As the film and television industries have become more reliant on depicting stories inspired by true events, actors donning heavy amounts of prosthetic makeup in order to better resemble the person they are portraying has become a common sight. In the past year alone, press runs for multiple films have been dominated by stories of actors radically transforming their appearance in order to resemble their characters: Jared Leto’s portrayal of Paolo Gucci for House of Gucci played a significant role in the “camp” label that was frequently applied to the film; even more recently, Jessica Chastain won an Academy Award for her depiction of television personality Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which also garnered a win for makeup and hairstyling.
The reasons for the gradual increase in roles that include prosthetic application are multifaceted. For one, as more money has been allocated to fewer films in recent years, the monopolization of the film industry has resulted in the domination of the familiar, leading to an increase in the production of biographical films of familiar faces that audiences easily recognize. Additionally, because the medium of film has grown so homogeneous, television has been increasingly left to pick up the slack. An intersection of this trend with the true crime boom of recent years has resulted in a glut of stories of scams, swindles, and other shady behavior inspired by real events.
Besides industry motivations, roles that promise a supposed “complete transformation” for actors are often doubly rewarding. Headlines that fawn over an actor’s radical change in appearance garner immediate interest, prompting potential viewers to wonder how an actor’s outward transformation will influence their performance. Even more attractive to production companies is the viability that these roles can have in gaining prestigious awards, particularly the Oscars. Nicole Kidman famously set a precedent for how prosthetic applications are rewarded by the Academy for her role as Virignia Woolf in The Hours, which remains her only Oscar win to date. Perhaps even more noteworthy, despite being one of the most-nominated actors in the Academy’s history, Meryl Streep’s only actual win this century was for her performance as Margeret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
As prosthetically-enhanced roles have grown more dominant in film and television, the idea that an external transformation in appearance reflects an equally skilled internal transformation in acting seems to have gained more influence in kind. Despite his lack of humility regarding his preparation for the role, Jared Leto’s failed attempts at comedic relief in House of Gucci were widely regarded by critics as one of the worst aspects of the film. Furthermore, Jessica Chastain’s Oscar win was not reflected by either critical or popular acclaim: The Eyes of Tammy Faye failed to make much of an impression at the box office, with critics dubbing it lacking in originality. For all this bombast, very little focus is given to the reality of how little both of these performances actually resemble the people they portray, relying on the contrast between these actors’ attractiveness and their characters’ supposed grotesqueness to convey characterization, rather than actually giving a compelling performance.
While it has yet to make the pop cultural splash that these examples have, perhaps the most egregious example of the failure of prosthetics to enhance a narrative is that of the new Hulu limited series The Girl from Plainville, in which Elle Fanning stars as Michelle Carter, who was found guilty of manslaughter after having encouraged her late boyfriend Conrad Roy III to commit suicide. Upon the news of the series’s creation, Elle Fanning was similarly the subject of headlines noticing how different she looked while wearing prosthetics and makeup in order to resemble Carter.
In reality, the most drastic differences from Elle Fanning’s regular appearance aren’t revealed until the final three episodes of the series, when Carter is required to appear in court a few years after Roy’s death. Here, her foundation is darker, her eyebrows harsher, and her posture more uncertain, all of which is rendered much more noticeable by Carter’s morose presence throughout these scenes. Regardless, even before this change, Fanning clearly looks different than usual: with the application of her prosthetics, her forehead is elongated with the additional help of an obvious wig.
The Girl from Plainville is rife with problems outside of Fanning’s disorienting appearance. In attempting to humanize Carter, the show chooses to depict her and Roy’s mostly digital interactions through fantasy sequences in which the two discuss the subjects of their messages in person, as if they were always close together. Given that both teenagers were struggling with mental health issues prior to Roy’s death, these interactions carry a sense of heightened emotion and melodrama, which is made disjointed by the show’s oscillation between flashbacks and the grief-stricken realities shown in the present.
