Enjoying the delicious sleaze that is the McDonnell trial? Well, obviously what we need is the TV movie version to clarify it!

Here’s my plan. I’m going to quit my job and focus all my attention on developing the screenplay of the entire case — I think a six-hour TV event on one of the cheesier cable TV channels (Lifetime? SyFy? Cinemax?) will be ideal. 

The hardest part is finding a good actor to portray Bob, the Virginia governor who finds himself (allegedly) in a tortured marriage and too poor to play with the Big Money boys, yet also prone to a Christian public sphere in which the state mandates trans-vaginal ultrasounds to women seeking abortion. If this is the real Bob:

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Then I’m thinking we can age Matt Damon a bit to portray him on the small screen. Damon has a lifetime of playing morally ambivalent and downright creepy characters (Talented Mr. Ripley, Bourne, The Departed…) in ways that will flesh out the true glory that is McDonnell (okay, we’ll age him a bit):

matt-damon-bourne-5 Now that that’s solved, on to the Maureen McDonnell conundrum — which I solved the minute this scandal began to break. How to portray a woman relegated to the sidelines as Bob’s “better half” but without any of the cash to look the part? How to portray the woman who’s apparently taking the fall for her husband — voluntarily or not, it’s not clear — by having his lawyers portray her as the real villain in the case? The real Maureen has had a tough role to play for years now:

453775864So clearly, the ideal actor to portray her is Heather Locklear — yes, the perennially sharp-tongued star of Melrose Place in its glory days of the 90s (as well, apparently, as the 2009-10 reboot of the series which I regrettably missed).

heather-locklear drugI don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see this series. And best of all is the casting of Jonnie Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, the creepy tobacco product-based health tonic company. The real-life Jonnie has a look in his eye that, for me, evokes a combination of an unpredictable Willy Wonka and Frank Underwood from House of Cards:

52bde3147fc0fSo clearly Kevin Spacey is my dream version of Williams. What do you think? Will my TV movie version be more worth watching than the real-life tawdryness of the McDonnell’s marriage getting dissected in court every week?

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4540945_l3If this film’s three wildly divergent titles have you scratching your head, that’s because all three are terrible titles for a really pretty great feminist comedy. I wouldn’t have known it at all but for Wikipedia’s list of female buddy films.

The trick to Sarah Kemochan’s loosely autobiographical film is that it hides its feminism for a while behind all the usual clichés of girls’ boarding school films … particularly those set in 1963, as this one is. But when the feminism comes, it hits you in the head and the story takes a really interesting turn … and then does it again at about the 80-minute mark. (Can you just stop reading right now, watch the film on YouTube, and get back to me when you’re done?)

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Every boarding school film appears contractually obligated to begin with a reluctant new student whose parents have shipped her/him off due to behavioral problems. In this case, Odette (Gaby Hoffman, center) has been caught preparing to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Dennis. Off to Miss Godard’s School she goes, destined to share a room with Verena (Kirsten Dunst) and Tinka (Monica Keena), who have reputations for being a troublemaker and, well, a slut, respectively. Adding to the usual suspects are the ravenously bulimic Tweety (Heather Matarazzo), and the studious, ambitious Momo (Merritt Wever). First cliché: once she falls in with the troublemakers, Odette starts to love her life at Miss Godard’s.

All-I-wanna-do-rachael-leigh-cook-286023_750_496Sure, it’s not all roses. The school features a group of rules-oriented monitors, the most officious of whom is Abby (Rachael Leigh Cook, above center) who roams the halls looking for miscreants and tattling on her peers. “Miss Godard believed the girls should govern themselves, so we learn to take responsibility for our actions,” Abby chirps with those all-too-familiar evil eyes. Cliché #2: oh, those stooopid rules!

But be not afraid: things start to get more interesting. Odette finds that her four new best friends share not just a disdain for Miss Godard’s rules, but also for the trap such obedience has prepared for them: they are determined not to fall for the usual future of a husband, two children, a Colonial, and a collie. “No more white gloves!” they proclaim, dedicating themselves to far more wild and unpredictable futures: Verena wants to spearhead an international fashion magazine; Tinka plans to be an “actress/folk singer/slut,” Momo a biologist, and Tweety a child psychologist. What does Odette want? Short term: sex; long term: to be a politician.

img-0-4925886The films takes its time getting underway, for it feels the need to introduce us to a wide array of supporting characters, not least of whom are the slightly feral town boys — the leader of whom, Snake (!), played by a very young (but no less oily) Vincent Kartheiser, immediately falls in love with the luscious Tinka. So you’d be forgiven if you arrived at this point thinking that the film would continue to take the one-adventure-at-a-time narrative path, something like the wonderful boarding school film Outside Providence (1999) — and like that film, stay focused on problems like whether Snake and Tinka will make out, and how Odette will find a way to have sex, finally, with Dennis.

