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Why Do So Many Women "Act Ugly" in Pursuit of an Oscar?

From 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf' to 'Gone Girl.'

20th Century Fox/Newmarket Films Media 8

Look at a list of recent winners of the Academy Award for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, and you’ll some commonalities. Within the past 15 years, Hilary Swank, Anne Hathaway, Melissa Leo, Marion Cotillard, Helen Mirren, and Meryl Streep have all taken home gold statuettes for roles that not only stripped them of their Hollywood trappings, but also rendered them almost unrecognizable: wreathing her in a rime of sweat and grime, submerging her slender frame in fat, or making her look, simply, like someone else. Hilary Swank struck gold twice. If this trend is any indication, the Best Actress Award at this year’s ceremony could easily find its way into the hands of Julianne Moore, Rosamund Pike, or Reese Witherspoon, all of whom are nominated for performances that allowed audiences to see them fully denuded of their stardom. Jennifer Aniston might have been hoping for similar acclaim: Her performance in Cake, according to Vanity Fair, had “everything awards-season dreams are made of: critical buzz, playing against type, and a dramatic make-under for one of Hollywood’s most glamorous actresses.” But why do so many actresses feel the need—as one headline bluntly put it—to “go ugly” in pursuit of an Oscar, and is it really necessary?

In trying to pin the “dramatic make-under” trend’s epicenter to a recent Oscar win, it’s hard to look any further than Charlize Theron’s 2004 Best Actress Award for her role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monstera turn that led Vogue magazine to drily dub her “the gold standard in deglamorized actresses.” Anyone who watched Theron claim her award that night likely had a hard time believing that the svelte, elegant, Harlow-haired woman who glided across the stage could even be related to the lead actress in Monster—or, more to the point, to the woman that actress portrayed. Theron’s Aileen Wuornos was lumbering and heavyset, her face a flat, fleshy expanse that at times seems almost masklike in its immobility. The film’s director, Patty Jenkins, made an effort to show how Wuornos’s crimes were as much a product of the pain and fear she had experienced as they were of any anger or bloodlust, and in the end this was Theron’s greatest gift to the film: that she could present Wuornos as a product of a harsh life, and show that not just with gestures or facial expressions, but upon the terrain of her face itself.

Yet even the most casual survey of the Academy Awards’ history shows that the trend of actresses “going ugly,” or simply inhabiting radically different physical selves, has gone on for far longer than the last decade. In Mike Nichols’s 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Elizabeth Taylor was everything her stardom seemed to promise she could never be: fat, crude, miserable, and abusive, her voice sinking into a cigarette- and whiskey-infused rasp. (Anyone who felt a faint sense of déja vu when they watched The Exorcist a few years later might well have realized they had heard that terrifying, demonic chortle somewhere before, and that it had come from Elizabeth Taylor.)

Gone was the elocution, the carriage, the fair skin, the famous violet eyes, and the seductive wiles of the most glamorous woman alive. As Martha, Taylor paced claustrophobically around her house until it began to seem like an enclosure, testing her fellow inmates with insults and condescension. Here was a woman who seemed to have made the wrong decision at every turn, and ended up both living in and making others’ lives a living hell—and yet she was convincingly played by a woman whose life most viewers believed to be heaven on earth. When filming wrapped and she reemerged in the public eye, Taylor was, like Theron—and like every other actress who has won the award for such a performance—herself again.

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was released, it became the first American movie whose MPAA warning prohibited minors from seeing the film unaccompanied by an adult. To some, it must have seemed an odd choice: The movie didn’t show viewers so much as a naked thigh or a drop of blood, and its language, though coarse by contemporary moviegoers’ standards, was nothing remarkable (and had in fact been thoroughly bowdlerized from Edward Albee’s 1962 stage version). What it did show, however, was a blisteringly bleak portrait of married life—and it has this much in common with 2014’s Gone Girl, whose star, Rosamund Pike, seems a heavyweight contender for this year’s Best Actress Academy Award.

While movies like Cake, Monster, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf show viewers glamorous women who have transformed themselves in order to inhabit a role, Gone Girl focuses on a glamorous woman caught in the very act of transformation. Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne is vocal about the roles she has been shunted into playing for most of her life—the Good Girl, the Cool Girl, and, finally, the Gone Girl—and when she rebels against the role she sees society telling her to fill, she begins with her body. Gone Girl set up a premise that suggests a violent attack on its title character, but Amy Dunne carries out the bulk of that violence herself: altering her appearance by dyeing her hair, guzzling Mountain Dew, and even taking a hammer to her face, transforming herself into a mousy, plump, unexceptional woman no one would bother looking at twice. It is in this guise that she seeks her revenge. But as the narrative progresses, she finds something unexpected: peace. No longer forced to play an impossible role, she has a chance to understand who she really is, and what she might be capable of.

If Rosamund Pike takes home a Best Actress Award this Sunday, she will have the odd distinction of winning an Oscar for acting a role that demonstrates—among other lessons—what it takes for many actresses to really act. The “ugly” self Amy Dunne assumes is really just a guise that allows her to be ordinary for the first time in her adult life. In a similar way, high-profile actresses who “go ugly” for a role are in fact taking on the experience of normalcy. Every woman in the world knows what it is like to age, to wrinkle, to be injured, to gain weight and to lose it, to be exhausted, to feel ugly, to be ugly—every woman, it seems, but the Hollywood star. The demands placed on celebrities, and particularly on female stars—to be glamorous, to make it all look easy, and to never grow old—don’t leave them much room to express their emotions, or even to hint at the fact that they may be human.

If actresses take on demanding roles and yet remain, visibly, themselves, it is hard to see the character through the stardust—hard to believe that the beautiful, dewy Elizabeth Taylor could really be a broken-down drunk, or that the slinky, sultry ballerina Charlize Theron could be a serial killer stalking central Florida.

It is impossible to be ugly when your job is to be beautiful. It is impossible to be human when your job is to be perfect. And so the Girl of the Hour might have to destroy herself completely—let her body be transformed by the fat or age she is forbidden to actually experience, slather herself in make-up or sculpt herself into an iron woman—in order to play a real girl at all.