Pretty Gone Plain
When an actress wants to win awards, she plays down her looks. Just like for a while there, actors could count on nominations for playing characters with disabilities, usually glamorous actresses were often rewarded for playing down their physical beauty. The often controversial Joe Queenan made this observation in a very politically incorrect column from the February 2003 issue of Movieline magazine. I expect this one will ruffle some feathers, so be warned. Queenan’s viewpoint was out-of-date 15 years ago and it hasn’t improved with age.
Moviegoers examining posters advertising the new film The Hours can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the lovely, glamorous Nicole Kidman. Concealed beneath a schnozzle that could give both Barbra Streisand and Karl Maiden a run for their money, Kidman is also encumbered by a pile of bland, non-highlighted Edwardian hair. As a beautiful woman impersonating a plain woman–the brilliant but suicidal early 20th-century English novelist Virginia Woolf–in this adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s clever novel, Kidman has gone out of her way to play down her own abundant physical charms and accentuate the Arctic grayness that was Woolf. In this she has succeeded admirably.
Were Nicole Kidman the only beautiful actress who had moved heaven and earth to make herself look fiercely ordinary on-screen in recent times, we could dismiss her appearance in The Hours as a clear case of a performer’s tailoring her looks to the demands of the role. Alas, it is not. In the past few years, almost as if on cue, some of our most stunning actresses have appeared in films requiring them to physically demean themselves by participating in a process known as instant uglification. A partial list of these films would include Michelle Pfeiffer as a downscale waitress in Frankie and Johnny, Sharon Stone as a doomed, poorly groomed redneck in Last Dance; Sandra Bullock as a slob in Miss Congeniality, Helena Bonham Carter as a dainty simian in Planet of the Apes; Renee Zellweger as a chunky airhead in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Angelina Jolie as a dysfunctional Medusa in Girl, Interrupted; Cameron Diaz as a dorklette in Being John Malkovich; and Kim Basinger as a white-trash mom in 8 Mile.
In citing these movies, let me make it clear that I am not referring to films in which comely young women are briefly seen with bruises, scars, lesions, tumors, or with their hair all over the place, like Anne Heche as a marooned bitch in Six Days Seven Nights, Geena Davis as a hired assassin turned soccer mom in The Long Kiss Goodnight or Meg Ryan as a perky boozehound in When a Man Loves a Woman. No, I am talking about movies in which actresses make a conscious effort to look unattractive for a significant portion of the proceedings. Her appearance is not an accident. It is not an oversight. It is not a fluke. She gave that hair some thought.
Several years ago, I wrote a story for this magazine entitled “The 4000 Blows,” in which I argued that good-looking leading men are required by some inexplicable code of cinematic honor to get the shit beaten out of them on-screen at some point in their careers. Partially, this is the result of a peculiar male-bonding process, whereby glamour boys intuitively understand that the male viewing public has a secret aversion to good-looking guys and wants to see them get jacked up at least once. Whether it is Clint Eastwood getting stomped within an inch of his life in Fistful of Dollars, Mel Gibson getting his entrails ripped out in Braveheart or Brad Pitt getting worked over in Fight Club and Spy Game, the male-viewing public harbors a deep-seated desire to see great-looking guys get bull-whipped, disemboweled, bludgeoned and just generally fucked over. The male viewing public is really sick.
But it is not only male audiences that place onerous demands on those they worship from afar. For just as Joe Average loves to see studly Adonises get their heads jammed into the cement mixer and their ears nibbled off, female moviegoers demand from time to time that the world’s most beautiful women make themselves look like something the cat dragged in.
By and large, gorgeous actresses are willing to de-prettify themselves at least once in their careers, not only because it makes them appear more simpatica, but because it can result in Academy Awards, or at the very least Academy Award nominations–think Meryl Streep in Ironweed or Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted. Finally, even where no Academy Awards are in sight, the process at least gives a star a certain gravitas. Short of playing a whore with a heart of gold (Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential), nothing gives an actress credibility faster than making herself look ugly. If necessary, really ugly.
Those who foolishly question the intellectual underpinnings of my argument would do well to review the mounting body of evidence. In Girl, Interrupted, Winona Ryder plays a suicidal teen who gets locked up in a mental hospital with Angelina Jolie. While Ryder spends the entire movie looking the way she always does–like a spoiled brat who needs to be sent to her room–Jolie looks like one of the Three Witches in Macbeth. With her stringy hair, cataleptic carriage, hollow eye sockets and alabaster skin, she looks like death warmed over. The premise of the movie seems to be that the more time Ryder spends hanging out with her Blair Witch sidekick, the sooner she will return to full mental health. This is aversion therapy at its most barbaric, the sort of unethical activity that gives loony bins a bad name. On the other hand, it seems to work.
Last Dance is cut from the same cloth. Here the glamorous Sharon Stone plays a former crackhead who languishes on Death Row for offing a couple of hapless burglary victims. Like most people on Death Row, she looks haggard. For some inexplicable reason, Clemency Board flunky Rob Morrow is convinced that Stone does not deserve to die and spends the entire film trying to persuade the governor to issue a stay of execution. Wisely, the governor refuses, in part because he is a Republican and most crackheads are Democrats. With her straggly hair and crummy jailbird outfits Stone is literally crying out to be taken seriously. It doesn’t help that Rob Morrow’s hair takes up such a huge portion of the screen that you can’t see Stone’s acting half the time.