That would be the wrong assumption, for it’s at this point that the No More White Gloves girls discover that the school’s board of directors wants to solve its financial problems by merging with a nearby boys’ school. And the narrative starts to cook.

5067011400_58e805d64dWhen they meet to assess the situation, they find themselves deeply divided — because unlike their friends, Momo and Verena hate the idea of a co-ed school. At the most basic level for Momo it’s simply a question of logic: she knows full well she won’t get into MIT if she has to compete with boys from the same school. But she and Verena agree that the real problem is the inevitable en-stoopiding of the female students. “This is a school! we’re supposed to be getting smarter!” If the schools merge, Momo warns, “we’ll all be killing ourselves to be cute!” and all for the “hairy bird,” which is their description of boys’ genitals.

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Verena’s assessment is even more damning. All the attention to cuteness and personal care will make Miss Godard’s girls too tired to think. “But that’s okay, because the teachers, they won’t call on you anyway. Also, you don’t wanna be smarter than the boys — they don’t like that.” Going co-ed will trick everyone into falling for the white gloves and the full constricted future that goes with them. When Tinka protests that “real life is boy-girl, boy-girl,” Verena screams, “No. Real life is boy on top of girl.

Transcribing this scene doesn’t capture how much I was taken aback by this exchange, by its sudden clarity and perfect articulation of why single-sex schools are so spectacularly good for girls. The clichés didn’t fall away completely, but I became waaaayyyy more interested … and the film ratchets things up again later with the same dramatic skill.

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If the film’s central plot now turns around the question of whether — and how — our No White Gloves heroines can prevent the school from going co-ed, it might sound corny. Rather, I should say it is corny, but in a way fully in keeping with some of the overall rules of the boarding-school film genre (illicit sex, alcohol, secret passageways, revenge on evil teachers, etc.). Nor is it perfect; the film ultimately sacrifices Verena in a bizarrely implausible plot turn. But it also gains back Odette as a leader-orator in a way that made me so happy that I’m almost willing to let Verena get toasted.

tumblr_lxq5slItnC1qkzi0po9_1280As I’ve discussed already with this marathon (especially re: the tragically disappointing Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), female buddy movies often sneak in a boatload of anti-feminist crap as they throw us the bone of female friendship. The Hairy Bird tries something entirely different. This film throws us the bone of a little hairy bird in order to make a powerful, feminist argument for female friendship, ambition, single-sex educational excellence, and collective action.

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In fact, I was so happy with this film that I now fret that no other female buddy picture can measure up. The only film I can imagine following up with is Thelma and Louise. Join me, won’t you — in about a week, when I’ve had the chance to watch it again for the first time since 1992. Let’s see how it measures up to its reputation as the great female buddy picture of American film history, shall we? (It certainly has a better title than this poor film.)

I woke up this morning to another thin layer of snow and ice outside — how appropriate for watching The Americans, a terrific new series about the 1980s Cold War with the Soviet Union. It’s so refreshing when TV gets it right.

How exactly does this show get it right? Let me count the ways.

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1. An awesome, unexpected storyline. Rather than, say, yet another attempt to ride the wake of Mad Men, this one takes you by surprise: it’s a story about two KGB agents who have been embedded in American society for some 15 years, appearing as utterly normal Americans to everyone around them.

Is it a takeoff on Homeland? Only insofar as it places you into the mindset of people who want to do harm to the United States. To a large extent it goes further — our protagonists are the KGB agents, and the creepy antagonist is the FBI guy who hunts them. Wow.

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2. Two terrific leads, and a terrific supporting cast. And while we’re on the topic, let’s sing the praises of finding actors who are this good yet haven’t been on our radar for a while. Keri Russell is a far cry from her America’s sweetheart roles (Felicity, Waitress) as a clenched-jaw, steely-eyed ideologue whose dedication to her motherland has never wavered. And the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys does such interesting work here as the more ambivalent of the couple — she calls him “fragile” in one interesting scene — but also capable of a huge range of strategy, violence, uncertainty. These two people are great to watch as they live out their roles as ordinary American travel agents … most of the time, anyway.

This show wouldn’t work if Russell and Rhys weren’t such compelling, three-dimensional actors. Plus there’s the spycraft, which is just fun.

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3. An interesting relationship. No family could look less like an advertisement for heteronormativity, yet we learn immediately that Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage is a fiction: they were paired up for this work by higher-ups and Elizabeth, at least, has never considered this to be anything more than a convenience. Yet with a 13-yr-old daughter and younger son who know nothing about their parents’ secret lives, this couple also has a lot to lose.

