It’s one of Hollywood’s greatest ironies: If you want Oscar voters to recognize you, make sure you look like someone else.
Just ask Robert De Niro, who gained 60 pounds to play boxer Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” Or Charlize Theron, who used fake teeth and natural flab to portray a serial killer in “Monster.” Or Matthew McConaughey, who dropped 50 pounds for the AIDS-themed drama “Dallas Buyers Club.” All won Oscars for their physically transformative performances.
Two more A-list actors are going that route this year. Nicole Kidman plays a haggard, wide-jawed cop in the crime-drama “Destroyer,” while Christian Bale plays a 70-ish Dick Cheney in “Vice.” Both films arrive in theaters Christmas Day, a high-profile date that suggests Oscar potential. In fact, the studios already have mailed out DVD copies to voters and critics in the hopes of building momentum going into awards season.
Can Kidman and Bale turn a few pounds of flesh — either lost or gained — into Oscar gold? History says their chances are good, but far from guaranteed. Win or lose, here are the 15 best on-screen physical transformations of all time.
Jose Ferrer, “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950)
At a time when Hollywood stars put a premium on looking good, Ferrer donned an absurdly large nose to play the lead in “Cyrano de Bergerac” — and wound up becoming the first Hispanic to win an Oscar. Two years later, playing the physically stunted artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in “Moulin Rouge,” Ferrer wore knee-shoes he designed himself.
Marlon Brando, “The Godfather” (1972)
Brando was in his 40s when he played Don Vito Corleone, roughly 60, with the help of aging makeup and a dental plate to puff out his jowls. (It was only for his audition that he stuffed Kleenex — not cotton balls, as is widely reported — in his cheeks.) Brando won an Oscar for his iconic performance.
Christopher Reeve, “Superman” (1978)
Reeve had a fairly slender build when he was tapped to play the world’s most powerful superhero. Rather than wear fake muscles, Reeve began a two-month workout plan with British weightlifter David Prowse (known for playing Darth Vader). Reeve did so well he got typecast, and his non-”Superman” movies struggled at the box-office.
Robert De Niro, “Raging Bull” (1980)
If any one person popularized the body-transformation trend among actors, it was De Niro. To play the young boxer Jake LaMotta, De Niro got into such good shape that he actually entered several middleweight bouts; to play the older La Motta, he gained 60 pounds by scarfing pasta.
Eddie Murphy, “Coming to America” (1988)
Murphy played several characters in this amiable rom-com about an African prince in New York City, but his most impressive role was Saul, an elderly Jewish wiseacre (“Vadda you know from funny?”). During Oscar season, makeup artist Rick Baker earned a nomination. Murphy got bupkis.
Russell Crowe, “The Insider” (1999)
Crowe was in his mid-30s when he played Jeffrey Wigand, a man in his 50s who became famous as a tobacco-industry whistleblower. Crowe packed on 35 pounds, wore aging makeup and shaved his hairline for a balding look. As for his Oscar, that came when Crowe turned the weight into muscle for “Gladiator” the following year.
Tom Hanks, “Cast Away” (2000)
To play a plane-crash survivor stranded on an island, Hanks first gained 50 pounds to shoot the opening and closing scenes, then halted production for a year while he dropped weight to film the island scenes. Hanks announced in 2013 that he had type 2 diabetes, and no longer alters his weight for film roles.
Charlize Theron, “Monster” (2003)
Early press on the South Africa-born actress often focused on her looks, but that changed with “Monster,” in which Theron wore false crooked teeth and gained 30 pounds’ worth of junk food to play the serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
Christian Bale, “The Machinist” (2004)
If only for this one movie, Bale earns the title of Metamorphosis King. To play an emaciated factory worker, Bale consumed mostly apples and water for four months, dropping 62 pounds to achieve a frightening skin-and-bones appearance. After bulking back up for “Batman Begins,” Bale slimmed down again to play a drug addict in 2010s “The Fighter” — his Oscar-winning role.
Tom Cruise, “Tropic Thunder” (2008)
It was supposed to be a surprise: The balding, foul-mouthed movie executive Les Grossman, who stole the show in Ben Stiller’s Hollywood satire “Tropic Thunder,” was actually Tom Cruise! Word leaked out early on the internet, but Cruise’s comedic performance is still a minor masterpiece.
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013)
To play Ron Woodroof, a real-life AIDS patient and activist during the crisis years of the disease, McConaughey shed an alarming 50 pounds; his co-star Jared Leto, as a transgender sex-worker with the disease, shed 30 pounds. They won Oscars for actor and supporting actor, respectively.
Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher” (2014)
The star of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” was a surprise choice to play the murderous millionaire John du Pont. Even more surprising was Carell’s prosthetic schnoz, which rendered him nearly unrecognizable. Carell earned his first Oscar nomination, for best actor.
Chris Pratt, “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)
The star of television’s “Parks and Recreation” weighed a cuddly 300 pounds when he signed up to play Peter “Star Lord” Quill in this Marvel movie. Pratt later posted an Instagram picture of his six-pack abs and chiseled physique, leading men’s magazines to write breathless articles on “the Chris Pratt workout.”
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour” (2017)
Gary Oldman agreed to play Winston Churchill in this biopic only if he could work with makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, who had quit the movie business in disgust in 2011. Tsuji came on board, however, and turned Oldman into Churchill with prosthetic jowls, blotchy skin-pigments and wisps of human baby-hair. The result: Oscars all around for the actor and makeup team.
Nicole Kidman, “The Hours” (2002)
Kidman has tackled many a genre — from action to comedy to horror — but never changed her looks much until she played Virginia Woolf in the literary drama “The Hours.” Like Jose Ferrer more than 50 years before, Kidman wore a prosthetic nose and wound up with an Academy Award.