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Today, a Movie Beauty's Got to Look Beastly

Why must goddess-like actresses 'play ugly' to be taken seriously in Hollywood?

March 02, 2004|Lauren Sandler | Lauren Sandler is a New York journalist.

I'll never forget this lesson in gender philosophy, which a former boyfriend's father once intoned as the core tenet to understanding women. "Always tell a smart woman she's beautiful, and always tell a beautiful woman she's smart. Because whatever she is, she can't be both, and she always needs to be the other."

As this year's red carpet made clear, stars need to be not just beautiful but literally model-beautiful -- otherworldly slim and powdered like a candy cigarette. Babes on film are nothing new, but Hollywood's A-list was never quite like our current crop, crowned this year by Oscar winner Charlize Theron.

Think back to Movieland's golden years and you'll remember actresses of a different image than today's cover-girl stars. Can you imagine Bette Davis modeling lingerie? Joan Crawford might have sold eyebrow pencils, but it's hard to imagine her as the Revlon face. Then, it was thought that it was a liability for an actress to be too beautiful. Beauty suggested that she would lack staying power when her looks began to fade. A flawless face seemed bereft of the charisma, intelligence and complicated emotional range of a less-lovely artist.

Those ideas still linger. Today, the smart/beautiful split means that to get in the door, an actress needs to look perfect, but to claim the throne, she needs to play smart. And increasingly in Hollywood, that means rendering herself unbeautiful -- by hiring astounding makeup artists like Toni G of "Monster." For Oscar, Hillary Swank bound her breasts to pass as a boy in "Boys Don't Cry." Halle Berry endured weeks of aggressive de-glamorizing in the shooting of "Monster's Ball."

Then came the watershed moment when Nicole Kidman donned a false nose to play a Virginia Woolf who was leagues less lovely than the writer herself. Prosthetics, which had for so long provided the ugly factor in horror movies, could make beautiful women believably smart by altering an actor's most essential instrument -- her face -- beyond recognition. Robert de Niro may have packed on 60 pounds to play boxer Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull," but it was still the actor's utterly recognizable face that conveyed his character's emotions.

This year, Theron took the trend to new heights. She had to act through 30 extra pounds and two sets of false teeth and gelatin eyelids to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The reward? Theron was taken seriously as an artist, not just as blond arm-candy for her leading men.

Granted, to see Kidman and Theron play these real-life women swathed in red carpet glamour would be utterly absurd. But it is likewise absurd that women who are truly fine performers need to disfigure their faces to be given their due -- almost as absurd as the fact that were Crawford and Davis to audition in Hollywood these days, they would probably never land the top-of-the-marquee role.

Case in point: While Theron was enduring hours in the makeup chair on location in Florida, Renee Zellweger was watching a dream vanish in Romania, where "Cold Mountain" was filming. Zellweger pursued the book's rights in 1996. But when Miramax took over the project, executives deemed Zellweger to have supporting and not leading looks and demoted her in favor of Kidman. (The result has been a heap of awards, including the Oscar, for Zellweger and nary an Oscar nomination for Kidman.)

Is it palatable to look at Aileen Wuornos for two hours only if you know the face under those gelatin eyelids is the same one that recently decorated the covers of Elle, Vogue and Glamour? In a culture clamoring for plastic perfection, can we stomach an unlovely woman on screen only if we know the dirt can be scraped away to reveal the diamond underneath?

"Actors and actresses who are beautiful start with an enormous advantage, because we love to look at them," wrote critic Pauline Kael in the New Yorker nearly 30 years ago. But, she continued, "it's the roles that make them seem glamorous. Good roles do that for good actors."

Kael was writing about Faye Dunaway's performance as real-life killer Bonnie Parker, which created a cultural cacophony for the casting of such a beauty in such a violent role. This was Dunaway before "Chinatown" and "Network," films that allowed her glamour to stem from her intelligence, not just her physical splendor. (Does one tell Dunaway that she's smart or beautiful?)

We can have all the glamour of the studio days and all the grit of the auteur era without such a mangling of messages. It's time for Hollywood to reject the smart/beautiful split. As the Oscar race has shown, most of us -- even the most beautiful ones -- live somewhere in between.

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