And yet when events transpire in the series pilot, we see the possibility that this show might turn into an interesting love story — perhaps one of the more counter-intuitive love stories we’ve seen. The Americans is a story about a marriage in mid-life, except backwards.

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4. Set in 1981, this show reminds you of those early Reagan vs. Evil Empire days while also showing it to you through the looking glass. How might that America have appeared from the perspectives of Soviets? Best of all is the episode that circles around that day in March 1981 when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate the president — I won’t tell you more, because it’s too delicious to ruin.

Can I also say that it’s more fun without the cell phones and crime scene investigators? There: I said it.

5. It’s a show about politics. Real politics, as they appeared during the early 80s. It reminds you that the Cold War made politics interesting — and makes you wonder if all our culture wars have resulted from missing our old battles with the Soviets.

Why not spend your own cold day catching up with this great new bit of brain candy? It’s showing on the basic-cable channel FX, and all 6 episodes to date are streaming on Hulu. (There will be 13 episodes altogether this season, and the series has also been renewed for a second season, so there’s much more to look forward to.)

Here’s what I’d like to see.

Washington, D. C., 12:55pm:

Within hours of Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) announcing that he had reversed his position on gay marriage after his own son came out of the closet, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gave a press conference announcing a new stance on abortion.

“During my career in Texas and my first coupla months here in the Senate, I’ve taken a position against abortion, rooted in part in my faith and my faith tradition, and also because the ladies can be selfish and irresponsible,” Cruz began. A senator known for his extreme far-right views (called by some of his GOP colleagues to be “wacko, but in a good way”), Cruz stunned his own caucus with his revelation:

I listened to my colleague talk about his change of heart after learning that his own son was gay, and I was very moved by his Christian love for his child. I’m sure we were all moved.

But then I thought, why is it that so many of my colleagues only change their minds about social issues when it strikes their own family? 

So I began reading about the issue of abortion and realized that approximately 1/3 of all American women have had abortions in their lifetimes, and that 1 out of 5 women is raped in her lifetime. I read about families destroyed when a  woman died during pregnancy because she felt morally obligated to carry the child. And I realized the simple contradiction between my firm belief in smaller government, and my insistence on monitoring women’s bodies regarding abortion and birth control.

Thus, I change my position today not because someone in my family needs an abortion, but because my entire position was wrong and morally inconsistent with my own political values in this great nation.

Well, you can’t blame me for wishing, right?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great Portman changed his mind. But dammit, why do they only change position when suddenly their own family has a need? I’m sorry, folks, but this should not be how policy works.

Well count me intrigued. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has written a book that seeks to foster a widespread conversation about the problem of the glass ceiling — and thereby develop a grassroots movement to change it.

Her book, Lean In, will be released March 11. Wonder if I can get a review copy?

The NYT article about it is skeptical; it ponders whether Sandberg places too much emphasis on women’s own stutter-steps and self-actualization rather than on the multiple institutional reasons women fall behind in pay and promotions. All the more interesting.

hoc-ph-22120r-babd299b44de4b096fc2d563c31bb2398737e5d5-s6-c10This is a list, in order, of the first things you notice about Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in the new Netflix series House of Cards:

  1. She has the best haircut.
  2. She is a walking advertisement for the virtues of pilates. That posture!
  3. Her jaw and eyes are so steely as to render her the handsomest mannish woman ever.

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What takes longer to notice is that she appears in only three colors: white, black, and grey. Grey more than anything else. Perhaps the costume experts wanted to convey an ice queen, but I want to believe they were going instead for a statement about her moral ambivalence. (Or was it to capture the grey dreariness of D. C. in winter?)

(No plot spoilers here, I promise.)

With only minor exceptions, the character of Claire has proven, to me, the most interesting aspect of this series. No — she’s the best part of the series. And what I want to emphasize most of all is her physical acting, as you’ll see farther down the post.

You’ll be forgiven if you fall for the obvious and think this is Kevin Spacey’s show. As Claire’s husband, the brilliant and Machiavellian Sen. Frank Underwood, Spacey turns conspiratorially to the camera and fills us in on at least some of how he wages the warfare of politics and power in Washington, D. C. He’ll talk us through his rages and his machinations, but he hides from us too: it takes forever before we see his true endgame, and the show gets progressively darker as we get closer to the truth — and see how he’s willing to get there.

