Are Actresses Sacrificing Artistic Success In Order To Save Face?


At left, a smooth forehead in 2001. At right, the same smooth forehead in 2008.

As the fountain of eternal youth continues to deluge seemingly ageless actresses, faces become more and more frozen — and for the business of actually acting, this is a very bad thing.

In the latest issue of New York, Amanda Fortini explores the issue, noting that very few actresses are willing to ‘fess up to what they’re going through to keep themselves looking good enough to cast:

But when someone like Nicole Kidman tells Marie Claire, “To be honest, I am completely natural. I have nothing in my face or anything,” we can’t help but furrow our own brows.

That’s putting it mildly. My eyebrows don’t furrow (though they still have the ability to do so!) so much as they raise, eyes widened by an ever-increasing sense of exasperation. When a beautiful, successful woman — one with a good deal of influence — insists that she is so blessed as to have been born without the genetics of over-40 aging, she’s doing some damage to every woman who has to look at her face plastered all over the place as a standard of conventional beauty.

But what the real damage Kidman may be doing is to her career (and I’m going to continue to use Kidman as an example here, not because I feel like hating on her, but because she perfectly illustrates the problem). As Fortini notes, “to use the face and the body to express subtle, complex, conflicting psychological and emotional states” is fundamental to dramatic acting. And how is Kidman’s dramatic acting these days? Well, not counting her win for The Hours in 2003 (irrelevant for our purposes here, since she wore face-transforming makeup for the role), the last time she was nominated for an Oscar was 2002, for Moulin Rouge. It’s been a bit of a dry spell. What gives?

Maybe it’s the Botox or fillers. Above left is a shot of Kidman’s forehead, taken while she was promoting Rouge in late 2001. To the right, another shot of Kidman’s forehead, this time in December of 2009. Even accounting for the difference due to developments in high-resolution photography, her forehead — which I’m focusing on since it’s important to so much of our expressiveness — seems to have aged very, very little. Just a theory here, but if Kidman is, in fact, increasingly immersing herself in a chemical face freeze, is she also, in turn, receiving less accolades for her work? It’s not like she hasn’t had Oscar-worthy material to work with — Cold Mountain, Birth, even Nine. Does Kidman’s face no longer move enough to create a moving performance?

Actors, it would seem, are aware of this risk and the effect it might have on their careers. Fortini writes:

Several plastic surgeons told me that actors do privately fret about rendering themselves unemployable by taking cosmetic work too far and limiting their expressive range. “I ask them, what expressions, what emotions, are you concerned about losing?” says Stephen Pincus, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. “They’ll say, ‘I have to be mad, or surprised, or I’m worried about my eyebrows, I don’t want to be a blank stare.’ I say, ‘I can paralyze your forehead from this point up, but you’re not going to be able to wrinkle a good part of the forehead. Is that an issue for you? If it is, we shouldn’t do it.’ ” Some of his patients go ahead with the treatment. “They’re more concerned about wrinkles than about the five seconds of emotion people might not notice anyway.”

And so youth trumps craft.

To some extent, the general public is to “blame” (for lack of a better word). Movies like It’s Complicated — starring Meryl Streep, who looks her age (60) — are never going to compete with the likes of more youthful fare, such as Avatar or Sherlock Holmes (both of which grossed more than Complicated on its opening weekend). Not enough folks went to see It’s Complicated, perhaps because the film’s target audience was too busy taking their kids to see the chipmunks blessed Squeakuel (which also opened ahead of Meryl).

But maybe it’s not just a matter of more mature storylines losing out against anything starring Megan Fox. It’s also the fact that we’re increasingly accustomed to seeing plumped and frozen faces, visages frozen in 2001. Would general audiences have been as likely to see Australia (which opened a respectable fifth on a crowded Thanksgiving Weekend against the likes of Quantum of Solace, Twilight, and Four Christmases) had it starred a woman who actually looked like she was 40, as was Kidman at the time? And if audiences were as likely to see a version of Australia starring a slightly more aged Kidman, would anyone be able to comment on it without pointing out the early signs of her career’s end?

Lines, Please [NYM]

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