The hair piece: or, the subtle significance of hair onscreen

20 January 2013

Here’s something you don’t often see onscreen: a woman who doesn’t cover up the fact that her hair has thinned.

Lidia Bastianich is PBS’s Italian cooking maven whose show, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen (she also has spinoffs like Lidia’s Italy), always marks the difference between the overly personality-driven Food Channel shows and PBS. To wit: she doesn’t do anything to cover up her thinning hair. For comparison, let’s look at the Food Channel’s Giada de Laurentiis:

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Any normal human might find a contrast between these two women absurd. Be assured I’m not trying to draw a conclusion about their respective talents for cooking — just their comparative screen appearance. (We could also discuss Giada’s obviously spectacular breasts and/or that alarming set of teeth, but let’s try to stay focused.) I just want to make the point that it is amazing to me that even good old PBS hasn’t forced Lidia into a wig. (What do I know? They may have tried.)

I got onto this subject originally because the subject of hair kept coming up in strange and interesting contexts. There was Callista Gingrich, Newt Gingrich’s wife, whose immovable helmet of hair preoccupied so many bloggers last year. Perhaps because I’m a big fan of natural hair for Black women, I have read several other bloggers who yearn publicly for Michelle Obama to stop relaxing/ironing her hair.

I’d been collecting a random assortment of hair moments onscreen for a while, but it was a comment over at JB’s terrific film blog, The Fantom Country, that gave my post clarity. Writing about how many times he’d noticed Andrew Garfield’s luscious hair, JB wrote wryly, “Perhaps he is a particularly expressive hair actor” — why, it’s comments like these that make my blog so resoundingly esoteric. (See also posts on noses, mouths, and teeth.) Esoteric it may be, but it’s my confirmed opinion that hair is an easy site for the downfall of a film or character.

BridgesLet’s start with a few actors who consistently make their hair work pretty goddamn well. I’ve seen Jeff Bridges in just about as many different hair parts as one can imagine, and they always work for me — even (especially?) when he shaved his head for the bad-guy role in Iron Man. Bridges has this way of truly appearing to be one with his hair; whether it’s the shaggy Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) or the long-haired ex-con in American Heart (1992, below), the hair seems fully folded in with the rest of him. It’s perhaps not a surprise that an actor like Bridges, who conceals so much of his acting craft behind his prodigious modesty and naturalness, would be able to handle these hair parts so effortlessly.

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Other actors, it seems, grow into their hair. I never thought much of Connie Britton as a younger woman — on the rare occasions I ever caught that Michael J. Fox show Spin City (1996-2000) I mainly thought of her as The Hair — but now that she’s in her 40s she has gotten better roles and more gravitas. I just loved what she did with her role as Mrs. Coach/Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights (2006-2011); one never forgot how she rocked those strawberry waves, but it seemed so fully in keeping with the role. I still haven’t caught up with her new show Nashville (2012- ) despite the regular reports from blogger friend JustMeMike that I have to keep archiving for reading later. But Britton’s hair in the Nashville country music scene? It’s a hair marriage made in heaven. Connie-Britton-Lights_610

On occasion one finds an actor whose hair was so integral to her character onscreen that they become inseparable. Surely the best example one can imagine is Judy Davis’ breakout role in My Brilliant Career (1979). As Sybylla Melvyn, a teenager yearning for something beyond marriage and motherhood in turn-of-the-century New South Wales, her hair exemplified her character. Frizzy, irrepressible, flyaway, and heavy with impossibility — it fit so perfectly with Davis’s plain, freckled face and her terrific intelligence that it’s impossible to think of that role being taken on by anyone else.

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Judy Davis in The Eye of the Storm (2011)

A note: I’ve been disappointed to see that Davis rarely shows that hair anymore. Like so many women, she now keeps it straightened and severely managed. I still can’t see her onscreen without wondering where her hair went.

There are occasions when an actor with forgettable hair takes on a great hair part. The best example I can think of is from last year’s Prometheus (2012): Michael Fassbender’s turn as the creepy robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). It’s one thing to admire O’Toole’s brassy, glinty-eyed heroism; it’s another to emulate his hair. What a nice touch that was. One couldn’t look at Fassbender throughout the film without seeing the robot’s own self-consciousness of carrying that carefully coiffed hair — hair that symbolized so much.

Click on this image of Fassbender and you’ll get a nice .gif of the hair regimen.

tumblr_mbuanjTQWe1ri08goo1_500Sadly, it’s more common that I notice hair more like Andrew Garfield’s — hair so demanding that it ought to have separate billing. Pushy, greedy hair; hair that demands a little too much screen time.

Yes: I am speaking of Merida’s hair in Brave (2012). Yes: I loved what the illustrators did with this. But yes: it took over.

