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In Honor of Eli Wallach, 9 Great Actor Transformations

By  · Published on June 26th, 2014

20th Century Fox/United Artists

The excellent Eli Wallach, whose career spanned over sixty years, passed away this week at the age of 98, and I’m consumed with thoughts of transformation. Of course, he lived and worked for so long that life was a transformation in and of itself. The man from The Godfather Part III is the same man who hilariously shuffled about with Cloris Leachman in New York, I Love You.

But he was also a man that melted into his roles. It’s an amazing, yet eternally undervalued talent. We gush for the names who always, and will forever look like themselves – the Robert Redfords and George Clooneys – but the real magic comes from the character actors whose roles trump image, those who disappear, those who leave little to no taste of the real person behind the performance.

Some need full masks and CGI to transform, but others need just a hint of makeup or sometimes (shockingly) nothing at all as they’re enveloped by their characters. Elite actors like Wallach allow us to simply enjoy the character and pretend, briefly, that they’re real.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In Wallach’s iconic westerns, he transcends performance, especially as Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. There are images of Tuco where I struggle to see the actor behind the character at all. Dirty, disheveled, and wearing a noose, he seems like another man entirely.

It’s only in moments when he smiles and reveals his teeth, or curls his lips into a small grin that the character and the actor begin to meet somewhere in the middle – the tough defiance meeting the sweet charm.

The above image features Wallach in How to Steal a Million and in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly – both released in 1966.

The Fifth Element, and Half the Films Featuring Gary Oldman

If I could give the gift of immortality, I’d give it to Gary Oldman, to get the chance to see more stunning metamorphoses, and not just slight variations on the “older man with short hair and goatee.” His filmography is a torrent of visual transformation. He’s Dracula, Sirius Black, Sid Vicious, Drexl Spivey, and the space oddity Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg.

Even when he plays Ludwig van Beethoven, it only takes a change in garb and hair to make Oldman become the iconic maestro.

For Your Consideration

Warner Independent Pictures

I’m not sure why For Your Consideration doesn’t end up on more transformation lists. Catherine O’Hara’s Marilyn Hack is the skilled actress and potential Oscar nominee who succumbs to the pressures of Hollywood and gets plastic surgery. Hack’s expressive face turns into smooth, taught, plastic-like flesh … except O’Hara used absolutely no skin prosthetics to pull it off. She only used the muscles in her own face, so believably so that there are pieces that praise the work of the makeup crew to pull off her transformation.


Warner Bros./IFC Films

After hitting Hollywood as Stelios in 300, Michael Fassbender transformed himself into Bobby Sands for Steve McQueen’s Hunger. The film watches Sands as he goes on a hunger strike, wasting away and starving himself to death in the name of his beliefs. It is one of many instances of actors starving themselves for their craft – Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey, and Mila Kunis, to name a few – and one of the most striking. Sands’ death does double duty, revealing the gravity of the story and also acting as a reminder of the dangers inherent in such a commitment to craft.

Raging Bull

United Artists

Sometimes bodily requirements offer the best fortune instead of a flirtation with danger. Starring as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro not only had to play the cut, tough boxer, but also his later self – large, out of shape, and looking remarkably like Bobby Bacala Baccalieri from The Sopranos.

To gain the weight, he didn’t just indulge in french fries or boring, high-calorie foods; De Niro spent four months binge eating deliciousness across Europe. To be so lucky…

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Music Box Films/Columbia Pictures

There are very few characters that truly allow women to morph, unless they are based on real, recognizable people. But Lisbeth Salander has offered a reprieve from that trend twice. Through two very different treatments of the novel, Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara get the chance to disappear into the troubled heroine.

Rapace’s Lisbeth trades the femininity for a harder, more boyish frame and goth appearance. Mara, on the other hand, went for a juxtaposition of softness and hardness with piles of piercings and invisible brows.

Cloud Atlas

Warner Bros.

Cloud Atlas is not so much special for one transformation, but for all of them. There are few films that want their stars to disappear into their characters, and almost none who allow many to morph repeatedly over the course of the film. Cloud Atlas, on the other hand, is full of them – souls playing different people through time, in different worlds and with different accents. Some, like Halle Berry and James D’Arcy, even get to push the boundaries of race – one of the few times that racebending has a legitimate, thematic reason.


Universal Pictures/New Market Films

Charlize Theron got the help of some prosthetics and enhancements to play Aileen Wournos in Monster, but the actress’ Oscar-winning performance was just as essential to the overall effect as the makeup that helped her become an almost spitting-image of the serial killer. The only shame is that Hollywood was only happy to praise the performance, and not heap more transformations upon her.

Coming to America

Today, it’s not particularly joyous to think about Eddie Murphy morphing into other characters because they usually involve fat suits, but before modern Murphy, there was Saul in Coming to America.

During the barbershop scene, one of his many characters is Saul, the Jewish customer who tries to fight for the right of Cassius Clay renaming himself Muhammad Ali. Of course, Murphy needed the most makeup to racially change, but it was met with a performance that erased all signs of the actor himself.

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