Why Reese Witherspoon & Jen Aniston Are Ditching Makeup

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Photo: Fox Searchlight

If you’re a film director who wants your audience to get that a female character is real, here’s one easy shortcut: take away her makeup—all of it.

Case in point: to play author Cheryl Strayed in the film adaptation of Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée asked Reese Witherspoon to go bare-faced. “I figured we’d have a little bit. A little mascara and cover-up—the ‘no makeup’ look,” the actress said at a press conference this week. Instead, she was filmed without a stitch of makeup. “When they showed me the dailies, it was raw,” she admitted. “I’d never seen myself in a movie like that before.” 

Similarly, for the forthcoming Cake, Jennifer Aniston ditched her makeup (and added a faux scar) to portray a woman struggling with chronic pain. Gone is the fresh-faced California girl; in her place, Aniston shows off the pores and wrinkles of a hard-living woman. “I actually found it quite awesome and liberating, to tell you the truth,” Aniston recently said to a Toronto audience. “It was sort of a big deal, personally, for me to expose that, because I think we’re all very, you know, concerned with how we look on a 50-foot screen.” 

Then there are the “no makeup” looks of the inmates on Orange Is The New Black, whose actors are actually wearing makeup to make them look worse than they do in real life. On screen, anyway, the unadorned, zits-and-all face is having a moment. Realism, not artifice, feels very now. (Interestingly, the biggest trend at fashion week has been natural-looking faces.) Filmmakers like losing makeup to convey authenticity; actors do it to prove their lack of vanity and their commitment to a challenging role. The resulting publicity probably doesn’t hurt, either.

Of course, in these new movies, a just-so crimson lip wouldn’t make sense. It’s no coincidence that Witherspoon and Aniston play women in crisis, or that both of their characters abuse opiates. “She’s not wearing makeup because that’s true to the character,” Cake director Daniel Barnz said. “This is a woman who doesn’t take care of herself.” In reality, of course, it’s not that simple—plenty of functioning addicts still wear makeup, and plenty of makeup-free women live full and thriving lives—but by removing any trace of movie-star glamour, the actresses can settle into their regular-Jane roles more easily. It’s less “Reese Witherspoon, flawless movie star” and more “Reese Witherspoon, actual human.”

In a small way, these makeup-free moments may have implications about how Hollywood’s opportunities for women may be (slowly) improving. While it’s notable that Aniston and Witherspoon went without makeup for these roles, the real story here isn’t about the lack of concealer; it’s about how badly female audiences want to see movies about complex women who don’t necessarily look “perfect.” (And how badly actresses want to play them: Witherspoon bought the movie rights to Wild and produced the film herself.) In telling stories about women who bypass the Hollywood archetypes, movies like Wild and Cake expand the possibilities for all female actresses—whether they’re wearing makeup or not.