Frank Langella's Skeletor: A master class in acting through prosthetics

Contributed by
Nov 14, 2017

As the positive press for Thor: Ragnarok ramps up, so does my excitement for it. While the Thor movies are the shaggiest of the franchise, they are also my favorites because I love the characters and the settings so much. Being faced with the gloriously Kirby-esque poster on the subway reminds me of just how much I love Thor.

But it also reminds me of Thor: The Dark World, a film notable mostly for two reasons. Firstly, there’s the third dimension-bending action climax of the film, which, I would argue, distills the appeal of the Thor branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Yggdrasil into one action scene. And secondly, there’s the casting of Christopher Eccleston, an excellent actor with an excellently interesting and expressive face… which then gets coated with prosthetics so thick they could serve as wedding cake fondant.

It, uh, didn’t go super-great.

The full-face prosthetic is one of the most difficult acting challenges an actor can face. Prosthetics tend to work best when they accentuate an actor’s face—the Hellboy prosthetics, for example, make sure to leave Ron Perlman’s face free from the eyebrows down to, you know, do the whole acting thing. The same goes for John Rhys Davies’ prosthetics as Gimli in The Lord of the Rings, which, while extensive, definitely let his eyes be.

("Uh, Clare, why didn’t you use a more contemporary reference to the actors playing dwarves in The Hobbit films?" Well, because Davies had to act through being also allergic to the makeup and also we don’t need to bring up things that hurt us.)

A full-face prosthetic runs the risk of basically Botoxing subtle facial movements, turning even seasoned actors into Putties. As Eccleston himself described on the press tour for Thor: The Dark World, it’s often said that "acting with prosthetics is like washing your feet with your socks on." When prosthetics are good, they can elevate a performance. But when they’re bad, they’re all you can you see.

In fact, there’s only one performance I can think of that transcends bad prosthetics, a performance so towering that all actors facing six hours in the makeup chair would do well to watch and learn from, perhaps even while they’re getting their prosthetics applied. I am speaking, of course, of Frank Langella as Skeletor in the 1987 film adaptation of Masters of the Universe.

If you have never watched Masters of the Universe, you owe it to yourself to correct this gross oversight, especially if the idea of Dolph Lundgren running around in nothing but bikini briefs, a harness and a cape appeals to you. Middling to delightfully terrible genre eighties movies are my comfort food, and, boy, does Masters of the Universe deliver. Developed largely in isolation from the toy line and the animated series (the How Did This Get Made? podcast commissioned a fantastic oral history of the film’s development, which you can read here), it barely has anything to do with the Masters of the Universe mythos and, instead, tells the story of a magical MacGuffin that falls from Eternia to Earth into the hands of eighties teen Courteney Cox (really). He-Man and his crew then must journey to Earth to retrieve it before Skeletor’s forces do. Let me put it this way: there’s a moment in the film where Man-at-Arms’ daughter Teela, after dispatching an enemy, stares directly into the camera and says, "Woman-at-Arms!"

It is a dumb movie and I love it.

Your mileage may vary on the film and its campy eighties charms, but Frank Langella’s stunning turn as Skeletor is objectively one of the greatest prosthetic performances of all time. Langella being able to transcend extensive eighties-era prosthetics is basically the acting equivalent of making an Iron Man suit in the desert with SCRAPS!, to quote Obadiah Stane. I mean, look at this thing:

In the attempt to marry the fact that Skeletor’s face is just a skull with an actual human face, the production team landed on the answer to the question "How far along into Lumière melting to death would his face still be recognizable?"

Skeletor from the animated series is a fun, petty villain who gets away with both wearing a harness with a hooded cape and saying the word "boob" on children’s television in the eighties. He’s since become somewhat of a camp icon, showing up in twerkout classes and motivational memes. But Langella approaches Skeletor without a whiff of irony or self-depreciation, giving the role the same intensity and ferocity you’d expect more out of a production of Richard III. Langella achieves this chiefly through two elements of his performance: volume and tragedy.

The volume of the performance is less about its actual decibel level—although rest assured there’s enough "KILL HIM!" and bellowing to shake your subwoofers—and more about Langella playing to the rafters. Just, in this case, the rafters are the edge of the universe. Literally, Skeletor spends a lot of time in the throne room of Castle Grayskull staring into the Eye of the Galaxy. There is no moment too small for Langella to make big. When Man-at-Arms asks Skeletor if he dares threaten the Sorceress’ life, Skeletor bellows, "I DARE ANYTHING! I AM SKELETOR!"

(Come to think of it, that’s a motivational meme in and of itself.)

But the tragedy of Skeletor (a phrase I am delighted to be able to write) is what makes the performance. There’s a real and true melancholy to Skeletor, especially as the film progresses and he finally gets the upper hand over He-Man. True, he’s gaining the kind of ultimate power my forever boy Sheev Palpatine would be thrilled to get, but… is that everything he truly wants? When he has He-Man on his knees, he asks, "Where is your strength? Where has it gone?" in melancholic tones. As he goes on to describe the cycle of death and rebirth where He-Man’s death will fortify his own power, Dolph Lundgren just looks politely confused, which speaks less against Lundgren’s acting prowess and more for him reading the room correctly. Nobody gives a hoot about He-Man when Skeletor is monologuing.

But the moment that seals it, for me, is when Skeletor asks He-Man, "Tell me about the loneliness of good, He-Man. Is it equal to the loneliness of evil?" This strange moment of vulnerability—of Skeletor admitting that, despite being so close to achieving his wildest dreams, he’s lonely--is the key to the whole performance. What has he sacrificed—besides, obviously, his face—in his struggle to take over Eternia? Whatever it is, it weighs almost as heavily on him as the Super Saiyan helmet he receives when he levels up. This nuance of character is an incredible feat, especially in a film based on a toy line that features the heroes staking out a fast food restaurant upon getting stuck on Earth.

Despite his long and storied career (including the less storied Cutthroat Island), Langella has called Skeletor "one of [his] very favorite parts." He took the role mostly because his son was a massive fan of Skeletor, and he did his son more than proud.

So to any actor considering a part where extensive prosthetics might be a factor, look to Langella in Masters of the Universe. True, he is a Tony Award-winning actor. But if someone can elevate Skeletor from "myah!" to Shakespearean tragedy, you can emote through a prosthetic.

Man, Skeletor really is motivational.