In several other films, beautiful actresses deliberately make themselves a smidgen pudgy to score style points with the audience. An obvious example is Bridget Jones’s Diary, the bittersweet saga of a congenital Weight Watchers washout. Here, the normally svelte Renee Zellweger seems to have been supersized; every part of her is about two sizes too large. Including her underwear. But at least you can still tell it’s her; I had already seen Being John Malkovich twice before I realized that John Cusack’s frumpy wife was the customarily slinky Cameron Diaz.
Then, of course, there are the fat-suit films: America’s Sweethearts, in which Julia Roberts is a face-stuffing dink, and Shallow Hal, which has Gwyneth Paltrow as a philanthropic lardbutt. In both, actresses renowned for their beauty poke fun at their own carefully manicured images by masquerading as rhinos. In doing so, they seem to be taking a page out of Goldie Hawn’s playbook; in 1992, Hawn briefly appeared as a jumbo-sized sow in Death Becomes Her right alongside the usually imperial Meryl Streep. For my money, no one ever looked better in a fat suit than Hawn. The film won the Visual Effects Oscar that year, the Visual Effect in question being Goldie’s mammoth butt. (Purists, note: As I am not sure whether Minnie Driver was wearing a fat suit in Circle of Friends, I have left her out of this discussion.)
In treating the subject of evanescent ugliness, it is important to distinguish between films such as those discussed above, where an attractive actress steps out of character and does time as a hippo, and conventional ugly duckling movies. The annals of cinema are filled with motion pictures in which stunning actresses briefly appear without makeup or wearing eyeglasses in an effort to make themselves look dowdy; the old gambit has been tried in everything from Suspicion (Joan Fontaine) to The Mummy (Rachel Weisz) to She’s All That (Rachael Leigh Cook). Recently, however, a disturbing new trend has emerged. This is a sinister variation on the Ugly Duckling Story, best described as The Slightly Less Ugly Duckling Story. For example, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nia Vardalos plays an unattractive Greek waitress who gets rid of her glasses, applies some makeup and turns into a slightly less hideous female who then captures the heart of Prince Charming. Barbra Streisand had tried the same routine in The Mirror Has Two Faces, a film in which she played a dumpy middle-aged hag who starts exercising and miraculously turns into a middle-aged hag with a slightly tighter butt. (Nearly a decade earlier, Streisand had tried to pass herself off as both a deranged hag and a high-class call girl in Nuts. Unfortunately, I could never tell one character from the other.)
On first glance, the staggering success of a film such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding is difficult to fathom; it is stupid, mechanical, dated, corny and has surprisingly few jokes for a comedy. Only when assessed in the context of national pulchritude does its appeal make any sense. Presumably, American women are tired of watching movies where beautiful but dysfunctional women finally meet Mr. Right. They now want to see movies where ugly, dysfunctional women corral the men of their dreams. Or maybe this is some kind of Greek thing. Ultimately, I am not sure what movies like this say about the state of American womanhood. I only hope it will not delude ferociously plain women into thinking that men don’t pay much attention to looks, but rather look for the goodness inside the person. This would be a terrible mistake. It would be like going to see a film focusing on an American who doesn’t care about money, and then confusing the film with reality.
The tradition of self-hidifying oneself is certainly not new. Back in the ’40s, the American public used to love movies where beautiful women got sent to prisons and insane asylums and turned up with their hair all over the place. The tradition continued with films such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, where the geriatric superstars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford played insanely unattractive recluses. Then came Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, showcasing Elizabeth Taylor as a weather-beaten juicer. If memory serves, this was the last film in which Liz looked seductive; after that came the deluge. More recent times have seen films such as Ironweed, where Meryl Streep plays a demented drunk wandering around Depression Era Albany, New York, with the portly, dipsomaniacal Jack Nicholson. Here the leading lady is not only poorly made up; she is also an insane gin monkey sporting a ridiculous hat that makes her look like a plant that died in the first frost.
I would be guilty of sexism, ageism and several other contemporary cultural war crimes if I did not take a few moments to discuss Ellen Burstyn’s horrifying self-transmogrification in Requiem for a Dream. One of the more disturbing films of recent years, Requiem features the attractive Burstyn in gradual stages of facial devolution. As she wastes away in her tawdry Brooklyn apartment, gorging herself on diet pills while waiting for her no-good son (Jared Leto) to show up and steal another appliance he can fence, Burstyn gets scarier and scarier looking as the film goes on. With her red fright wig and purple skin, she looks absolutely terrible. And that’s before the electro-shock therapy starts.
Jennifer Connelly also takes a beating on-screen. Cast as a luckless junkie–the very worst kind–she is ultimately forced to perform a live, two-girl sex act in front of a crowd of typically scummy males. With her skag-head eyes wandering around the room in shame and disbelief, Connelly looks about as bad as a beautiful woman can look. Of course, as she is having a gigantic dildo shoved into her, you have to allow.
Since uglification of one sort or another (remember Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s massive Afro in Scarface? Diane Keaton’s perm in Mrs. Soffel? Jessica Lange’s post-lobotomy sequences in Frances?) seems to be a rite of passage that every aspiring actress must pass through, the question is: Who comes next? Natalie Portman? Reese Witherspoon? Katie Holmes? Difficult to say. One thing is certain. Just as politicians bond with the electorate by kissing sniveling babies, actresses bond with their plain-looking sisters by occasionally masquerading as a retard, donning a fat suit or getting dressed up as a suicidal, bisexual English novelist with an enormous nose. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. But so is ugliness. And ugly people know it. Which means that as long as there are ugly women going to the multiplexes, there will be a demand for beautiful actresses to visit the Houses of the Hideous.