Directed by Frank H. Woodward
Movie monsters have been a staple of genre films going all the way back to the beginnings of cinema. Many of us carry fond memories of a childhood spent glued to the television set, watching Godzilla (or some other menacing beast) smash through miniature sets much to our unbridled delight. But what many people may forget is that there is a person inside that suit – drowning in sweat, muscles aching with every movement – and he (or she) is responsible for bringing the creatures we hold so dear to life. In some ways, it’s a testament to the actor’s performance that viewers can so easily forget an anthropomorphic beast would be lifeless if not for the performance of that person inside. Thankfully, Men in Suits (2013) has come along to remind fans that not only is there a captain inside that rubber ship, but being that person is a demanding job, one that requires an incredible amount of stamina, strength, and the ability to emote without saying a word. It is an ambitious love letter to a timeless craft, speedily covering decades of ground in a scant 93-minute run time.
There are a number of well-known suit actors interviewed here, including Doug Jones, Tom Woodruff Jr., Brian Steele, Douglas Tait, Bob Burns, Van Snowden, and Haruo Nakajima. One thing all of these actors agree on is that being a suit actor is a demanding job that often doesn’t receive the accolades it deserves. Jones in particular seems to be very passionate regarding the “suit actor vs. screen actor” debate, noting that sometimes he felt like he was “treated like a prop” on set, rather than getting the respect a non-suit actor might have received. Many of the performers also agree that a lean body is best, as suit work is an additive process much like prosthetics, and keeping in shape requires rigorous exercise and incredible stamina. For example, Brian Steele’s costume for “Wink” in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008) weighed over 100 lbs., and he was required to perform – at the same peak level – for up to 12 hours a day. You have to be conditioned to endure this kind of abuse because if the suit actor calls it quits, shooting stops. It’s that simple. Steele said he would ride his bike to set every day – a 40 kM trek – to maintain his physical prowess. Jones, too, admits the work can wring you dry, but he also jokes that if he were to drop dead in a rubber suit on a del Toro picture he’d “die a happy man.”
With so many monsters and actors to cover, no one creature is focused on for too long, but the film does devote a sizeable chunk to cinema’s King of the Monsters: Godzilla. Actor Haruo Nakajima, who is still spry at the ripe age of 84, recalls the original suit he wore for Gojira (1954) weighed over 200 lbs. and was so reinforced and stiff he could leave it standing upright once he exited the back. It was not uncommon for a cup of sweat to be drained from the suit at the end of each day. Luckily, for the sequels the suit’s weight was cut by more than half, which allowed for Godzilla to battle Toho’s stable of kaiju more effectively. Nakajima proved so adept at maneuvering (however he could) inside a suit that he went on to be cast as many other top monsters – Varan, Rodan, Baragon – and he was also brought on to the cast of Ultraman so that, while performing, he could train the other suit actors who had little to no experience.
Many of the film’s history lessons are provided by the endless encyclopedia of creature features himself: Bob Burns. He knows this stuff inside and out, schooling viewers on everything from naming all of the top actors who performed in Hollywood’s gorillasploitation movies, to describing his own work as an actor and how the suits he manned were constructed. Of course, he’s got all the goods to show off on camera, too. Numerous film clips are shown to provide context to the pictures discussed, and no single film is too heavily covered. Remember, the goal here is to educate fans on the actors inside the suits. So don’t be surprised when Star Wars only gets a passing mention before the film moves on to other things. If I had any complaint at all here, it would be that the film can be a bit schizophrenic at times, trying to blaze through almost a century of cinematic history. It’s not small feat, and the film largely succeeds at covering the major bases, but the frenzied nature will oftentimes leave you wanting a little more on certain subjects.
Steele mentions that suit actors started to get a little nervous around 1993, when Jurassic Park dominated the marketplace and showed how far computer-generated images had come. It was a bit of a dark period, and even when studios were hiring actors for suit work it was usually for superficial reasons – tall actors, built actors, etc. They weren’t hiring actors who had a history of delivering rich, nuanced performances that the roles called for. Seizing the opportunity, Steele started Creature Boy, essentially a union for suit actors. If a production is looking for a specific type of actor to play a role, they can turn to his company and receive a number of qualified recommendations. As suit technology has improved, many films have reverted to using the tried and true man-in-suit method to have something tangible on-screen. Even the prevalence of motion-capture technology still requires that an actor inhabit the role, which can only means Steele and his contemporaries will be in business as long as they’re still making movies.
Speaking of his contemporaries, the film’s wraparound (and occasional intercuts) have us following actor Douglas Tait as he prepares to don a demonic creature suit for a role in Joe Lynch’s still-unreleased Knights of Badassdom. By allowing viewers to see Tait acting in various stages of his suit’s completion, the film allows for a better understanding of the design and acting process behind his work. Getting an early feel for the suit allows him to determine what muscles he’ll have to focus on building up to make sure his body is up to par (get on those forearms, Doug!). Tait describes his thought process along the way, cluing us in on how advancements in technology have made his job moderately easier… but at the end of the day he’s still sweating his ass off in a 100+lb. suit for hours at a time. The enthusiasm for his craft is infectious, though, rarely showing him without a smile every step of the way. It goes a long way to show that the men inside these suits are the same kids we used to be – only now with a profound appreciation for the work that it requires. After watching Men in Suits, I’d be surprised if anyone else didn’t feel the same.
4 out of 5