Critic's Notebook: An Actor's Face Is a Terrible Thing to Change

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When a surgically altered face is a projected image 30 feet high, its revisions can distract from the business at hand — playing a character.

Oliver Sacks has written movingly of his personal struggles with prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”— the inability to recognize human faces. It’s hard to imagine navigating day to day with this crucial component of memory missing or impaired. And yet, increasingly, a certain collective amnesia is being required of us when public faces are “refreshed,” tightened or just plain rearranged.

The latest tabloid tempest over a facial update arose when Renée Zellweger, MIA from the big screen for a few years, made a red-carpet appearance looking decidedly different from the person who starred in Jerry Maguire, Cold Mountain or even 2009’s My One and Only. If such extreme celebrity makeovers are “the elephant in the room,” as Mary Elizabeth Williams expressed it on Salon, that room is Hollywood, where women over 40 must fight to avoid a Bermuda Triangle of invisibility ever ready to claim them. 

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Though men who appear onscreen — Mickey Rourke and Sylvester Stallone among the more obvious examples — are no strangers to injectables and surgery, middle-aged women face especially hostile scrutiny whether they look their age or try desperately not to. Given how unsubtle so much recent plastic surgery is, it’s clear that many stars prefer one form of attention (speculation over which cosmetic procedures they’ve had) to another (the prospect of being noticed for the bags, sags and lines that are the natural evidence of getting older).

A live-and-let-live attitude toward plastic surgery has become the new normal, and “aging” is a dirty word. It could be argued that if the technology is available, what’s wrong with a little nip and tuck that makes someone feel better? But when that altered face is a projected image 30 feet high, its revisions can distract from the business at hand — playing a character. Even on the smaller scale of a home screen, when the known quantity of a movie actor’s face no longer computes, the performance is unavoidably compromised; instead of getting swept up in the story, the viewer is trying to calculate what exactly has been tweaked — brow, nose, eyes, lips?

One of the joys of movies is the chance to get lost in all kinds of faces, in all their mystery, whether they’re glamorous or not. The real elephant in the room is that it’s profoundly dispiriting when what’s reflected back to us is fear — fear of not being young enough, of not being desirable. It would be presumptuous to psychologize, but within the realm of cinema, frozen-in-time physiognomy goes beyond insecurity to a troubling form of denial. Those less-expressive, less-mobile faces insist that we forget, and they insist that dignity and self-confidence are skin-deep. Worse, there’s often something generic about them, the mystery gone.

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If a movie actor has a lengthy career, he or she matures before our eyes, subject to the natural forces of time, gravity and experience. The resonance of Emmanuelle Riva's and Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performances in Amour was, in part, an expression of their decades-long relationships with the audience. It’s an ineffable connection, and one that the medical industry’s anti-aging machinery short-circuits.

Joan Rivers, whose alarming cosmetic fine-tunings crossed the line into caricature, quipped that she wished she had a twin “so I could know what I'd look like without plastic surgery." But when it comes to the art of movies, something is lost when we don’t get to see such natural progression — how Barbara Hershey and Jessica Lange, to name two particularly gorgeous women, would age without medical intervention.

Compared with people in most traditional cultures, modern Americans have long been averse to aging and the old. But things have gotten aggressively out of whack. As Frances McDormand, one of the rare birds to defy Hollywood’s aging-phobic rules, recently told the New York Times: “Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45 — sartorially, cosmetically, attitudinally.” (Zellweger, it so happens, is 45.) Many moviegoers turn to non-U.S. fare, especially from countries with smaller film industries, for the chance to explore Botox-free segments of humanity, in stories that tend to be non-formulaic.

Hollywood perennially peddles one formula in particular, through stories that drive home the importance of not following the crowds, of being true to yourself and genuine. It’s hard not to see the hypocrisy in that when performers trying to stay viable in the business feel pressured to conform to youth-centric standards of beauty that don’t value the wear and tear that comes with living.

But perhaps this is all fodder for the ultimate dystopian saga, one where the battle for truth is waged not among teens but among people middle-aged and older. On one side would be the off-the-grid renegades; they might be led by McDormand and, say, Harry Dean Stanton. On the other side, in the shiny capital city: the conquering legions, identifiable by their chin implants and defatted eyelids. Hollywood may laud one approach while requiring the other. But is there any question whom we’d be rooting for?