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Perhaps Claire’s nonprofit, the Clean Water Initiative, might appear a convenient vanity project for a beautiful woman whose primary job is to make her husband look good. Certainly the CWI rises and falls with Frank’s political tides. And he shows no hesitation in using its green bona fides for his own political ends. But you’d be mistaken to think her work with the group doesn’t matter to her, or that its goals always compliment Frank’s.

The calculus of fidelity in their relationship is, hands down, the most interesting I’ve seen for ages. I love the way the show leads you at the very beginning to make assumptions, for Claire and Frank look like people who’d hold secrets from one another or lead completely separate lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. That single cigarette they share late at night is a measure of their utter complicity, their frankness and love for one another. But neither do they consider monogamy to be interesting or important. As a result, their loyalty to one another is both all-encompassing and yet still fragile to the upheavals of circumstance, unrelated to sex.

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Most of all, what Robin Wright gets so utterly right about this character is her physical presence. Take another look at the way she plays every single scene, and you’ll know what I mean. Wright certainly doesn’t get the best lines, but she carries her history and class around on her ramrod posture and carefully draped limbs in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a woman achieve onscreen. That body is saying, “I am a refined woman who commands attention,” but it also conveys, “I am a coiled spring, a panther waiting to strike.” Wright’s achievement with her body gives her a fascinating dimension she doesn’t get with her lines.

No wonder we don’t know what to make of her. We don’t encounter this kind of woman in our lives.

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No, that’s not exactly right. We’ve encountered lesser versions of Claire Underwood — middle-aged women who still wear the same clothes they wore in high school, women who attract men to them through a certain beguiling passivity that seems to call forth from men a fantasy that she might be theirs for the taking. Women who don’t dwell on the past. The only things we learn about Claire’s past are that 1) her mother wanted her to smile more; 2) she turned down many offers of marriage; and 3) Frank promised her (correctly) that life with him would never be boring.

This is not a woman who thinks that sex equals power. Claire is far too smart for that; she’d doubtless look down her nose at such a crass calculation. She doesn’t carry herself as one who needs any man to be attracted to her. She takes it for granted they will be, and doesn’t particularly care.

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If we know enough about her bearing to know she’s not to be trifled with, we also know that her body is vital to her entire persona. It takes only the slightest tweak for her to shift from a finishing-school elegance to a cat eyeing its prey. Indeed, watch Robin Wright as she squints her eyes slightly. Only a fool would believe those eyes could twinkle. Physical control is Claire’s raison d’être. See that, Mother? we can imagine her thinking at some point, years ago. I didn’t need to smile more.

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Sure, you can call this a color beyond black-white-grey if it suits you. But it’s so close to that palette that it’s not really worth the fight, is it?

We see only a single moment when her body moves differently. She has temporarily decamped from D. C. to New York and has donned a man’s button-down and pants for a party of artists in a loft. She is dancing the salsa with another woman (Claire is leading, natch) and what we see in this brief glimpse is a very different woman, a woman whose hips no longer appear rigid. She dances expertly, moving her hips fluidly with the dance and touching her dance partner with warmth and the sexual allure of the salsa. Sure, we still see the panther in her body; this is not Claire Gone Wild. Rather, outside of her black-white-grey palette and the always-vigilant D. C. political world, she has allowed herself a different bearing, a different physical relationship to the world. For a moment, anyway.

Of course she leaves New York and returns to being the other, controlled version of Claire. The one whose manners smooth over Frank’s self-described “cracker” background, whose class seems inextricable from her hard body, and whose height gives her a distinct advantage over virtually all other women.

One of those shorter women is Zoë, the journalist Frank cultivates. In one key moment the two women meet — I would say “one to one” except that Zoë simply doesn’t have a chance during that encounter, and barely counts as one. The dialogue between them is unimportant and not terribly well written. What matters is Claire’s physical presence during this encounter, the way she moves into Zoë’s personal space in a way that seems all the more threatening for the springlike energy making every muscle taut. She “wins” this meeting merely by making another slight tweak to her body.

Panther, I tell ya.

HOUSE OF CARDSHouse of Cards occasionally pops in some dialogue howlers — clunky bits that seem almost like a first draft rather than a polished script — but on the whole the show offers a pretty riveting story. With David Fincher at the helm, you know it’s probably worth watching, right? And because Netflix dumped the entire 13-episode series online at once, you also have the chance to binge-watch for a lost weekend (or, if one possesses a Claire-like self-control, one can dole it out over the course of a couple of weeks).

My sole request to you is to look beyond the mere words of this talky series to consider the terrific acting done by Wright, a woman whose beauty has often relegated her to pretty parts from Buttercup in The Princess Bride (1988) to the appalling Message in a Bottle (1999). What she has done here to inhabit the bony body of Claire Underwood deserves an acting prize. She’s riveting.

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?