Why the ‘Franklin’ Hair and Makeup Designer Embraced All That Is ‘Completely Absurd’

TheWrap magazine: For Alessandro Bertolazzi, 18th-century French aristocratic style was the epitome of ridiculousness, so why not embrace it?

Michael Douglas in "Franklin" (Apple TV+)
Michael Douglas in "Franklin" (Apple TV+)

If Coco Chanel in the 20th century famously encouraged people to look in the mirror and take off at least one thing before leaving the house, it’s safe to assume that the aristocrats of late 18th-century France gazed into several mirrors and piled on more hair ribbons, more feathers, more face powder, more rouge, more jewels, more more

The style of the Ancien Régime under King Louis XVI was extravagance to the point of ridiculousness: Members of the nobility covered their faces with white paint and powder and their heads with curly, often towering coiffures. Benjamin Franklin stepped into this opulent world in 1776 when he arrived in France to negotiate a formal alliance between that country and the fledgling U.S. against Britain. And it’s the world we enter in the Apple TV+ limited series “Franklin,” in which Michael Douglas, as the Founding Father in bifocals, shocks courtiers when he proudly arrives at Versailles without a wig.

“When I talked with Michael Douglas, I said, ‘Listen, let’s make it like you landed on another planet,’” “Franklin” hair and makeup designer Alessandro Bertolazzi said. “You come from America and you land in France, where people look completely absurd.”

Michael Douglas and Jeanne Balibar in “Franklin” (Apple TV+)

To emphasize Franklin’s foreignness and lack of pomp, Bertolazzi used regular movie makeup on Douglas, forgoing prosthetics entirely, and worked with the actor’s real hair, which he grew out for the part. Throughout all eight episodes, Franklin dons neither a speck of powder nor a single hairpiece. “Benjamin Franklin, he never accepted the idea of wearing a wig,” said Bertolazzi, who won an Oscar in 2017 for his “Suicide Squad” hair and makeup. “Not even if they [threatened] to cut off his head.”

To prepare for outfitting more than 5,000 people (including extras) in makeup and some 1,500 hairpieces, Bertolazzi and his team burrowed into books about the period and took what he calls “school trips” to Versailles and museums. But paintings, he said, are the equivalent of Photoshopped portraits.

At the time, the idealized pale skin rendered by artists was considered the height of white aristocratic beauty. Heavy white makeup (called “paint” and often made of lead) helped achieve that — but it also covered up facial blemishes and scars from smallpox and other diseases. “It’s fun thinking about the 18th century as one of the most iconic for beauty and glamour, but that wasn’t the reality,” Bertolazzi said, pointing out that people rarely bathed, were often sickly and had poor dental hygiene.

Franklin
Maria Dragus as Marie Antoinette in “Franklin” (Apple TV+)

He wanted to evoke how “completely horrendous” even the richest of the rich could look back then, so for almost the entire cast, he applied a thick layer of white grease foundation and a single hue of red blush and lipstick that matched reference paintings (and stood in for the toxic vermilion, or mercury sulfide, used for hundreds of years). On top came commercial white face powder, while the wigs were dusted with a variety of vegetable flours — similar to the finely milled starch used during the period.

Members of the nobility mingle around Franklin wearing the same ghoulishly pale, heavily rouged look: from America’s great ally the Marquis de Lafayette (Théodore Pellerin) to Marie Antoinette (Maria Dragus), who makes a brief appearance sporting an ostentatious globe of orange hair. Meanwhile, the Comte de Vergennes (Thibault de Montalembert), the minister of foreign affairs who works closely with Franklin, hated the pageantry of it all, which Bertolazzi acknowledged by giving Vergennes a slightly ill-fitting salt-and-pepper wig.

Thibault de Montalembert in “Franklin” (Apple TV+)

Women of pre-Revolutionary France generally did not wear eye makeup, so the “Franklin” team skipped it for everyone but the widowed and rather wild Madame Helvétius (Jeanne Balibar), who becomes Franklin’s lover. “She’s the only one because she’s in a different kind of world that has some modernity,” Bertolazzi said. “She’s quite revolutionary in her look.” 

That included her hair. Back then, most wigs were made from goat or horse hair; usually only the king’s faux locks were crafted from human hair. Initially, Bertolazzi was worried that modern synthetic wigs would not look accurate on screen, but to his delight, a pair of inexpensive, off-the-shelf wigs provided the perfect basis for Helvétius. The team sewed them together, worked some magic with wax and powder and voilà: a voluminous wig fit for a trailblazer. “This synthetic wig — like, 10 euros — was amazing,” he said. “The curly hair looks like Jimi Hendrix’s.” 

Franklin
Florence Darel in “Franklin” (Apple TV+)

All of the series’ over-the-top hairpieces were made by hand through a long process involving synthetic fibers being woven into wire frames, set with dowels, wet, steamed, then baked in a special wig oven overnight. While attending the theater, the heartbroken composer Madame Brillon (Ludivine Sagnier) sports a particularly flashy blond number adorned with gold stars and a pouf of blue feathers.

But in the Olympics of farcical hairstyles, Madame Chaumont (Florence Darel), one half of the nouveau riche couple who hosts Franklin, takes the gold. To greet her guest, she wears a platinum pile of ringlets festooned with feathers, a face nestled inside a miniature staircase and, for good measure, a replica of the United States Capitol. “My wife said, ‘Who designed this wig? It’s weird,’” Bertolazzi said, laughing. “But that’s important. Staying in the safe zone is the biggest mistake ever. The safe zone is not fun. You have to be always on the edge.”

This story first ran in the Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Limited Series/Movies issue here.

Hoa Xuande The Sympathizer cover
Hoa Xuande photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg for TheWrap

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