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How much prosthetics in movies is too much?


This column is not about trashing Tom Hanks in “Elvis.”

How Tom Hanks sounds in “Elvis” was very likely not up to Tom Hanks. Neither was the physical presentation of his character, which is the topic here today: the distraction problem when prosthetics intrude on performance.

Before you see Hanks’ rendition of Col. Tom Parker on screen, you hear the deathbed version of Elvis Presley’s longtime manager and exploiter in voice-over, speaking in a doggerel Dutch accent. It’s unlocatably, generically foreign, processed through a deceptive character’s years in America and various parts of the Deep South. Theoretically it’s an intriguing choice. But filmmaking is theory put into practice, molded by what the director Vincente Minnelli once called “a hundred or more hidden things,” sometimes hiding in plain sight.

Many fans of “Elvis” (not so much me) have reservations about Hanks’ performance. I say Hanks never had a chance.

The real Parker rarely, if ever, spoke the way he sounds in the movie, at least not when a camera was rolling. The idea, “Elvis” director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann has said in interviews, was to make Parker a more mysterious and, by implication, untrustworthy outsider. As a bonus, one Hanks likely appreciated, the slippery Flying Dutchman dialect steered Hanks away from “Forrest Gump” territory, soundwise.

In “Elvis” the visual conception of Col. Parker matches the accent, unfortunately. More LBJ than Parker, Hanks’ rent-a-jowls provoke a new round of questions regarding how much prosthetic makeup an actor can, or should, rely upon to convincingly portray a famous or semi-famous or even a wholly fictional person.

Why did Luhrmann cast Hanks in this role? Because he’s a bona fide box office star, whose legendary likability could, in theory, complicate an audience’s feelings toward this biopic’s exhausting portrait of the man who admired, promoted, elevated and exploited Presley to the end. Is Hanks’ performance better for the best (or most, at least) prosthetics that money can buy? The actor assuredly has been transformed. He has also been straitjacketed.

We’re due for a pendulum swing in the other direction — the direction where creators and actors think twice about donning another “fat suit” (Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp in “Impeachment”), or signing up for a full Jabba the Hutt makeover that turns humans into aliens (John Lithgow as Roger Ailes in “Bombshell”).

There are conspicuous and even magical exceptions in the prosthetics-crazed biopic genre. In “Darkest Hour,” Gary Oldman found himself in the hands of a master sculptor, Kazuhiro Tsuji, who now goes by Kazu Hiro. Deservedly, he won the makeup Academy Award for “Darkest Hour” along with Lucy Sibbick and David Malinowski.

In a film of close-ups…



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