Oscars 2011: The beauty of The Fighter

Photography courtesy of Alliance Films.
Photography courtesy of Alliance Films.

While the performances of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo are, deservedly so, sweeping the awards circuit and may do so again at the Oscars this Sunday, it’s the hair and makeup achievements of Leo’s Alice Ward and her seven scrappy daughters that I haven’t been able to stop lauding. A study in blue-collar beauty, the big hair and unflattering makeup was absolutely mesmerizing. Obsessed, I tracked down the head of the hair and makeup departments for the film: Johnny Villanueva and Donald Mowat—a Canadian—to grill them on the looks of the real life ladies from Lowell, Massachusetts.

Photography courtesy of Alliance Films.

Q&A with Johnny Villanueva

What direction were you given for the hair?

I drew from the real Alice Ward. Lowell is a great place but in a lot of ways, the hair stood still. David (O. Russell, the director) and I did a lot of research on that time period in Lowell. Alice had to be right on. I met with her and had pictures of her back in the day and Alice still pretty much wears her hair like that.

I heard that it was totally Melissa’s hair.

Totally. I had met with her before and she had never cut her hair before. She’s always had it long so it was a big thing for her to cut it. And let me tell you, it was a work in progress, cutting her hair. We cut it one way and then we needed to cut it more. She was game and then we did the colour.

As for the sisters, how did you come up their hair and approach styling them?

Each sister was an Alice. That’s how David and I approached it. Each one had a personality so we went through family photos. They had one sister who did all their hair, and it was horrible. It was my job to get them to look over processed and to look… how do I word this? Horribly great.

Once the colour was done, how did you come up with cuts? Did you look back to the 80s?

I worked in a salon in the 80s so I knew what I had to do to get those bangs up four feet high, or getting volume and leaving the back flat. Back then all the girls cared about was the front. Honestly, it’s not an easy look to do.  You think all you need to do is throw in some rollers and away you go but you really need to know when to stop, know when it should come down. And it’s hard to train your eye to get good at doing bad work.

How did you know when to stop?

It was more about the individual, about how she would do it. These girls were their own people. They didn’t care about the ‘80s or ‘90s. They were concerned with what they liked. And they were tough. That’s what inspired me.

Photography courtesy of Alliance Films.

Q & A with Donald Mowat

How did you approach Melissa’s makeup?

When I plotted Melissa’s look, there were some issues for me. The first was her age, because she’s only ten years older than Mark Wahlberg. The second was that she’s an attractive woman playing…I don’t want to say unattractive but she wasn’t playing Jackie O or Audrey Hepburn. I looked at pictures of the real Alice Ward and she was a really hard woman with a feminine side that wasn’t apparent to her. It was a rough, tough face of someone who smokes way too many cigarettes and probably started having kids at 14.

And yet it wasn’t over the top.

Makeup should tell the story and help the character, but not define them. Otherwise, all you’re seeing is the makeup. I thought we should go old school, with powder foundation. I love the old Dior or Lancôme because this woman would have used Cover Girl or some other drugstore brand. For some reason, some of the best makeup in the designer world can be utilized to create unflattering makeup.

This is fascinating.

When you age someone, to wrinkle up the face you apply powders that have texture and will leave all this demarcation. And a highlight and shadow, get a little dark under the eyes. Then you apply mascara and eyeliner without doing all the tricks we usually use to make you look pretty. Instead of going up, you go down. Instead of the lips being nice, clean and soft you make it a bit harder.

What else did you do?

We used a dental stain on her teeth to yellow them, where you could see that they aren’t rotten but they’re not far away due to the endless smoking. This is a girl who’s never used a Crest Whitestrip. And for her lipstick, an orangey brown tone, a little bit frosty. It would have been a pharmacy brand that she bought for $2 thinking it’s really classy. Everything was kind of not the right colour. Even though we were in 1993, we brought it back to the 80s, to evoke that these are not up to date people.

Was it the products themselves or a technique that you used to make her skin look dry and wrinkled?

We basically used no primer, no moisturizer, no toner, no eye cream. And so all her natural flaws were highlighted or brought up. And then the slightly powdery foundation would be applied with this stippling technique where you get this wrinkle in their forehead or their eyes and you would apply it with a powder puff so it would sit in those lines. Then a taupe eyeshadow in the hollow of the eyes to emphasize the age and discolouration. She’s not a hag; she’s still good looking. But she’s got nine kids!

Can you talk about the sisters?

So Red Dog would have a dental appliance because she really is plain. She’s lost her front teeth because she’s been in fights. She’s a 25-year-old tomboy who’s never put sunscreen on and her mouth is a mess and always covering those terrible teeth. And then we had Bianca, who is the pretty one and she actually got to have her eyebrows re-done, got a wear a pretty lipstick, you know, her beach blonde was pretty. And the other ones, that was really, for me, when we had to decide if you’re going to that that TERRIBLE hair, how do we start adding makeup? And I decided that we would do minimal makeup but nonetheless, they all had to go through the process. And I wanted cheap, bad eyeliner.

What makes it cheap and bad?

It’s about finding textures and colours that were a little bit hard, not such great quality. A couple of unfortunate lip colours. Mascara where you think ‘those girls share the same makeup. We spent hours doing the worst eyeliner. You know the ¾ eyeliner?

What’s that?

You know, how it stops? We used to do that in the 80’s where you never did liner in a complete line on the bottom? And it’s never even! People in Canada will hate that I say it but Lowell is Hamilton. You go to Jackson Square and stand there for ten minutes and that’s the sisters! It’s a terribly snotty thing to say, but it’s true. It’s full of misery, unemployment, drugs, alcohol and some incredible people. The soulfulness of those girls, being that they don’t know any better than they do, is so touching to me.

That’s what I loved about them too.

Those girls don’t wear lipstick, that’s for MTV girls! And they pride themselves on not being that. Their hair are their helmets. They get their hair on, those funny acid wash jeans and the shorts, those terrible shoes from Best Value and that was their uniform. That was it. And it was a joy.

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