Glamour doesn’t win Oscars—at least, almost never. And neither does happiness for that matter.
What could be mistaken for a more recent trend is actually a trend as old as Oscar, that of female actors putting themselves through the wringer in order to win an Academy Award for Best Actress, still considered the gold standard of all awards the movie business has to offer.
Or they at least need to look as if they’ve been through the wringer, which is why makeup artists whose sole purpose is to make the wearer’s face look as unmade-up as possible are in high demand. And that’s a more difficult job than it sounds, considering most of the time they’re painting and sponging and airbrushing some the world’s most beautiful faces. If anything, the goal is at least to help us forget that we’re watching Julia Roberts nail a polluting utility to the wall or Hilary Swank go 12 rounds in the boxing ring.
That’s a nearly impossible task, which could also be why the Academy tends to reward the actress who, more than anyone else that year, really gets down in the muck, be it physically or psychologically (or both).
Ever since Janet Gaynor suffered her way to the inaugural Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929—which she won for three different movies, all of them hand-wringers—it’s been tradition to honor the roles that make us feel the most exhausted afterward with the most prestigious of awards.
Which makes sense, considering the most critically lauded films mean to expose the human condition, warts and all. But standing-ovation-worthy, gut-wrenching performances aside, it’s almost shocking just how much misery has been conveyed on the big screen by the Best Actress Oscar winners.
In 88 years, only a handful of women have won Best Actress for playing a character who wasn’t mentally ill in some way or who didn’t suffer a tragedy, become the victim of a crime or the intended victim of a crime, live through a war, or otherwise find herself in the most desperate of situations (although that last one actually depends on how you would define “desperate”).
And even Hepburn’s glamorous princess got a bittersweet ending, despite the film being a romantic comedy.
Rom-com stars, for that matter, have certainly racked up
nominations over the years, but a small fraction—Hepburn, Diane Keaton for Annie Hall, Cher for Moonstruck , Helen Hunt for As Good as It Gets, Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love—scored a win.
And while it’s not as though male stars haven’t played tortured souls and won Best Actor, but the Best Actress winners are the ones who overwhelmingly played characters who endured unspeakable violence ( Sophia Loren , Jane Wyman , Meryl Streep , Jodie Foster , Holly Hunter , Hilary Swank, Charlize Theron , Brie Larson ) or are otherwise victims of circumstance that just led them further down the rabbit hole of despair.
If you saw that list of names alone, out of context, you’d think, yes, about acting prowess. But also great beauty and star power. So it’s a testament to their commitment to the craft that they are interested in pursuing roles that are so haunting to watch you don’t even want to think about what it was like to get inside that character’s head. And hats off to the teams (including the directors and writers) that help them pull it off, because if the physical transformation isn’t there—not to mention the words and the editing—the movie might not work.
The performance has to be there, of course. Nicole Kidman didn’t just slap on a fake nose and call herself Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Nor did Swank cut her hair and wears men’s clothing and expect that to do the convincing in Boys Don’t Cry . Halle Berry looking plain (as possible for her, anyway) does not a Best Actress make all on its own. Theron wasn’t convincing as real-life murderer Aileen Wuornos just because she sat in the makeup chair for hours.
But if you look at the most striking transformations that the Best Actress winners have gone through over the years, you’ll see how looks—while they’re never everything—have played major supporting roles in the finished product.