Yet these flaws cannot distract from the strength of the performance at the show’s core. Despite the awful hand she’s given, Elle Fanning’s performance should cement her reputation as the great actor she has been since childhood: her natural capacity for conveying unadulterated joy is on full display in her early scenes of meeting with Roy, but she also excels at the control required to subtly shift her teeth-gritting politeness into full panic in mere seconds when Carter masks her culpability in Roy’s death.
That Fanning shines even in spite of her capabilities being masked begs the question of why she was made to wear prosthetics at all. For one, she looks nothing like Michelle Carter, and her prosthetics don’t change that; instead of resembling Carter, Fanning’s modified appearance simply dips into the uncanny valley. Elle Fanning’s core strengths as an actor are inextricably tied to the emotion that she can convey through the rich sorrow of her soft but haunted face—a quality that isn’t very common among stars these days. Her ability to give a great performance regardless is a testament to her acting abilities, but an artificial, physical hardening of the very qualities that accentuate her unique presence simply reduces the potential for a performance that could have been even more impactful without the requiring the asterisk of her jarring looks.
The show would have benefited from further utilizing Elle Fanning’s specific strengths as an actor, too. As exemplified by her filmography and recent work on another Hulu miniseries, The Great, Fanning thrives in worlds of youthful femininity that morph into realms of near-fantasy. She clearly has an interest in providing depth to her characterization; in addition to being Plainville’s star, she is credited as an executive producer. As Michelle Carter, Fanning’s performance accentuates the mundane aspects of her teen girlhood: she has trouble making friends, dreams of moving to California, and has an obsession with Glee. If The Girl from Plainville wasn’t so preoccupied with making its subject mirror real life, it could have leaned more into the narrative it attempts to create, which itself attempts to challenges perceptions of who Carter was—a goal that is only contradicted by attempting to distort Fanning’s appearance into an unsuccessful meeting in the middle.
Contrast The Girl from Plainville with another ripped-from-the-headlines limited series from this year (also on Hulu), The Dropout, and its problems reflective of industry trends become much clearer. The Dropout, in which Amanda Seyfried stars as Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of the failed Silicon Valley startup Theranos, is also painfully flawed, but Seyfried’s performance as Holmes has been acclaimed as the show’s best aspect for a reason. Seyfried doesn’t really resemble Holmes, either, but in being allowed to penetrate her character without any alterations to her appearance, she delivers an insightful portrait of a woman thoroughly losing any grasp of her identity.
The uncertainty Seyfried displays is dependent on subtle facial expressions—the concern of her eyes, the frown of her lips. Unlike The Girl from Plainville, The Dropout accepts the strengths of its actors and builds upon them, rather than trying to create a replica of the events that inspired the show, and better for it. After all, both shows were based on documented materials, and if any viewer wanted a beat-for-beat articulation of real life, they could simply turn to those preexisting sources of inspiration.
Narrativized depictions of true events will never be able to perfectly match their source material, simply because the nuances of real life are very different than the structures of dramatization allow. That a limited series such as The Girl from Plainville exists expresses a desire on the part of its creators to make a piece of art that stands on its own merits, rather than relying on an audience’s preexisting knowledge of the events that inspired it. And yet, the difficulty of that succeeding is only further demonstrated by the creative liberties and uncertainties the show’s content takes on its source material.
Sure, many audiences turn to these stories because seeing events re-interpreted by familiar faces is considered more immediately gratifying than seeking out a more straightforward documentation of these events. Yet The Girl from Plainville in particular, with its disclaimers for each episode reflecting that some aspects of its story are completely fictional, doesn’t even meet these expectations for its premise—making its attempts to do so in execution that much more baffling. Sadly, the show’s failures are far from unique to just one entity. Until the creators behind such stories realize that working against their own goals through distracting prosthetics will only harm them, the current entertainment landscape will only be greeted with more blunders like it.
Claire Davidson is a freelance writer covering film, television, and the various intersections among them, who can be found on Twitter.
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