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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Bite me

5 April 2010

This post is about food and sex, but it’s really going to be about the similarities/ differences between “Tampopo” and “True Blood” — it just takes me a while to get there.

Can we be any more screwed up about food?  Lady Gaga recently pronounced that “pop stars don’t eat” (it may be true, though it’s a dangerous comment to make to today’s anorexic teenagers), but Americans certainly do eat, as witnessed by all our TV shows about The Biggest Losers.  The Onion has a t-shirt that says, “I Wish Someone Would Do Something About How Fat I Am.”

Despite our screwed-upness, we still make strong associations between food and sex.  Witness how much the Food Network has sexed up its hosts.  It offers a wide range of versions of male hosts to appeal to its viewers — tending toward macho bravado in some cases (witness the debonair yet dude-like Tyler Florence), or grubby nature child/working-class Brit (Jamie Oliver, much more to my liking).  I learned today that each of these men has an enormous, rabidly attentive audience of fans.  To seal the deal, the channel now features a show with an eminently happy married couple, Pat and Gina Neely, who canoodle and engage in sexual innuendo while cooking together.  But the, em, cherry on top of the pile is Giada de Laurentiis (granddaughter of the director), who cooks Italian food — but who’s paying attention to the food when her beautiful breasts have been laid out for our viewing during most of the show.  They’re far more appetizing.

If the marriage of food and sex on the small screen is strong, overall we’re just not in the place we were in the 80s & 90s, when a whole spate of films appeared celebrating their close connection.  “Eat Drink Man Woman” (and its American remakes, “Tortilla Soup” and “Soul Food”), “Like Water for Chocolate,” and “Chocolat” all welcomed us to foodie heaven with the promise that with it came a new kind of sexual liberation.  There were other foodie films too (“Babette’s Feast” and “Big Night”) and other films that used food during sex (“9 1/2 Weeks”), but they tended to emphasize one more than the other.

The king of the food/sex films, however, was “Tampopo” (1985), which styled itself the first Japanese noodle western — but while it riffed on the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns of the 60s, it was a different beast altogether (first of all, it was actually about noodles).  It was mostly the story of a world-weary trucker and his young sidekick, Goro and Gun, who get enlisted by the timid woman owner of a sorry-ass noodle shop to teach her how to make a better bowl of ramen.  Tampopo (“Dandelion”) is distraught:  her soup is awful, the noodles flavorless, her customers are dwindling.  Goro strokes his chin philosophically (brilliant reference to Toshiro Mifune) and takes on the job, taking her to visit the masters of the art throughout Japan:  king of the noodle makers here, master of broth there, all of whom gradually transform her into a ramen queen (and along the way a sweet romance between Goro and Tampopo begins to flower).

Interspersed with the Goro/Tampopo tale are a series of unrelated meditations on food and sex — the crazily silly sex scenes between the gangster and his moll, an etiquette class of girls who insist on slurping as noisily as possible, and best of all, the ritual instruction in how to eat a bowl of ramen.  As a result, you left the theater hungry, horny, and yet somehow utterly satisfied:

In reviewing this film, I can’t help but think about its similarities to “True Blood” (as promised!).  That latter show, too, is a wide-ranging amalgam of genres (Southern gothic, anti-discrimination, vampire film, camp), playing perversely with each of them.  The sex in “True Blood” gets as close to porn as possible, then veers off into romance or utter absurdity, usually when Sookie Stackhouse’s brother Jason appears.  Critics make much of the show’s sex, but I think it’s profoundly about food and sex, bringing out the themes of appetite and hunger and the orality of sex (when vampires get turned on/hungry, their fangs appear like reverse erections).  It’s an odd throwback to the food/sex obsession of an earlier generation of filmmakers, and I think reflects a lot of our current-day schizophrenic attitudes toward both.  Somehow, you don’t finish an episode of “True Blood” thinking about your next meal.