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Oscars 2012: In The Best Makeup Category, It's Meaningful To Be Overlooked

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Matthew W. Mungle sounds like he could be Harry Potter’s clumsy maternal uncle -- a Muggle who’s prone to bungling things.

But Mungle is actually a real man -- a makeup artist -- and, far from aligning with the Potter universe, he’s competing against it. Tonight, Mungle will square off against “Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2” and “The Iron Lady,” and he’s steeling himself for a loss.

“I may be stepping out of my realm in saying this,” Mungle told The Huffington Post. “But I think the Academy members go for the obvious in our category. They may go for my work on ‘Albert Nobbs,’ but they may not. They don’t really know how hard it is for us to do something so simple and yet so transformative as to put a nose on a face and blend it in so you don’t see it for an entire movie.”

Mungle’s work on “Albert Nobbs,” actress Glenn Close’s pet project about two cross-dressing women in 19th century Ireland, earned him his fourth Oscar nomination (he won in 1992 for his work on “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”). He's one of an elite group who’ve experienced the career bump that comes with a gold statuette, in a field not often understood by the people handing them out.

Little is known about the notoriously shadowy 5,765 voters who'll determine Mungle’s fate Sunday night (except that they're overwhelmingly white, male and over 60, according to a study by the Los Angeles Times). But Mungle's sense is their knowledge of makeup artistry mirrors that of the average film buff: not particularly sophisticated.

Leonard Engelman, governor of the Academy's Makeup Artists and Hairstylists Branch, which chooses the nominees, agreed that it's unlikely the Academy includes many practitioners outside of their branch's small contingent of 130. And though it’s not a given that the biggest blockbuster takes the lesser-understood prizes every year, there’s always a likelihood Academy members -- like the rest of us -- are more familiar with the big movies than the small ones.

This year, the ranking is clear: “Albert Nobbs” grossed slightly more than $2 million at the box office, less than 10 percent of "The Iron Lady"'s earnings, and a mere 0.6 percent of "The Deathly Hallows'" whopping $381 million.

The power of exposure starts early. Even within Engelman's branch of experts, there was always the chance the members hadn’t seen one or all of the movies, he said. To ward off that possibility, hopefuls are now encouraged to send in portfolios of before and after images of the actors and actresses they transformed. Engelman said these books aren't used to distinguish CGI effects from hand-done makeup, as a recent LA Times article suggested, as photographs are doctorable and therefore not evidence of anything, but to pique interest in the movies.

“It’s a reminder for the makeup artists who are attending that [branch] meeting to be sure and see those films," Engelman told The Huffington Post. "That’s one of the things that we really try to push throughout the year -- to get our members to see the films so they can properly judge.”

Mungle, along with nominated artists Martial Corneville and Lynn Johnson, used handmade devices to transform Close and her co-star Janet McTeer (who are up for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively) into women trying to look like men. The job was some time coming for Mungle. Three years ago, he auditioned on request for Close, who’d decided to make the movie after playing Nobbs on stage in 1982. Close sent a plaster cast of her face to Mungle in Los Angeles, and he altered it and sent it back.

“She put it on and actually shed a tear,” Mungle told The Huffington Post. “She said, ‘It’s Albert.’ I had forgotten about the project by the time Bonnie (Curtis, who co-produced “Albert Nobbs”) called me up to say, ‘It’s on again, and Glenn really, really wants you to do it.’”

Working off a National Geographic photograph of an Albanian woman who'd stepped into the place of a male heir, held onto by Close since 2002, Mungle designed prosthetics that would “change her face from within.” He lengthened Close’s nose with a tip, broadened her jaw with teeth-fitting devices called “dental plumpers,” and pushed her ears out with pieces also called plumpers, to make her “endearing.”

In designing the nose of McTeer’s character Hubert Page, Mungle sculpted breaks into the nose at McTeer’s request, to reference the spousal abuse her character fled. Those intricacies might be lost on screen, but in an interview with MetroWeekly, Close said they were what induced her and McTeer into the spirit of their roles.

“Subtle work is overlooked,” Mungle said. “It’s kind of a feather in your cap in some sense, and it’s not in a sense. If you do your job well, people won’t notice you’ve done it.”

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