The Golden Age of Hollywood gave birth to a collection of multi-talented performers. It was a time of exploration; a time for innovating and discovering new techniques. Crews were smaller and people learnt to multi-task because there were no big makeup departments. Many actors that went into film had gained makeup experience initially from the stage, and so often applied their own makeup for film. Some stars brought these skills into their films, when there was no makeup artist to do the job for them and consequently, they became responsible for creating some of the most famous looks of all time by doing their own makeup.
Lon Chaney | The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Lon Chaney has rightfully earned a place in history not only as a character actor, but as one of the pioneers of character makeup along with other artists from the time. His skill set and ability to transform himself was far beyond his time, especially in the absence of specialised makeup artists. Chaney was so highly skilled at changing his appearance with makeup that he intentionally strayed from leading roles and instead sought to impress audiences with complex portrayals of deformed characters.
He is most well known for his performances in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which are considered quintessential classics of the silent era. The unconventional techniques he used to distort his face as the Phantom are notorious even to this day. Explained simply, “Chaney painted his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom. ”
His impressive resume of interesting character roles and his talent in transforming himself with makeup aptly earned him the nickname ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces.’
Elizabeth Taylor | Cleopatra (1963)
(Images via 20th Century Fox)
Elizabeth Taylor had a stellar career as an actress, but no performance was as legendary as her portrayal of Cleopatra. In 1963, Taylor signed up to play Cleopatra on film, alongside Richard Burton (with whom she began a passionate on-again-off-again affair). Alberto de Rossi was brought on as makeup designer, but had to step down due to injury. The dame herself took charge and created all of the bold makeup looks on herself throughout the film, using de Rossi’s sketches as a guide. She explains to Michael Kors in an interview once, “I had studied his techniques, so I copied what I had seen him do. When I was younger, for a long time I didn’t wear any makeup in films; when I did start to wear makeup, I always did it myself.”
The bold washes of colour, elaborate liner and metallics were a far cry from her earlier days in film when she wore a simpler 50’s look. She was already a style icon in her own right, but her performance and look in Cleopatra cemented her place in history as a trendsetter, helping to incite the trend of elaborate eye makeup that was rampant during the 60’s and is still influential today.
Bela Lugosi | Dracula (1931)
The vampire was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success. – Lugosi
“The actor who became synonymous with Dracula, Bela Lugosi paved the way for the incredible proliferation of vampire movies in Hollywood. Lugosi lives on for posterity not so much as an actor but as the personification of his greatest character.” – Biography.com
Bela Lugosi was an actor and stage performer who mastered Shakespeare before coming to America to mesmerise audiences as a horror figure. Most notably playing the original Dracula on both stage and screen, he earned his place alongside such influential horror icons of the time as Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney. As many did during the era, he applied his own makeup for many roles using theatre-based skills, including Dracula. He insisted on applying his own makeup for the film in 1931, despite having leading monster maker Jack Pierce at the helm. From that film, Pierce would go on to make up Lugosi as some of the most memorable characters of all time from films such as Frankenstein (1931) and White Zombie (1932).