It seemed too good a movie to fail, judging by its high-energy, punk rock marketing campaign. But when Suicide Squad hit theaters, it did, being led to the slaughter by critics for just about every conceivable reason. Then something interesting happened: as the online, print and TV critics echoed the sentiment that the Squad was a miss, the DC Extended Universe was facing its doom, and the studio would be scrambling to control the damage… the movie kept making money. Lots of it. Record-setting amounts of it, to be specific.
As time passed, the elements of the film that had escaped most – but not all – criticism began to earn some praise from end of year awards bodies. The soundtrack earned 5 Grammy nominations, Margot Robbie picked up a Critics Choice Award, and was named the most popular film of the year in online search activity. Still, with superhero and comic book movies proving nearly incapable of picking up an Academy Award, it wouldn’t be such a devastating critical failure like Squad, would it? It turns out this colorful cast and crew are full of surprises.
At the 89th Academy Awards, Suicide Squad added the title of “Oscar winner” to its repertoire, with the Academy members agreeing with those who argued the film deserves distinction for its efforts in Make-up and Hairstyling. So, how did a film so many wrote off as a complete failure beat out the industry’s best? Allow us to explain.
How The Award is Actually Judged
The first step in understanding an Academy Award – as much as one can, since they are, after all, subjective – is to know the exact way through which the nominees are selected, and what exact guidelines the voters are instructed to make their decision based upon. In the case of the Academy, which didn’t even have an award specifically for make-up until 1981, and even then didn’t include hairstyling. But as of today, the winner is selected based on a combination of experts in the field and the average Academy member.
First, members of the Academy in the specific branch of Make-up and Hairstyling who have completed work on a film they believe to be eligible organize detailed descriptions about the actual work and processes completed for their film. That group of films is then put to a blind vote by the branch members, each selecting 7 or fewer films they deem to contain “achievements to be considered further.” Those which receive at least 15 votes are organized into a list of the top 7 pre-nominees – and yes, the artist and stylists are able to vote for their own work throughout. From there, the branch members meet to screen presentations of the work. Those who have seen all 7 films will then vote, in order, to determine the top 3 (not 5, like most categories).
Once the group of 3 films is selected, all members of the Academy cast their votes to determine a winner. It might seem a little strange to allow more than just the experts determine the winner, since some of the most ambitious or groundbreaking advancements may go completely unnoticed by a casual moviegoer. But it may be an award less negatively affected by democracy than others, after recent controversy surrounding the fact that Academy voters may vote for films they never saw. At least in the case of Make-up and Hairstyling, the nominees alone are a truly elite group, decided upon by people in the know.
It’s ‘Best’ Makeup, Not ‘Most’ That Wins
Now, what defines the most award-worthy “achievement in make-up and hairstyling” can vary significantly. Which is why other guilds and awards actually divide the award into different categories to separate them – one example being the aptly-named Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards. There, the wide variety of ambitions or goals are taken into account, with an award for ‘Best Contemporary Makeup’ awarded to the film exhibiting the best use of natural, and not effects makeup (for lack of a better description). There’s also Best Contemporary Hair Styling, Best Period and/or Character Hair Styling, and Best Period and/or Character Makeup – an award that Suicide Squad makeup artist Alessandro Bertolazzi also won prior to the Oscars.
Here’s where things get a bit messier, but also easier to grasp. Those same MUAHS Awards distinguish practical ‘Character Makeup’ like Bertolazzi’s in Suicide Squad from Best Special Make-Up Effects, which include films like Star Trek Beyond – and Suicide Squad‘s FX makeup artist Christopher Nelson. It’s a category more likely to judge based on the use of special effects and prosthetics than traditional makeup.
On the other hand, the BAFTA Awards limit the category to simply Best Makeup and Hair, with Florence Foster Jenkins taking the top spot this year. For context, that film beat out Rogue One this year, The Grand Budapest Hotel took home the award in 2014 over Guardians of the Galaxy, The Iron Lady beat out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2011, and so on. When you award a team for “best makeup,” you’re going to wind up comparing apples to oranges, to some extent.
As a result, the specific advancements appreciated or deemed worthy of recognition can favor one or the other. The nominees for this year’s BAFTAs also included Doctor Strange, Nocturnal Animals and Hacksaw Ridge. The Critics’ Choice Award for Best Makeup this year selected Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts, Hacksaw Ridge, and Star Trek Beyond – and awarded top honors to Jackie. Combine it with this year’s Oscar nominees of Squad and A Man Called Ove and the idea of there being any kind of consensus seems like a stretch.
In the end, the nominees selected by the Academy’s branch members – required to have 7 years of work on feature films, acted as a supervisor on 5 (3 in the last 7 years), or been nominated – offered a representative sample. A Man Called Ove, a Swedish-language film applying old age makeup to lead actor Rolf Lassgård. Star Trek Beyond, distinguished by its sophisticated, and dependable alien prosthetics. And Suicide Squad, which pursued a variety of different makeup techniques and schools just to get its main cast on screen.
