Thursday, January 05, 2006

I'm a little behind in my reading of this weekend's Times, so I just noticed this piece in "Week in Review." Using the recent death of actor Vincent Schiavelli (who played Mr. Vargas in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and that really scary subway ghost in Ghost) as a jumping point, Peter Edidin writes sweetly about the memorable faces of Hollywood actors who are not conventionally attractive, and how they enhance our experience of a film: Mostly, of course, movies offer beautiful faces and construct fantasies around them. But other, more idiosyncratic images of humanity have always been present as well, and with them a more expansive vision of what it is to be human. He quotes Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of "Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty": "Because we can't fit [these actors] into a mold," she added, "we have freer range to imagine who they are, so they can embody more complexity. Their features draw us in because we want to make sense of them."

How lovely. But what Edidin neglects to say (or does he not notice?) is that the actors whose "idiosyncratic" faces have enabled their successful careers in film are almost invariably men. Can you think of the female equivalent of Adam Sandler? Paul Giamatti? Billy Crystal? Michael Showalter? Jimmy Kimmel? Steve Buscemi? Even Nicholas Cage? What about Jack Nicholson, these days (and don't say Diane Keaton)? Many of these men are attractive, but they are allowed to be attractive by way of their distinctiveness, not after they meet certain standards.

Times film critic Manohla Dargis wrote an essay that ran in that paper about a year ago, called "One Word for What's Happening to Actors' Faces Today: Plastics." She argues that plastic surgery is altering one of the greatest landscapes in cinema: the human face without pretending that this isn't a gendered problem: Clearly, part of the blame for the spectacle of the post-human lies with the movie industry and its pernicious sexism; after all, Sean Penn wins awards with a face crosshatched with lines. But while it's easy to blame the industry, the entertainment media, the satellite industries and the stars themselves, let's face it: the other culprit, the faithful keeper of the cults of beauty and youth, is staring out at us in the mirror.

Plastic surgery preserves women's faces so that they look younger (and less complex, and therefore less human) sitting pretty across from their male counterparts. So maybe that explains it. Maybe film audiences (or more likely, the people who make and bankroll movies) don't want their female characters (or their movie-going experience) burdened by things like complexity. Laughing and frowning will both give a girl wrinkles. Better to remain neutral.

Regardless, I'm just sick of pieces like Edidin's, where the writer is oblivious to the things that influence the phenomenon he gets to lovingly relate. It suggests that his set of observations and experiences are the end of the story.

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