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The Silicone Folly

'Breast Men' takes a look at the doctors who created the silicone gel implant. It's a story of triumph, of tragedy, and--because it's an HBO movie--there's a dose of black comedy too.

June 22, 1997|Robin Rauzi | Robin Rauzi is a Times staff writer

The sign marking the studio parking lot read, fairly subtly, "36-D."

God knows who might have stopped by if it said "Breast Men." Probably more than just the cast and crew for the HBO movie of that title, which recently finished filming in Sylmar.

"Breast Men," medical jargon for the plastic surgeons who specialize in bosom amplification, traces the rise and fall of the silicone gel breast implant over 30 years. The black comedy is, in the words of screenwriter John Stockwell, a "boom-to-bust story."

"I look it as 'Tucker' with breasts," Stockwell said. "It's really a story about an inventor who came up with this, really believed in his invention and was stuck with the tragedy of wondering if what he had invented was, in fact, hurting people."

On the set, David Schwimmer was playing doctor. As the younger of two plastic surgeons--fictionalized versions of the real breast-implant pioneers--the "Friends" star sported "Brady Bunch"-era sideburns. Dressed in a wide tie and goldenrod lab coat for this 1973 scene, he was giving a potential patient the soft sell on silicone implants:

"Now I want you to understand all your options. You can go in through the crease, which is under the breast, through the nipple or under the arm.

"We can give you a teardrop-shaped breast or a fuller, melon-shaped breast. We can make the nipples point up or out.

"And there is no real maintenance. It's not like changing tires where you have to rotate them every 10,000 miles. But you will have to massage them frequently--preferably at home, not at work [small laugh]--left to right, top to bottom. Any questions?"

The brief monologue captures much of what "Breast Men," which will air on HBO in October, is about: how the doctors thought implants were safe, how they confidently believed they could give every woman exactly the breasts she desired. As Schwimmer joked later in his trailer, in his best Oscar Goldman voice: "We have the technology."

And it didn't even cost $6 million.

At the implant peak of the 1980s, plastic surgeons charged $4,000 to $6,000 to put in implants. Some could perform nearly 20 operations in a day. And suddenly everyone--every woman at least--was a potential patient. An estimated 1 million to 2 million women paid their way into a larger bra size.

As a student at Beverly Hills High, Schwimmer said, he saw plenty of instant busts. And in Hollywood? "It's staggering."

Equally astonishing was his trip through the office of a local breast man who worked as a technical consultant on the film. The doctor gave him and co-star Chris Cooper a quick tutorial, from waiting room to operating room.

"It's like shopping," said Schwimmer, who was particularly struck by the wide selection in implant size, shape and texture.

He got to see most models in action. In scenes of parties and strip clubs--not to mention operations and consultation--Schwimmer was surrounded by a string of bare-chested women. But he quickly got desensitized. At one point, actress Emily Procter said to him: "So, this is like the fifth set of breasts you've fondled today." His response: "Oh. Yeah."

The pairing of Schwimmer, a sitcom star, and Cooper, best known for serious parts in John Sayles' "Matewan," "City of Hope" and "Lone Star," appears counterintuitive. Cooper, however, called it good casting. The two doctors are an unlikely team, he said: a mentor and medical resident whose power balance is upset.

"And that's supported in the script as you see their relationship develop. They're pressed to form this partnership. There's always that friction. . . . If all this hadn't happened--the implants and everything--[my character] would've been perfectly happy continuing as a surgeon at Baylor," Cooper said, referring to the Houston-based university and its College of Medicine.

Cooper, who spent part of his childhood in Houston, said he had some good models for his character: His father, a doctor of internal medicine, was at Baylor for several years during Cooper's childhood. Cooper told his mother, in fact, that she could be in for a shock. "Some of these scenes where I'm in a lab coat very much remind me of my father."

But it was Cooper's wife--a strong feminist--whom he consulted before signing on to play a breast man. The script got her stamp of approval, he said. "She thought it was a very important story to tell."

To say that silicone gel breast implants are a touchy subject grossly understates the issue. The controversy over their safety has resulted in continuing medical studies, congressional hearings, a ban by the Food and Drug Administration, a multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit and the 1995 bankruptcy of manufacturer Dow Corning. That's without scratching the surface of the sociocultural questions regarding why women get them in the first place.

It was a perfect topic for HBO.

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