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MOVIES : It's Easy to See Through This Prop : Hollywood loves how easily glasses can convey character --from frumpy and bookish to kindly or cool-hearted-- and their removal can give a sexual knockout punch.

December 17, 1995|Steven Smith | Steven Smith is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.--Dorothy Parker

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Its pop culture references may be up to 1990s code, but in director Sydney Pollack's remake of the romantic comedy "Sabrina," at least one movie convention may have some viewers squinting to check the calendar: the wearing--and removing--of eyeglasses by a beautiful woman to unveil her charms to a hitherto oblivious planet.

Julia Ormond is the latest star to emerge from an ocular cocoon--but on closer inspection, she has had company in recent times: Michelle Pfeiffer, who in "Batman Returns" went from bespectacled secretary to lethal Catwoman; Sandra Bullock, who shed her specs to go from science nerd to siren in "Love Potion #9"; and "Strictly Ballroom's" Tara Morice, who . . . you see the point.

So why does Dorothy Parker's famous aphorism still apply at the movies?

"Glasses are a great prop to show character," observes Beverly Hills eye-wear designer Cheryl Shuman, whose work currently adorns the stars of "The American President," "Casino" and "Home for the Holidays."

"Many stars have faces that don't change much. That's why actresses and actors love glasses; they give them something to act with. There's no better way to accentuate a statement than to take glasses off--it's a great exclamation point."

Dowdy, horn-rimmed spectacles may have helped guide Grace Kelly to an Oscar for her image-breaking role in "The Country Girl," while lenses set up a sexual barrier for Jean Arthur in "A Foreign Affair" and for Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound."

Hitchcock later doomed Barbara Bel Geddes to spinsterhood in "Vertigo" with even more unattractive eye-wear--and in "It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart reaches the peak of his alternate-reality freakout at the sight of a bespectacled Donna Reed.

"That image fit into a time when there was a certain degree of conformity in what attractiveness was supposed to be," film historian Leonard Maltin says. "Apparently it's among the social ills that haven't been remedied. Imagine what would happen to movie secretaries if the invention of contact lenses ever penetrated at that level of mise en scene."

Skillfully handled, the climactic removal of glasses could deliver a sexual knockout. In "The Big Sleep," bookseller Dorothy Malone renders even Humphrey Bogart speechless by just shedding her specs.

It's an image that apparently hasn't lost its appeal. "Guys today tell me they have the fantasy of meeting a mysterious woman wearing glasses," Shuman says. "You're not quite sure what she's going to look like, but when the packaging comes off, men want to make mad love to them."

The cliche has enjoyed a few satirical pokes in the eye--perhaps most memorably in "How to Marry a Millionaire," in which Marilyn Monroe sports a pair of frumpy lenses that can't begin to hide her carnal appeal.

Men have used the same prop to both comic and dramatic effect. Following in Harold Lloyd's frames, Cary Grant played a bespectacled milquetoast in director Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby"--an homage to the glasses worn by filmmaker John Ford, according to director and film scholar Peter Bogdanovich. (Bogdanovich extended the tribute by putting them on Ryan O'Neal in "What's Up, Doc?," John Ritter in "They All Laughed" and Rob Lowe in "Illegally Yours.")

"Orson Welles used to say it's difficult to find actors to play characters who read," Bogdanovich recalls. "Most actors look like they've never read a book! It's hard to get across that someone is bookish; glasses are the way to do it."

Harrison Ford apparently agrees; in "Sabrina," he hides between rims as the emotionally myopic Linus Larrabee.

Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer used specs appeal to suggest power--and brooding isolation--in the "Batman" series, Gregory Peck symbolized visionary justice with the help of lenses in "To Kill a Mockingbird," while in "Dave," a subtle switch of eyewear showed the difference between a cold politician and his kindly double (both played by Kevin Kline).

But not all the celebrity illusion involving eyeglasses takes place onscreen, according to Shuman.

"I can't tell you how many glasses I do for stars' personal lives that are clear with no prescription. Actors like the ability to add something to their personality, to look more intelligent. Sex symbols like wearing them because it makes them feel they're being taken more seriously."

In Hollywood, as in "Sabrina" and its predecessors, perception is everything.

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