When I was a kid my sister and I spent hours combing through, and listening obsessively to, my mother’s small record collection. Somewhere in there was an album of Barbra Streisand’s that looked something like this (I can’t remember if this was actually the one): 

In other words, everything about the image told the viewer, I have a big nose, and I’m proud of it. Even as a child, without knowing the specific dynamics of antisemitism and cruel views of women’s bodies, I understood that she was making a radical statement. (And who could have been more radically glamorous during the ’60s and ’70s than Streisand?)

Yet in the decades since, a good nose has been hard to find. Cinema is a particularly disappointing place for us nose aficionados who want to find a nice range on actresses. I even found myself coming up with some slightly embarrassing Google searches, mostly for naught. I’d venture to say that Barbra’s was the last truly beautiful, authentic big nose onscreen; in the decades earlier, the only one I can think of was Margaret Hamilton’s (and she was cast as The Wicked Witch of the West):

It’s a sorry state of affairs. A few months ago I wrote about the eternal beauty of a mouth with character, but I think having a real nose is even more radical. (Shall I be hyperbolic? There’s a genocide of real noses in film!) I even became confused because I remembered certain actresses having slightly more distinctive noses than they really do — only to find websites alleging that these women have had very clever and subtle plastic surgery. Where are the women with beautiful, distinctive noses like tennis player Steffi Graf’s (a woman I still think of as one of the most beautiful women ever to play tennis?

I think of a big nose as impossibly sexy and sensuous; as far as I’m concerned noses can be very effective tools in the sack, functioning as extra appendages, and I’m not just talking about their capacity for sniffing. Can it possibly be true that the beautiful and waif-like Claire Danes, with her Steffi Graf-like Germanic face, had the size of her nose reduced? It’s so depressing. One website accuses Penelope Cruz, Anne Hathaway, and Jennifer Aniston of having big noses — absurd! — but one can see that with claims like that floating around, it’s no wonder women are so eager to have work done. No wonder the genocide is underway when plastic surgery is so easily obtained.

The same isn’t true for for male actors. Just think of a couple of my personal favorites, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson, who get piles and piles of work:

In fact, one of the funniest little bits of cultural referencing in recent film was Matt Damon’s disguise in Oceans’s 13, in which to seduce the gamine Ellen Barkin he donned a prosthetic nose he called The Brody:

If one digs deeper, one can find a few good noses. Vicki Lewis doesn’t get nearly enough work if you ask me, but she was great as the manic secretary on the old NewsRadio series and even more distinctive in the dramatic role in Pushing Tin (1999):

I’m telling ya, friends, it’s a sorry state of affairs. It’s bad enough that actresses have all manner of work done all the time — to make their breasts just a bit bigger, their butts a bit more luscious, their stomachs teeny. But we’ve been engaging in a war on great noses. No wonder we have epidemics of anorexia and plastic surgery among girls starting at age 11. You know what Barbra would say? I do:

Bring back the real nose. It’s a radical statement of identity and self-determination, not to mention ethnic pride and/or a willingness to see past superficial standards for female beauty. Wear your schnozz with pride.

Advertisements

Others might prefer Julia Roberts’ big toothy grin or Kerry Washington’s perfectly kissable pout. For myself, I like actresses whose mouths do additional work for them beyond simply looking pretty — mouths that gives women character. We live in a world in which actresses keep getting told to medically alter their most distinctive features to bring them into line with mainstream tastes; rather, I want to celebrate real women’s faces.

Take Sophia Loren. No matter whether viewers got distracted by those curves and those cheekbones, her mouth always offered a kind of gravitas to her parts onscreen. No one could be mistaken into thinking she was eye candy alone. She signaled a whole range of emotions with variations of the set of her mouth as seen here — disapproval, distance, determination, controlled rage. That mouth could break your heart and win your respect. When she kicked you out, that mouth might well be the thing you remembered most. For a 76-year-old goddess, as she is now, her mouth gives her a grandeur that I, for one, would kill for.

