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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Michael Phillips

Michael Phillips: When prosthetics get in the way of performance, what do you get? Tom Hanks in ‘Elvis’

This column is not about trashing Tom Hanks in “Elvis.”

How Tom Hanks sounds in “Elvis” was very likely not up to Tom Hanks. Neither was the physical presentation of his character, which is the topic here today: the distraction problem when prosthetics intrude on performance.

Before you see Hanks’ rendition of Colonel Tom Parker on screen, you hear the deathbed version of Elvis Presley’s longtime manager and exploiter in voice-over, speaking in a doggerel Dutch accent. It’s unlocatably, generically foreign, processed through a deceptive character’s years in America and various parts of the Deep South. Theoretically it’s an intriguing choice. But filmmaking is theory put into practice, molded by what the director Vincente Minnelli once called “a hundred or more hidden things,” sometimes hiding in plain sight.

Many fans of “Elvis” (not so much me) have reservations about Hanks’ performance. I say Hanks never had a chance.

The real Parker rarely, if ever, spoke the way he sounds in the movie, at least not when a camera was rolling. The idea, “Elvis” director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann has said in interviews, was to make Parker a more mysterious and, by implication, untrustworthy outsider. As a bonus, one Hanks likely appreciated, the slippery Flying Dutchman dialect steered Hanks away from “Forrest Gump” territory, soundwise.

In “Elvis” the visual conception of Colonel Parker matches the accent, unfortunately. More LBJ than Parker, Hanks’ rent-a-jowls provoke a new round of questions regarding how much prosthetic makeup an actor can, or should, rely upon to convincingly portray a famous or semi-famous or even a wholly fictional person.

Why did Luhrmann cast Hanks in this role? Because he’s a bona fide box office star, whose legendary likability could, in theory, complicate an audience’s feelings toward this biopic’s exhausting portrait of the man who admired, promoted, elevated and exploited Presley to the end. Is Hanks’ performance better for the best (or most, at least) prosthetics that money can buy? The actor assuredly has been transformed. He has also been straitjacketed.

We’re due for a pendulum swing in the other direction — the direction where creators and actors think twice about donning another “fat suit” (Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp in “Impeachment”), or signing up for a full Jabba the Hutt makeover that turns humans into aliens (John Lithgow as Roger Ailes in “Bombshell”).

There are conspicuous and even magical exceptions in the prosthetics-crazed biopic genre. In “Darkest Hour,” Gary Oldman found himself in the hands of a master sculptor, Kazuhiro Tsuji, who now goes by Kazu Hiro. Deservedly, he won the makeup Academy Award for “Darkest Hour” along with Lucy Sibbick and David Malinowski.

In a film of close-ups and faces staring down faces, Oldman’s wholesale facial and bodily transformation felt necessary, artful — a masterly illusion. The results, miraculously, did not look like a face wearing another person’s face, with unintentionally comic results. In contrast, the advanced-years scenes in director Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” featuring Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar Hoover and Armie Hammer’s Clyde Tolson, are hobbled by epically silly makeup jobs that look like they cost a buck eighty-three, tops.

More recently, “Darkest Hour” collaborator Kazu Hiro turned wiry, lean, hard-edged Sean Penn into Watergate-era U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell for the Starz series “Gaslit.” Penn’s best scenes locate a sinister calm, interrupted by explosions of emotional and physical violence, squaring off with Julia Roberts’ canny, complex Martha Mitchell.

But John Mitchell is no Winston Churchill. Penn’s prosthetic transformation in “Gaslit” is impressive and also sort of ridiculous — a case of a makeup wizard’s meticulous attempts at verisimilitude with a real-life subject who is very few people’s idea of a legendarily famous face.

Penn’s a wily, often extraordinary actor. He also would’ve been better off without the full “hey! I’m Christian Bale playing Dick Cheney!” makeover. With his co-star Roberts, it’s the opposite. She wears a subtle dental prosthesis, but what little “Gaslit” does to “turn her into” Martha Mitchell is more about the actor’s leeway and powers of persuasion. Result: Two actors, in separate and occasionally colliding orbits.

Every project, every biopic and every individual example of casting, bone structure and prosthetic problem-solving becomes a riddle: How much is too much? “Bombshell,” which Kazu Hiro also worked on, offers twin portraits in misjudgments, one glaring, the other not. Putting Lithgow inside a physical caricature of Roger Ailes (tempting, but an overreach) was not required. Nor, I’d say, was pushing Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly past an impression of Megyn Kelly into an impersonation, aided and abetted by prosthetics and makeup.

This year’s Oscar winner for best actress, Jessica Chastain, portrayed Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” The role is a makeup artist’s dream/nightmare. There’s just so much to work with.

Three of last year’s best actress nominees presented an intriguing range of decision-making required when a well-known performer plays a well-known historical figure. The trio in question: Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball, Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker and Kristen Stewart as Lady Diana Spencer. Two of those three underwent extensive facial design processes, with some prosthetic applications (light for Kidman, heavier for Chastain).

The performance that feels the freest and most alive of those three? Stewart’s. Was she a Diana look-alike? No. Does it matter? No.

I feel about over-reliance on prosthetics in the biopic realm the same way I feel about the reliance on certain styles of digital effects work in so much these days. Prosthetics that turn a Bale into a Cheney (”Vice”) or Jared Leto in a Gucci (”House of Gucci”) may grab the eye. But does the magic trick actually help the story? Sometimes the question, and the frustration, is digital, not practical or prosthetic, as in the case of “The Irishman.” I like that film enormously, but even with all the millions Martin Scorsese spent on de-aging his stars in some scenes, I came away thinking: How hard would it have been to find the right unknowns to play younger versions of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci?

What suits the story best is clearest in hindsight. Tom Hanks works his padded behind off in “Elvis.” But all the prosthetics in the world can’t compensate for a dully written part, gamely tackled by an arguably miscast first-rate movie star who is also a first-rate actor.

But not here. Not with his talent and instincts hidden, in this case, behind every kind of synthetic material.


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