Film Review: Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story

Stirring portrait of a singular master of the very glamorous craft he transformed into art.
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A strong case for the application of makeup being an art in itself is made by Tiffany Bartok’s documentary about famed cosmetologist Kevyn Aucoin. A flamboyant, resolutely queer and tall adopted kid from Louisiana, he was one of the lucky ones who knew early on (age ten) exactly what it was he wanted to do, as a result of endless poring over Vogue magazine layouts of impossibly gorgeous models. Resilient and tough—traits that would serve him well in the vicious business of fashion—he survived being constantly bullied from the time he was five until he was fifteen, as one of his admiring siblings observes.

An impossibly young makeup prodigy in local boutiques, Aucoin made his way to New York in the early ’80s, where his pit bull determination and ubiquitous, basic squatting at the Vogue office just about forced his career into being. And how it soared. Before long, he found himself working for the greatest photographers in fashion—Avedon, Irving Penn, Arthur Elgort,  Bill King—attending to the faces of every supermodel of a spectacularly glamorous period—Cindy, Naomi, Christy, Linda, Paulina Porizkova, Isabella Rossellini, et al. Before he arrived, models basically did their own hair and makeup, but it was his makeup artist idol Way Bandy who gave Aucoin the basic key to his magic, contouring the face. This was a matter of, as model Veronica Webb observes, “blending, blending, blending” the makeup, with hands universally recalled as being gigantic, on all those exquisite visages to achieve breathtaking results.

The basic difference between Bandy and Aucoin was that the first worked mostly in black-and-white, giving his subjects basically the same imperturbably flawless look, while Aucoin gave you a spectrum of color and a celebration of the specific individuality of each woman, which really came to the fore with his dazzling range of celebrity clients: Cher, Liza Minnelli, Janet Jackson, Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Tina Turner and his goddess of goddesses, Barbra Streisand, whose face once covered the walls of his childhood bedroom while her music blared endlessly, tormenting his siblings.

Beneath all the glamour and success, which included his own still-extant makeup line and a number of highly successful books showing all women how to achieve their ultimate look, darkness lurked. As his friends and colleagues observe, the excruciating pressure of the glamour trade, lingering childhood scars (including a disastrous reunion with his homophobic birth mother), a nagging physical pain brought on by a pituitary tumor finally diagnosed in 2001 and myriad other life toxins resulted in an addiction to drugs, specifically painkillers. Aucoin became difficult to work with and be around—as a number of ex-lovers attest—and, horrifyingly, unemployable. Singer Tori Amos admits that while he may have had the starriest selection of friends on the surface, they all ultimately failed him, returning all the time and generosity he had shown them by being suddenly unavailable. Kidney and liver failure finally claimed his life at 40, in 2002.

Larger Than Life presents a vividly comprehensive picture of Aucoin’s work—immensely aided by his obsessive video recording and journaling, and especially through interviews with designer Isaac Mizrahi, fellow makeup pioneer Sandy Lintner and editor Linda Wells—and the intoxicating era in which he thrived, when models were gorgeous and sensual women. But Bartok leaves out certain key incidents that would have lent greater depth and interest. These include an assault by security in a Baton Rouge department store that spurred his flight to New York; a 2000 article he wrote for Allure magazine in which he called NRA members “morons,” invoking death threats; his equally admirable refusal to work with models he deemed too young and, perhaps more understandably, the messy details surrounding his death, in which his husband, Jeremy Antunes, was locked out of their shared home by Aucoin’s family.

Whatever, thanks to this mostly admirable film and his own enduring legacy, Aucoin’s name lives on. He himself once said, “I work in an industry with some of the meanest people who have ever walked the face of the Earth, who live and die for the surface. But the way I see it, I have a responsibility to do the most I can do, the way I know how. Since I know how to apply makeup, that's what I do and use it as a platform.”

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