But there’s also Carey Mulligan‘s little smirk. She’s one of the few ingénue actresses of the moment whose distinctive mouth always tells me she’s far more imaginative, interesting, and pragmatic than her blonde loveliness and dimples might otherwise lead us to expect. Considering how often she’s played straightforward girly-girls (think Bleak House and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) her mouth always undercut any impulse to underestimate her. If you scan through Google images of her, she’s invariably photographed with her mouth clamped shut tight, which gives her a perpetually ironic or grimacing look. It just goes to show you: even if you’re everyone’s favorite girl actor right now, their love might be won by the intelligence that obviously backs up your Twiggy-like cuteness.

And oh for the long, long jaw and mouth of Khandi Alexander. I’ve loved her ever since her early NewsRadio days — a love so pure that I am (still) willing to forgive her turn on the otherwise unwatchable CSI: Miami as the medical

examiner Dr. Alexx (!) Woods. If there remained any doubt about my forgiveness, it’s been resolved now that she’s in HBO’s Treme as the owner of her family’s bar. Alexander’s face has an elegance that bespeaks her early career as a dancer and choreographer — for stars as prominent as Whitney Houston — but it’s that mouth I celebrate every single time I see her. She can sneer, purse her lips, or explain detailed medical terms with equal aplomb; and when she smiles, she flashes the most astounding mouthful of beautiful teeth.

On the topic of teeth, however, I’m really getting sick of the super-perfect caps that actors use to whitewash their delightfully irregular fangs. I was crushed when Michelle Rodriguez changed her sexy, slightly crooked teeth in for a generic set out of a magazine; she might as well be anyone. Who would Steve Buscemi or David Bowie be without those teeth of theirs? In the absence of many crooked-teeth heroines to choose from in the acting world, I’m going to celebrate Kirsten Dunst, whose lateral incisors pop out a bit and remind us she’s a real woman. Even just on their own, Dunst’s teeth give her entire face a youthful realness that reminds me of how many of us finally got liberated from our junior high-school braces only to discover our teeth had other ideas. Plus, in Dunst’s case her teeth always remind me of her early star-making role in Interview With the Vampire (1994), made when she was only 12.

Dunst’s comparatively thin lips also reminds me to sing a short song to the early Barbara Hershey. I was too young to notice her until the wonderful Woody Allen film, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986 — remember when his films all seemed to be wonderful?) in which the excellently creepy Michael Caine lusts for her. One of the best things about that film was its capacity for making us see Hershey’s superlative beauty and her natural ease through Caine’s eyes. Hershey always seemed a bit unaware of how truly beautiful she was — except her great, thin-lipped mouth and slightly jutting chin always gave her a glamour that even a high school girl could wield as a weapon. For that reason it was crushing to hear in the early 90s that she had undergone lip augmentation for the film Beaches. She later had the procedure reversed (or perhaps the lips deflated on their own?); I’m still working on reversing my frustration with her as a poster child for the Angelina Jolie craze for absurdly poofy lips.

And finally there’s the mixed-race Devon Aoki, who channels a little Christina Ricci with her unusually small jaw and petulant pout contrasted with her prominent cheekbones and striking eyes. In Sin City she played the ruthless killer Miho. The story never met a female stereotype it didn’t like — it casts Miho as mute (yeah, I know) who was sure to slice you in half with her swords if you crossed her, especially if you made the mistake of calling her a “Jap slut” or “Jap slag.” Misogynistic stereotypes aside — and I think you know how much it takes for me to set them aside — I got stuck on Aoki’s unusual mouth. I’ve got a small jaw myself, so I know that Aoki’s orthodonist must have become wealthy finding ways to make all her teeth fit in as they should; most of all, I’m delighted to see a broader range of great mouths on female actors.

I’m racing back to finish grading now, but do let me know if I’ve missed anyone.