Femmes are often forced to reshape themselves for Oscar's good graces

When Lord Byron wrote “She walks in beauty, like the night …” he could have been talking about the evening Oscars are handed out. But he certainly wasn’t talking about how she got there.

A glance back at the past dozen years or so finds that Academy voters, in recognizing women’s roles, have consistently singled out actresses doing the L’Oreal version of going to the dark side. Actress recipients have, since 1995, ranged from some truly severe cases of winning ugly — Charlize Theron transforming herself into a dissipated serial killer in “Monster”; Nicole Kidman applying a hood ornament to her face for “The Hours” — to roles that were really more about class distinctions: Halle Berry, stooping to conquer in “Monster’s Ball,” or Julia Roberts getting her trash thing going in “Erin Brockovich.”

Elsewhere, Susan Sarandon was a dowdy nun (“Dead Man Walking”), Frances McDormand was a dowdy cop (“Fargo”), Gwyneth Paltrow dressed as a man for comedy (“Shakespeare in Love”) and Hilary Swank did it for tragedy (“Boys Don’t Cry”).

“They have to see you do something you haven’t done before, which is why it was so strange that Hilary Swank won again last year,” says one studio awards consultant, speculating on the anti-glamour gambit as an Oscar lure. “Although she played a straight woman, the sexual identity component was straight out of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ territory.”

Plenty of actors have won for playing the halt, the lame, the mentally challenged and the fat — Daniel Day-Lewis (“My Left Foot”), Dustin Hoffman (“Rain Man”), Tom Hanks (“Forrest Gump” ) and Robert De Niro (“Raging Bull”) among them. But none of these men are renowned chiefly for their physical allure, which can be a selling point for the actresses to global audiences.

“There’s always been a Hollywood belief, institutionalized in the Academy Awards, that real acting involves twisting oneself out of shape, preferably with the help of putty (or its modern equivalent), wigs, limps, and other distortions, accents, and just plain old ugliness,” says Molly Haskell, author of “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies,” and “Holding My Own in No-Man’s Land: Women and Men and Films and Feminists.”

‘Stunt factor’

“That goes for male or female,” she continues, “but, of course, it’s especially brave or bold — ergo Oscar-worthy — for a beautiful woman to inflict such damage on herself in the name of art.  Putting on an artificial nose is one thing, but gaining weight!”

It’s really a “stunt factor,” Haskell adds, “but it does seem more rampant now and more perverse.”

The sexist element in the actress equation is that beautiful women are still celebrated by Hollywood for being beautiful. Oscar night gives them, among other things, the opportunity to show the world they’ve “recovered” from playing fat, old, wrinkled or demented. But the history of the Academy Awards supports the belief that, in the film business as elsewhere, being beautiful is an obstacle to being taken seriously

“I think everybody knows that,” says Theron, who may well find herself nominated again this year for getting gritty in “North Country,” in which she plays a mistreated mine worker. “It’s been going on in the business for a long time. I think it would be very naive to say that it doesn’t go on. But if you’re in it for longevity, people will pick up on that. That’s the only way you can look at it. There’s also definitely that theory that pretty people don’t (have as much emotional depth) as much as non-pretty people, and that’s just ridiculous.”

Beauty barometer

“I don’t want to be self-deprecating,” says the self-deprecating Felicity Huffman, whose portrayal of a pre-op transsexual in “Transamerica” is being talked about for an Oscar nom, “but I’m not a beauty. I’ve never been. It’s not my stock in trade. So I really didn’t have anything to protect.”

Huffman’s self-assessment aside, it’s just that — the risk factor — is seen as the clincher for Oscar sympathy.

“Plenty times people have gone to enormous lengths to no effect at all,” says one long-time Oscar watcher-campaigner. “What’s curious is the phenomenon of the beautiful actress playing dowdy, as if it’s a brave thing to do. It was much braver for someone like Joan Crawford to play dowdy, or someone like Bette Davis — who was never a beauty anyway — doing something like ‘Elizabeth and Essex.'”

Braver, because come Oscar night, they were still going to look a lot like they did in their movies.

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