laughers,” it’s a given that things are going to get ugly. The chasm between silver-screen heartthrob Johnny Depp and reprehensible gonzo journalist Raoul Duke—the alter ego of Hunter S. Thompson—might have seemed too wide to traverse. But after Thompson declared that no one but Depp could possibly play him in the adaptation of his drug-fueled travelogue, Thompson did everything in his power to help Depp look the part, offering up items from his personal wardrobe as well as such key props as Duke’s ubiquitous cigarette holder. The most significant physical transformation involved Depp’s hairline, but Thompson assisted the actor on that point as well, personally shaving Depp’s head to precisely match Thompson’s own male pattern baldness.
4. Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt (2002)
The protagonist of Louis Begley’s novel About Schmidt sounds like the kind of slick, glamorous role a giant movie star like Jack Nicholson would play: a rich, successful divorce lawyer apoplectic that his daughter is marrying a Jew. That character bears only a fuzzy resemblance to the character actually played in Alexander Payne’s loose adaptation of About Schmidt. Here, Nicholson’s character—now an Omaha-based insurance actuary—is defined by his complete lack of distinction. Nicholson only has to smile to light up the screen, but he puts his grin into cold storage to play a man stumbling through a world he doesn’t understand. The transformation is psychological as well as physical: Nicholson gets inside the company man’s banal psyche as he struggles to find his footing.
5. Henry Fonda, Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
Throughout most of his career, Henry Fonda was an avatar of decency and moral certitude, a lean, handsome actor whose presence implied a standard that others would have to meet. Here was the man who played an idealistic small-town lawyer in 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln, delivered the stirring “I’ll be there” monologue in 1940’s The Grapes Of Wrath, tamed Barbara Stanwyck’s thieving seductress in 1941’s The Lady Eve, and retired peacefully in the genial 1981 soaper On Golden Pond. Yet for one magnificent, anomalous role, Fonda’s blue eyes turned pitilessly cold as the villain in Sergio Leone’s 1968 spaghetti-Western classic Once Upon A Time In The West. Appearing with a scruffy face and grown-out sideburns, Fonda makes a stunning entrance: Looking down on the pleading eyes of a young prairie boy who survived Fonda and his men slaughtering the kid’s family. Then Fonda issues a death warrant, and with that, he and Leone brilliantly turned his screen persona on its head.
6. Anna Faris, Smiley Face (2007)
The idea that there’s something brave about beautiful people playing unbeautiful people doesn’t apply to mere slobs. It’s one thing to pack on pounds or slap on latex, another to simply allow yourself to look like shit. As the congenital pothead in Gregg Araki’s superlative stoner tale, Anna Faris looks as if she’s been subsisting on a diet of Mountain Dew and Cool Ranch Doritos for years, her sallow skin and stringy hair attesting to a life spent within arm’s reach of a bong. There isn’t a shred of vanity in Faris’ performance, not even the inverse kind in which actors flaunt their willingness to explore the ugly side of human existence. Unshowered and almost asexual, she looks like someone whose eyes are too bleary to look in the mirror.
7. Katharine Hepburn, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
Born into a wealthy family from Connecticut, Katharine Hepburn was for decades the image of aristocracy: The prominent cheekbones, the famously lilting voice, the elegant coiffure. As a comedian, Hepburn exploited this quality brilliantly in classics like Bringing Up Baby, Adam’s Rib, and The African Queen, where part of the comedy rose from her willingness to be taken down a peg—all while maintaining her dignity, of course. But as Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addicted matriarch in Sidney Lumet’s 1962 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Hepburn let herself reveal what happens when all that privilege goes to seed. The performance seems of a piece with her earlier work, the tragic underside to a persona built on high-toned ebullience.
8. Mariah Carey, Precious (2009)
The slings and arrows she suffered as a result of headlining 2001’s Glitter didn’t stop Mariah Carey from pulling in subsequent acting gigs, albeit usually in such forgettable films as 2002’s Wisegirls and 2008’s Tennessee. Carey turned in her strongest performance to date while looking so haggard that many theatergoers didn’t even recognize her: As Mrs. Weiss, the social worker who helps Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) deal with the myriad struggles in her life, the pop diva disappears into a role that was originally meant for Helen Mirren. Carey’s transformation into Weiss, a stringy-haired brunette who favors a makeup free existence and dresses in the dowdy wardrobe of the average cubicle-bound civil servant, is so successful that it almost makes it possible to forget about Glitter heroine Billie Frank. Almost.
9-10. Christian Bale, The Machinist (2004) and The Fighter (2010)
It’s nothing new for actors to lose weight in order to get a part or to feel more comfortable in the shoes of the character they’re playing, but Christian Bale’s devoted efforts to fit the role of a disintegrating insomniac in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist veered somewhere between the heroic and the ridiculous. Living on a diet of little more than coffee and apples, Bale lost 63 pounds in only a few months, giving him an authentically gaunt appearance that suited his haunted character and the film’s unbearably grim tone. After returning to his fighting weight to play the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Bale then lost it all over again to play a crack addict in David O. Russell’s The Fighter. This time, though, he at least earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his trouble. Once again, the transformation is remarkable, though like fellow ugly enthusiasts Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt, Bale sometimes seems to choose roles solely on the basis of how hideous they make him look.