Whatever The Film’s Problems, The Make-up Wasn’t One of Them
There are sure to be some who, having defied the odds and actually read this far with an open mind, will take the stance that if a movie is “bad” – in terms of its plot, dialogue, or editing – then all aspects of it must be bad. That the makeup team which brought characters like Killer Croc, the Enchantress, Diablo, Joker, and Harley Quinn to life should have their efforts and achievements ignored. In other words: only good movies deserve praise… which is where it becomes significant that the Oscar nominees are selected by experienced, informed artists able to examine the work done in detail.
By necessity, the branch members selecting the nominees know more than the average audience member ever could, or would from the finished film alone. But even judging Suicide Squad‘s makeup and hair shows that, arguably unlike the other films nominated, the artist responsible had a substantial impact on how the characters were actually defined and understood in terms of the story. Remove the plot and dialogue completely, and the prosthetics work used to achieve Killer Croc alone is worth acknowledgement. Not only for rendering actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje unrecognizable, but by burying him beneath completely practical makeup able to be shot from inches away, yet still emote down to a curled lip or wide grimace (all of which is much harder to achieve than one might assume).
Not to state it too plainly, but without industry-leading makeup a character like Croc becomes the most memorable part of the film… for the worst possible reasons. Croc may be a case of hard work going unnoticed because it’s pulled off so well, but the standout favorite of Squad is a victory of costume design, performance, and makeup and hair. We speak, of course, of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn – designed practically from the ground up despite the wealth of source material available in the form of animated features, video games, and comic book artwork.
Instead, the makeup team created her from a blend of pale complexion, a nightmarish reflection of a blue-and-pink beauty makeup, tattoos, and bruises – all of which changed over the course of the story to reflect the filth of Belle Reve, the grunge of their mission departure, and the water-logged finale. For the critics who hated the script, plot, and pacing of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, even more credit may be rightly due to the makeup team for creating a Harley Quinn that practically sold a standalone film career in her first publicity photos.
The same can be said for Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress, whose Earthy blend of swamp dirt, ancient dust and occult runes sold her as the villain of a standalone horror film. Her CG-fueled final look was less successful, but viewed with hindsight, the makeup and hair team achieving such an unforgettable look for Enchantress used in less than 10 minutes of the film is a victory on its own. And remember: there is still Jay Hernandez requiring hours of hand-painted tattoos before becoming Diablo, and a Joker design that may have ignited a wave of hate before seeing the film, but was nevertheless bold, adventurous, time-consuming, and flawless in its execution.
We’re talking dozens of hours just to get the principle cast members ready to shoot on a daily basis, moving from day to night, into, through, and out of a rainstorm. And just to make things harder on themselves, have Harley, Joker, Killer Croc, and Diablo wear little enough clothing to guarantee full-body makeups would be required throughout production. Audience members and critics may have been too turned off, bored, or offended by the story the film told, or how it was telling it, but the time, energy, and importance of those makeup and hair effects are what the Academy branch members are there to evaluate, recognize, and award.
In the end, those nominees going to the entire assembly of Academy members saw the makeup and hair – not the quality, box office, or critical review scores of the movie – judged on their own merits. In the end, judging between old age makeup in a film that many may have not seen (due to its sleeper status), Star Trek doing fantastic work in facial prosthetics and outlandish background characters, and Suicide Squad relying on accomplished, if not downright mindboggling established a frontrunner. Heck, even if those Academy voters despised the film as much as critics, it’s hard to claim that the makeup and hair weren’t the only things making the characters interesting. And by interesting, we mean unique and eye-catching enough to fuel one of the most dominating marketing campaigns of the year.
Finally, there’s the case to be made that a win for Suicide Squad was a win for the individual artists who saw their years of work – for films of varying success and acclaim – recognized. For artist Christopher Allen Nelson, the Oscar comes after six Emmy nominations and a win for American Horror Story, and as a victory for horror and comic book geeks everywhere given his work on Thor: The Dark World, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and more.
For makeup artist and hair designer Alessandro Bertolazzi, the award comes after a 30 year career including films like Skyfall, J. Edgar, Fury, and Sense8. It’s another feather in the cap (wig?) for Giorgio Gregorini after three decades of work, including films like Troy, Moulin Rouge!, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Gangs of New York. Three artist representing a team of even more who, despite how the overall film was received by critics, conceived of ideas that didn’t just sell a concept, but sold a majority of the film’s principle cast.
Director David Ayer may not have earned accolades for his risk-taking or outside-the-box (way, way outside) thinking, and judging by his public statement, is accepting that as legitimate criticism. But if the director who challenged these artists to push boundaries and create unique, crazed, and outlandish characters fell short of telling a successful story, that shouldn’t reflect negatively on the artist who actually succeeded in meeting those insane demands, making an unthinkable amount of work for themselves in the process.
So, is Suicide Squad a bad movie? That’s a question that will only matter to individual viewers. But thanks to the makeup and hair stylists who turned this ragtag group of DC villains into living, breathing characters, it’s now an Oscar-winning one.