RCL Exclusive

Why New Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy Films Raised Mixed Reactions

It’s not about their acting, but how they look. Yes, still.

Movies By

Going full monster — as in, masking one’s attractiveness for a role — is a tried-and-true path to the Oscar. It’s best exemplified by Charlize Theron’s grisly, de-glammed performances as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ aptly titled 2003 Monster.

This year, both Melissa McCarthy and Nicole Kidman go full monster in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Destroyer, respectively. Reviewers’ reactions to both transformations have varied widely among critics — and the magnitude of their sex appeal is at the heart of those responses.

In the case of Kidman, she abandons lip gloss and Botox to play a Los Angeles detective whose immoral choices as an undercover cop etch her face decades later in Karyn Kusama’s grim LA noir, Destroyer. This is a more radical make-under than the nasal prosthesis that earned her the Best Actress Academy Awards as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

The transformation from goddess to god-awful – the bad shag wig, the deep frown ruts, the weather-and-booze-beaten skin – seems to have unsettled some critics. In his largely positive review of the cop drama, Variety’s Peter DeBruge describes Kidman’s looks no less than a dozen times. From calling her a “sunburnt piece of beef jerky” to “red-rimmed eyes, all but unrecognizable amid the alcohol-swollen lids, dark freckles, and rude bump atop what looks like a broken nose that was never set properly.” DeBruge compares her to manly man Clint Eastwood, noting that the “effect is staggering, especially considering the great lengths to which Kidman has gone to hide her wrinkles from her fans in the past.”

Over at The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy also shudders at first sight in a less forgiving review. He’s clearly repulsed by what Kidman has wrought to her once alabaster skin. “The first thing you see throws you; it’s the sight of Nicole Kidman looking like a spent derelict, a burned-out case, with parched skin and blank eyes, as if she has looked so intently into the depths of hell that hell has now enveloped her. Just to look at her is enough to make you feel a bit ill….”

In contrast, when actress (not sex object) Melissa McCarthy shuns make-up, dons a matted wig and a drab wardrobe of bulky menswear to play lauded biographer turned literary forger and felon Lee Israel, the critical reaction is entirely different. This is dramatic acting, “deadpan” and “poignant” according to THRVariety’s Debruge appreciates McCarthy’s acting chops, noting that it’s what’s inside that counts and only briefly noting the wrapper: “Dowdy, half-soused, and frowning for nearly the entire running time, McCarthy earns nearly as many laughs playing this curmudgeonly cat lady as she does in her more irrepressible comedic parts.”

What’s the difference between these two performers going full monster on the road to acclaim? It’s not that one is known as a serious actress and the other comes from the world of broad comedy. McCarthy earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Bridesmaids.

The essential split is in how far the performer falls from the critical pedestal upon which she’s been placed. Kidman, 51, is an actress who has always been seen through the male gaze as appealing — one of the world’s most beautiful people. And, so, to someone like the THR critic, seeing her veer so far into degradation in the Bad Lieutenant mode repulses in direct proportion to her original attractiveness. No insult to McCarthy, 48, but her transformation is less jarring, and consumes less critical ink, because she has less far to fall. Her success never hinged on her sexual desirability.

Beauty — and ugliness— is as ever in the eye of the beholder. Both movies allow their stars to express a range of darker and conflicting emotions, and escape the limitations of being typecast as either an object of desire or a figure of fun. They’re not stuck in the likability trap. Both actresses prove by stepping out of their comfort zone – like Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club or Christian Bale in The Machinist or the masked Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises: that they’re more than just another pretty — or funny — face. They’re human first and foremost with all the flaws, physical and emotional, that implies.