11. Cameron Diaz, Being John Malkovich (1999)
Cameron Diaz was introduced to audiences as a lusty cartoon of female sexuality in 1994’s The Mask. It was a glamour-girl role, but there is not a shred of vanity or dignity to her performance as a desperately sad woman afforded an unusual opportunity to live out her transgender fantasies by literally slipping inside the skin of John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. Diaz isn’t alone in aggressively embracing physical and emotional ugliness: As a scheming, deeply depressed puppeteer, John Cusack cuts a distinctly pathetic figure that presages future de-glammed roles in sorrowful movies like The Ice Harvest and Hot Tub Time Machine. Being John Malkovich even features an unexpectedly de-glammed performance from an actor who usually played slick movie-star types: Charlie Sheen.
12. Catherine Deneuve, Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Leave it to willfully perverse director Lars von Trier to transform Catherine Deneuve, one of the most durably glamorous French movie stars, into a soot-smeared factory worker. In Dancer In The Dark, Deneuve plays a co-worker and confidant to Björk’s noble martyr, kindly offering advice as the machines threaten to eat them both alive. The stunt casting may seem like a dark joke—and was likely intended that way, given von Trier’s reputation—but Deneuve takes surprisingly well to a role that requires no makeup and subjects her to the unflattering murk of digital video. In fact, Deneuve gets to reveal what we should have known all along: Her red-carpet appeal often obscures the fact that she’s a real actress, too.
13. Brad Pitt, 12 Monkeys (1995)
In her book The Star Machine, Jeanine Basinger writes that macho male actors often adopt an ironic detachment from their characters to distance themselves from an often-ridiculous craft that prominently involves putting on makeup and prancing about in costumes. For someone like Bruce Willis, that means regularly winking to the audience to let them know that they aren’t any more invested in the elaborate games of make-pretend than they are. Actors like Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt take a different approach: They subvert the inherently effete nature of acting by making themselves look as hideous and deranged and ugly as possible. Accordingly, Pitt’s wild-eyed performance as a deranged animal-rights activist who may be responsible for the coming apocalypse boasts an anti-vanity rooted in Pitt’s willingness to go as deep into ugliness and insanity as possible. There are few souls in the world more telegenic than Pitt, but in 12 Monkeys, his character is disturbing on an almost biological level.
14. Jean-Claude Van Damme, JCVD (2008)
The clever postmodern thriller JCVD didn’t need makeup or costuming to make Jean-Claude Van Damme look like a shell of a man whose fabled beauty has curdled into something strange and sad; life did that on the film’s behalf. In JCVD, Van Damme takes an almost perverse delight in exposing a lifetime of scars both physical and psychological. Playing himself as a has-been who gets caught up in a robbery, Van Damme looks weathered, worn, and worse for wear. As the bravura opening sequence conveys, he’s lost a step, and his pretty-boy looks have atrophied into a strange, over-Botoxed cocktail. But more than anything, Van Damme succeeds in conveying the utter exhaustion of a man with nothing left to lose. In a dizzyingly postmodern twist, a glamorous movie star here successfully plays himself as a man who once looked like a glamorous movie star, but doesn’t any longer, and hasn’t for a long time.
15. Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men (2007)
Veteran Spanish actor Javier Bardem broke into the Hollywood leading-man pantheon when he starred opposite Julia Roberts in 2010’s Eat Pray Love. It’s a wonder he made it. Although he’d been nominated for an Oscar for his role in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, most Americans’ first long look at Bardem came from No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers’ oddly meditative thriller, in which the actor buries his chiseled, smoldering good looks and magnetic charm under a goofy Ramones haircut and a storm cloud of homicidal psychopathy. Granted, he smolders in No Country, just not in a sexy way; cast as an elemental force of evil in the form of a coin-flipping hit man named Anton Chigurh, Bardem plays the role with an almost archetypal inhumanness. He snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his disturbing turn as Chigurh, and it’s a good thing; accepting the award on national TV—sans the pageboy and dead-eyed glower—helped reinstall the rugged glamour the Coens so effectively flensed away.
16. Sylvester Stallone, Cop Land (1997)
This may not be a great truth, but there is something to the fact that actors (especially those with limited range) are often at their best when they play characters who aren’t as awesome as they are. Sylvester Stallone demonstrated this well in the original Rocky, before the sequels transformed the titular character into a superhero capable of single-handedly defeating communism and Hulk Hogan. (His Rambo followed a similar arc.) After more than a decade of increasingly implausible, ridiculously badass leading-man roles, Stallone attempted to recapture the magic of the film that made him famous with 1997’s Cop Land. He plays a police officer, but one about as far removed from Stallone’s more traditional action-movie hero as can be imagined. As a sheriff in a New Jersey suburb of New York who starts to suspect the people he works with and around are entrenched in systemic corruption, Stallone is slow-witted, dull, and looks like he could maybe manage to punch a barn, if the barn was kind enough not to pull any fast ones. Even more importantly, the actor, who built his career on being in terrific shape, gained 40 pounds for the role of a past-his-prime-if-he-ever-had-one lawman. Cop Land received mixed-to-positive reviews, with some critics arguing that the movie turned to wish-fulfillment in the shootout finale, but Stallone was praised for his efforts. It was a solid show of humility and thoughtfulness from an actor who’s rarely known for either quality.
Don’t miss the companion Inventory: Am I ugly enough for an Oscar now? 17-plus unsuccessful attempts to de-glamorize movie stars.