New images from the set of Ridley Scott’s Gucci, a crime drama centered on the assassination of former fashion house head Maurizio Gucci, revealed the all-star cast in a variety of period costumes. Lady Gaga seems to be having the time of her life dressed in an array of couture, while Adam Driver wears Austin Powers-esque numbers and is giddily fed food by his much shorter colleague. And then there’s Jared Leto. Fresh from not getting another Oscar nomination and living in a society with Ben Affleck, Leto was shown in character as Paolo Gucci, the former vice-president and managing director both of Gucci Shops Inc and Gucci Parfums of America. Leto was shown wearing heavy prosthetics to look older, larger, and balding, much like the elder Gucci.
Plenty of headlines leaped at the opportunity to celebrate how ‘unrecognizable’ Leto was in the role, with many already kicking off awards buzz for a performance nobody has yet seen. This is nothing new, of course. Gucci is the kind of movie that Oscar hype is made for: a biographical drama directed by a beloved filmmaker with an all-star cast in a series of beautiful gowns, all playing up the notion of a transformative experience. As we’ve discussed before, this is also nothing new for Leto, who spent years selling himself as the uber-method artiste, a figure whose dramatic physical metamorphoses coincided with endless played-up self-flagellation and questionable interactions with colleagues. We haven’t heard any stories of Lady Gaga receiving dead rats in Gucci handbags yet, but the Leto transformation is certainly guaranteeing a few fresh sets of eyeballs on this much-anticipated production.
Jared Leto als Robert Duvall in "House of Gucci" von Ridley Scott. pic.twitter.com/XkzDfwPNOl— Stephan Brenneisen (@LeBigStephen) March 17, 2021
The idea of de-glamming is a crucial part of Hollywood lore. In the golden era of the American film industry, actors were prized as figures of style and luxury. ‘Relatability’ was seldom a concern for the likes of Gloria Swanson and her gold-plated bathtub. Audiences wanted larger-than-life figures and star quality was the driving force of casting decisions. Actors who didn’t fit those narrow confines, even after dramatic makeovers, were often left on the sidelines or forced to figure out a route to the A-List themselves. Bette Davis was considered too unattractive for many studios, despite her impeccable acting range. Poor Judy Garland was berated from the earliest days of her career as a child actor for being too chubby, too plain, and devoid of the sex appeal of fellow MGM contract stars like Lana Turner. Exceptions to the rule, such as Marie Dressler, (the fourth woman to win the Best Actress Oscar), were few and far between.
To de-glam, a process not exclusively reserved for women but certainly prized more, was to reject those labels, but it was also a way to celebrate range. What better way to show your skill as a true actor than to abandon the glitz of Hollywood in favor of the supposedly real? It worked for Grace Kelly when she won her Oscar for The Country Girl. The lion’s share of this tactic, however, seems to have taken root in later decades. Consider Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, a figurehead of a new generation of acting style defined by the notion of unrecognizability. Meryl Streep’s entire career has been defined by her transformative power, although it’s worth noting that it wasn’t wholly done through physical changes. Over the past thirty or so years, the notion of a totally immersive performance, where the star and the work are seemingly totally separate, became the prized norm. Lose weight, put on a fake nose, gain weight, wear a wig, get super old, stop being pretty.
Nicole Kidman wins her Oscar with the help of a much-derided fake nose, but that prosthetic did its job and made her unrecognizable as the former Mrs. Tom Cruise. Charlize Theron’s impeccable performance in Monster is frequently reduced to her changed appearance, although she really didn’t go through that much in the grand scheme of things. Half the time, women don’t even need to make that kind of commitment to be lauded for their de-glamming bravery. Remember when Jennifer Aniston’s, ahem, ‘transformation’ for Cake involved her not wearing makeup and letting her hair go a bit greasy?
I don’t say this to deride the actresses. It’s more an issue of how the politics of beauty continue to overwhelmingly rule our mainstream pop-culture market. The film industry in particular has an increasingly narrow definition of talent that has ultimately impacted the craft of acting for the worse. It’s an extension of the fetishizing and bastardizing of method acting, turning the mere act of borrowing from one’s own experiences to tap into an emotional reality into an endlessly masochistic cycle of self-abuse and treating your colleagues like dirt in the name of art. It’s just easier to judge something as good or bad when we see the tools at work. That’s one of the reasons why biopic performances are so favored by the Academy: you have something to compare the work to. With de-glamming, the concept is near-identical: you have a before/after image to show off in every glossy magazine profile or nominees’ dinner celebration. Look at how good they were at not being stunningly attractive for a twelve-week shoot!
Things like the endless assembly line of hackneyed Jared Leto transformations are intended to show the wide range of acting skills on display, but personally, I think it does the exact opposite. It’s distracting as all hell to see someone’s face blown up to the size of a cinema screen and have all of the micro-expressions and emotional realness of acting concealed under fake jowls and fast weight gain. I don’t think of how good the acting is. Instead, I wonder how Leto’s metabolism is doing, or how sweaty it is under the bald cap.
I’m not saying that actors should never change their appearance for a role. It’s a key part of the gig, and when done well, it can heighten a performance to new levels. My issue is more with how this overblown process has both lessened the impact of certain actors and further turned the idea of being ‘ugly’ into some sort of prized tool that can be donned like an expensive jacket when the occasion calls for it. Appropriate casting is shoved aside in favor of blind adherence to the transformation, regardless of whether or not it works for the role or project. Was Jared Leto really the best choice for the role of Paolo Gucci? Was John Carroll Lynch unavailable? Why is it more worthy to get someone to gain weight and fake baldness than to cast a great fat bald actor of appropriate age who would bring the right level of gravitas to the character? You’d think that the director who had to replace a prosthetics-smothered Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer would understand that. Maybe if Lynch was a Gucci ambassador, we’d see things a little more clearly.
The entertainment industry has a long way to go when it comes to separating talent from aesthetics. It’s doubtful that this much-needed change will occur when there is still so much mileage to be milked from this unbearable fetish of tedious transformation. Prepare yourselves for the fawning over Leto’s trite and deeply repetitious shtick now, or at least until he’s replaced by whoever is our new Christopher Plummer.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.