Midway through the final season of ‘Breaking Bad’ (I knew I’d get there in the end – no spoilers, please), it was a nice surprise to see British actress Laura Fraser appear; I’ve long been an admirer of her ethereal beauty, and eyeing the delicate presence of life’s graceful fingerprints on that radiant countenance only adds to her natural appeal. It shouldn’t have really come as a surprise to find her on a hit US series; the renaissance of American TV that began with ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Six Feet Under’ a decade ago has been enhanced by a roll-call of British thespians who are in demand not merely for their acting abilities, but because they actually look their age. If a casting director needs a character in their 40s, 50s or even 60s with no visible glamour, they’re not going to cast their net in Beverly Hills because American actors have a phobia over faces that read like a well-thumbed novel. It’s no coincidence that the likes of Judi Dench or Helen Mirren grab so many leading roles in Hollywood movies; yes, they’re good at what they do, but they also convince as mature ladies.
The acclaimed ‘Pope of Trash’ John Waters recently exhibited some of his own artwork, including a self-portrait in which the Divine director imagined what his face would look like if he was a resident of California – a hideous airbrushed masque that he confessed would be regarded as normal in Hollywood. He admitted visiting friends in Tinsel Town every couple of years can lead to an initial lack of recognition when his ringing of the doorbell is answered, so accustomed have those who reside there become to the constant upgrading of one’s features to keep Father Time at bay, regardless of how bizarre they appear to those outside of the self-contained Neverland of the movie industry.
There’s a vast chasm of difference between someone who looks good for their age and someone who looks neither young nor old, but some strange waxen hybrid of youth and experience. During Hollywood’s first Golden Age back in the 30s and 40s, the cinemagoer was deceived by the artistry of the lighting men on set, whose tireless efforts transformed ageing actresses into ageless icons of otherworldly beauty; some, such as Marlene Dietrich, famously did their bit as well. The German chanteuse would pull back the skin on her cheekbones and apply tape to her temples to hold her stunning profile in place and thus maintain the illusion as her flesh began to sag. At the time, plastic surgery was still largely an emergency medical procedure employed to reconstruct the damaged faces of young men blown away on the battlefield. The notion of it as a vanity tool was unheard of.
Subtle tricks of the trade for those working in the entertainment world were still in use during the 60s, though a close-up could reveal many an unwelcome wrinkle. Doris Day retired from movies at the end of that decade, and a late 60s TV special recently repeated revealed a refreshing mosaic of lines around the eyes of America’s virginal sweetheart when the camera moved in a little too intimately. With youth in the ascendancy, anyone over 30 was acutely aware of their perilous position and either withdrew from the public eye or slapped on the cosmetics with a shovel. By the 1970s, the growing popularity of ‘nose jobs’ and advances in what used to be called ‘sex changes’ expanded the portfolio of the plastic surgeon and many began to set up shop in Hollywood, realising a vast cast of established actors were keen to extend their youth into middle-age.
What began as a desperate attempt to stretch the lifespan of paranoid movie stars then reached into the arena of anyone possessing more money than sense, and not merely those in apparent need of work. As Cher revived her musical career in the 80s, the dusky, sultry temptress of the 60s and 70s morphed into a strange alien being with the complexion of a baby’s bottom, setting a trend that was followed by the biggest solo star of the same decade. Michael Jackson remains perhaps the most notorious victim of plastic surgery as the wide-nosed black-skinned boy with the afro mutated into an androgynous pale-face in a straight wig and a nose that gradually shrank down to a pair of unprotected nostrils.
Blinded by a combination of vanity and self-loathing, Jacko’s residency in his own facsimile childhood bubble to compensate for the real childhood showbiz denied him made him vulnerable to unscrupulous surgeons who knew when they were onto a good thing. The impact of their butchery on his countenance was evident until the day of his death, but anyone seeking to follow in his famous footsteps doesn’t appear to regard his face’s fate as a deterrent.
Dead or Alive frontman Pete Burns is the most notable Jacko clone in terms of how his face has been remodelled by the knife, but isolated aspects of the full process have surfaced in several unlikely areas of the acting profession. The swollen ‘trout pout’ fish lips that have left many a household name resembling someone trapped in a hall of distorted fairground mirrors led to Lynne Perrie being sacked from her long-running role as Ivy Tilsley on ‘Coronation Street’ and have also permanently disfigured the naturally pretty face of Leslie Ashe. But it is among those in less need of surgery – the young – that the pernicious influence of cosmetic preservation has made its mark over the last decade or so.
Breast and even arse enhancements have been taken to ghastly new levels of artificiality by the emergence of celebrity Brides of Frankenstein such as Katie Price and the odious Kardashian clan and it is now commonplace for young women to regard boob or bum jobs as being as normal a procedure as a trip to the dentist. As for those we are now forced to call ‘transgender’, the caricature of female features many view as essential have created some monstrous parodies of women who would once have been condemned to a life on the freak show circuit. Lest we forget, however, the most extreme examples of plastic surgery as well as the more familiar tight-skinned Botox devotees are all the way they are through choice.
When Joanne Harris, the author of ‘Chocolat’, attended the Academy Awards ceremony with Juliette Binoche as the movie adaptation of her novel was nominated for Oscars, she remarked the show was like school prize-giving day at Madame Tussaud’s. As plastic surgery gradually becomes more accessible to everyone incapable of boasting the wages of a Hollywood A-lister, it’s a prize-giving day we all seem destined to attend.
© The Editor