In my last blog, I voiced my frustration that so many period pieces throw a modern wrench into the accuracy of the make-up in films. So, in order to balance out my critique, I’m dedicating this blog to movies that display genuine make-up artistry from the story’s perspective era.
It’s important to point out that this is a risky choice for the director. Our modern eye is trained to see beauty by current standards and universally accepted trends. We like what’s hip today because our brain is wired to prefer the familiar, especially when it comes to the human face. Even a trend from 10-20 years ago, a miniscule amount of time in human history, seems laughably goofy or foreign to us. This can distract us from the story, or make a character difficult to relate to as an audience. You can reasonably understand why a director might decide against going full throttle on time-accurate hair and make-up, unless of course they are uncompromising filmmakers. I noticed as I dug through the hundreds of period pieces that the movies that truly captured cosmetic trends, also happened to be made by fearless filmmakers. I truly take my hat off to these detail-oriented craftsmen and their works of art.
This fantastic and bloody Japanese action film by Takashi Miike focuses on the plight of 12 samurai, and one rogue hunter as they seek out justice to redeem the Shogun in the Edo Era of Japan in 1844. During this era, women’s fashion was frankly freakish to our standards today. Women shaved their eyebrows and painted their skin a chalky white, but the truly foreign aspect of the cosmetic fashion of the time had to do with teeth. High-class women, once married, took to painting their teeth black. This was considered high-fashion and extremely desirable. To modern day folks, it looks like something out of a horror movie, and many contemporary modern day filmmakers will blacken the teeth of ghouls, ghosts, or witches to strike fear into our hearts. Ironically, this was hot shit in 1844 Japan. During a flashback scene in the first act, we are introduced to the doomed, newlywed daughter-in-law of a nobleman. She’s perfectly adorned for the fashion of the time, with black teeth and all. I love that Miike made this choice to be true to the fashion, despite the fact that the audience is asked to relate to the character as a fresh bride, in the peak of her vitality and youth. Literally, less than 20 years after the movie’s plot takes place, the blackening of the teeth went out of style. Most filmmakers that play in this amazing era of Japan go with a more stereotypical look for the women, a look that would not become mainstream for several decades. Miike stuck to his guns and let his fabulous storytelling skills play out, without pandering to inaccurate stereotypes.
As a marvelous biopic about Howard Hughes, this movie features modern day actresses playing iconic celebrities from the 1920 through the 1940s. For this to be passable, Martin Scorsese simply had to adhere to the make-up styles of the time. Everybody knows exactly what Eva Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) looked like, so there really wasn’t much wiggle room. Scorsese isn’t a stickler on accurate make-up in his period pieces, but in The Aviator he keeps it legit and I thank him for it.
A Serious Man
Probably the least appreciated and marketed of the Coen Brothers’ films, I remember sitting in the theater during a screening and thinking these mo-fos KNOW how to do a contemporary period piece down to the tiniest subtleties. All the characters are perfectly crafted: hair, make-up, and wardrobe. Viewers are treated to 1960s Jewish-centric suburbia, brought to intricate life with the understated razor-sharp realism and teasing whimsy that makes Joel and Ethan Coen masters of their craft. The make-up is spot-on, particularly Amy Landecker who plays the protagonist’s tempting neighbor. She delivers a terrific performance and I loved every moment of it!
Here’s a movie by another risk-taking filmmaker who has accumulated a fair share of controversy under his belt. Mel Gibson is known for being a hands-on, uncompromising director, and visually, this movie is an awe-inspiring accomplishment. Taking place in the height of the Mayan culture right before the European “discovery” of the Americas, we get an intimate look at the Mayan people and their cosmetic practices. This culture placed a heavy spiritual and social significance on the use of cosmetics and body modification. Men and women alike performed painful and elaborate piercings as purification rituals and wore ornate headpieces, earrings, tongue piercings, and septum jewelry. They even performed elective cosmetic dentistry by inserting precious stones and gems into their teeth, as seen in the still below. All of this is captured in this monumental effort of a film. Gibson did take some HUGE liberties with the plot, specifically with the fact that Mayan royalty did not hunt down locals for slavery or sacrifice. Sacrificial victims were very specifically chosen and were never hunted down like animals. In other words, the plot holds absolutely no historical accuracy, but the make-up is awesome!
Thanks for reading!
Diva Del Mar
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