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Nor is this a fault limited to animators. Why, just last week I complained about Jessica Chastain’s hair in Zero Dark Thirty — what was wrong with those hair people on set? If there’s one thing I know a lot about, it’s how (cough) the rigors of personal hygiene and grooming have a tendency to drop away when one is single-mindedly working on a problem and scrutinizing the evidence. Por ejemplo: I’m sitting here right now on a Sunday afternoon, furiously typing a blog post about hair and movies, having not even run a comb through my hair all day. This is how us ladies behave when we’re focused. We do not fuss with ‘dos like this:

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(And honestly, the movie wasn’t about some nice lady professor who keeps a blog. Chastain’s character went to black sites to witness torture of detainees! She sat around in a dreary cubicle at a CIA outpost in Pakistan! Argh.)

I have to conclude with a big hair role that stymies me: Penelope Cruz’s mane in Nine (2009). It’s so absurdly great that, for me, it veers between unbelievable and some kind of parasitic being from another planet that has attached itself to her beautiful head. I mean, us ladies have a lot to envy when it comes to Cruz, but nowhere does her hair appear to such effect than here, teased and streaked to the point that it ought to have its own life insurance and bodyguards. Just watch this sexpot number unfolding in the imagination of Daniel Day Lewis:

See what I mean? it’s just so much hair that every time I see this scene I wonder if the hair & makeup people actually added more to her head to enhance the excess of it all as she shakes it all over Lewis’s body. No wonder so many of us fantasize about sex and hair — criminey, see here for the definition of fetish. 

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As with all my most esoteric pieces, I can only hope that my hair fixation rubs off on you and you start to scrutinize the hair acting of all your favorite/hated actors. And when you do, I hope you post a comment about the people I’ve forgotten, the great hair roles of yesteryear, and the Hair Aliens Attack parts that I need to watch.

Which reminds me. Jennifer Aniston: greatest or worst hair actor of all time?

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11 Responses to “The hair piece: or, the subtle significance of hair onscreen”

  1. Becky Says:

    As a woman who began life with thin, fine hair that has only gotten thinner and finer (and shorter) with time, I know just what you mean about noticing everyone’s hair. However, I will not be forced into a wig either. I love to look at hair, but when I wore it long, it drove me crazy. So, I have concluded that having a lot of hair is just like being unable to leave the house without full face makeup. It is probably a drag. All that time, all that effort, all those clogged drains! I think Johnny Depp always wears his hair well. As for women, I always coveted Elizabeth Taylor’s hair. It was so thick, so glossy, like a raven’s wing.

    • Didion Says:

      Sing it, sister! Wear your real hair!

      Too right about Johnny Depp. I’d forgotten all those good hair roles. And is it even possible to think about 1950s & 60s hair without nodding to Liz? By god, that woman was a hair queen.


  2. I know you could do an entire dissertation on the politics of hair. I, too, love that Chef Bastianich looks like a regular human being and we get to focus on her and her amazing talent rather than her hair. I also have to add that I loved My Brilliant Career but I love most movies with Judy Davis.

    • Didion Says:

      …and perhaps I will take that hair dissertation challenge — who knows?

      Oh, Judy Davis. How wonderful she is. That mouth.

  3. fedoralady Says:

    As I read this, I found myself remembering Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. There were times when the character worked too much and slept too little and she was allowed to look it–disheveled, lank hair, faded, smudged makeup, lines and creases readily evident in her face. A very unglamorous role, brilliantly done by Mirren.

    • Didion Says:

      I just started watching a number of those episodes all over again. I am just utterly bowled over by La Mirren. I’ve never seen any actor, male or female, convey self-disgust the way she can. And her hair is just so believable for a woman in her position.

      • fedoralady Says:

        I would love to go back and rewatch that whole series. I never saw the American remake. Knowing how those transplanted series are usually bungled, I didn’t have the heart. Dame Helen spoiled me. I’ll watch her in anything.


  4. Off topic, but I have three grandnieces with red curly hair just like Merida in Brave. So gorgeous. I also adore Lidia Bastianich’s do. I want to take this picture to my haircutter and say “like this!” next time.

    Interesting post.

  5. hattie Says:

    I love Melissa Harris Perry’s hair! That is all.


  6. […] maybe I have a hair obsession, what with my hair piece back in January and random comments dropped in on a semi-regular basis. But I’m right on this one, Brit. […]

  7. Hermione Says:

    Julia Roberts’ curly red mane from her 90’s heyday was part of her appeal for me, especially in movies like Pretty Woman. She’s almost a different actress without it, now that she’s opted for a sleeker more controlled look. Ditto for Nicole Kidman. Also, much as I love Kerry Washington, I wish she would rock her natural hair on Scandal. It’s such an iconic role – the first time a Black woman has played the lead on a major network show (correct me if I’m wrong) – that it would be a shame for her to squander the opportunity to debunk the myth that natural unstraightened Black hair is unprofessional. Here’s hoping.

    As for my onscreen hair favourites: Cate Blanchett’s long red tresses in Elizabeth (yes, I have an affinity for red hair), and Aaron Eckhart in Erin Brockovich. Never have mutton chops and side burns looked so good.


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