Tilda Swinton’s hoax is the latest example of an A-lister hiding behind prosthetics

Tilda Swinton underwent radical make-up and prosthetics regime to turn herself into an 82-year-old man. 

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If fame is a mask that eats the face, as John Updike suggested, then it’s no wonder that so many stars take refuge behind a disguise. Indeed, the only avoidance tactic available to the instantly-recognisable performer is to don the mask that masks the mask. The news last week that Tilda Swinton underwent radical make-up and prosthetics regime to turn herself into an 82-year-old man, and to effectively play her own co-star in Luca Guadagnino’s loose riff on Dario Argento’s horror fantasia Suspiria, was not especially striking. While she clearly went the extra mile – or, in light of her insistence on having a prosthetic penis hidden away inside her underwear, the extra few inches at least – it is precisely this sort of commitment to shape-shifting that has made Swinton the performer she is.

From the gender fluidity of Orlando and Man to Man, to the grotesque physical transformation of Snowpiercer, where she donned Deirdre Barlow glasses and a set of gnashers three sizes too big for her gob, we expect some measure of transformation and duality from Swinton. (She even doubled up in Okja last year, playing both a sleek, white-robed CEO and her haughty, harrumphing sister.) The really heartening news about Suspiria, I suppose, is that old-fashioned prosthetics continue to be prized in the 21st century. There are still some things you can’t do with CGI.

While the presence in the Suspiria cast list of the unknown actor Lutz Ebersdorf may have have put people off the scent for a while, it is no great surprise to find now that Ebersdorf and Swinton are one and the same. That sort of pre-release gimmickry (oh-how-convenient that the story should emerge now, in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, rather than later, when it can serve no PR purpose) goes back to John Huston’s 1963 mystery The List of Adrian Messenger. That film featured an “unmasking” epilogue in which several minor characters are revealed to have been portrayed by famous actors – Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra – wearing make-up to render themselves unrecognisable. As with Suspiria, the cat was out of the bag ahead of release, though the trick was later undermined somewhat by the rumour that a few of the participants weren’t actually in the film at all, but present only when the unmasking was shot.

Prosthetics worn by an established actor are never going to harm the chances of awards recognition. A Golden Globe or Oscar nomination is a nice reward for all those hours spent in the make-up chair, and all that blasted inconvenience, just as performers were once routinely compensated with acclaim when they had portrayed a gay or disabled character. Prosthetics-for-prizes is a tradition that has paid dividends for Charlize Theron in Monster, Robert De Niro in at least a third of Raging Bull, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. Great performances all, and if the actors concerned won prizes then they did so by more than just a nose. But the make-up didn’t hurt.

Being in the glare of attention, whether it’s from the camera, the public or the paparazzi, must leave performers thirsty for a get-away-from-it-all break from themselves. Doing that on screen has its own perverse glint – the actor is there and yet simultaneously not there. This can be embodied by a film’s entire approach to casting, such as in the case of Dick Tracy, in which James Caan, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were “uglied up” behind inches of facial prosthetics in order to play the film’s villains and miscreants.

Disfigurement and disability necessitates the adoption of prosthetic disguise or concealment: the likes of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Eric Stoltz in Mask and John Hurt in The Elephant Man had little alternative to submerging themselves in make-up. That said, some tantalising clips survive of David Bowie playing John Merrick without any cosmetic assistance in a Broadway production of The Elephant Man; the role was also taken at various points by Bruce Davison and Mark Hamill. And a grimace or an ill-tempered sneer is never going to be enough to pass as monstrous in fantasy cinema: Tim Curry’s glazed scarlet body, clomping hooves and majestic ebony horns in Legend are impressive even today, partly because they represented such a violent reaction against the same actor’s camp showbiz persona honed in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Annie.

A good actor is often said to disappear into a part. Actual anonymity, though, opens up a new sort of freedom. If performers could only learn to let go of the on-screen credit and go unbilled, the experiment would be complete and extreme. Imagine that: an entire film in which an A-list cast remains stubbornly unidentifiable and uncredited. Some fantasy. Even if the egos allowed it, the agents, PRs and managers never would.

Suspiria is released 16 November.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.