Would we care if they weren’t so pretty? I’ve asked myself this questions quite often lately in relation to certain films and film characters. Would I still like this movie so much if the lead actress wasn’t so beautiful? Would the film manage to keep my attention? Would my eyes still be peeled to the screen? Would I care about what happened to this character if she (or he) wasn’t so good-looking? Would I have seemed out and watched the film in the first place? Tough questions to answer, but let’s try to investigate this topic a little further.
On the surface almost nobody wants to admit that they can be conditioned or give much importance to how a person looks. However it’s a fact that good-looking people tend to be more successful in life. Let’s skip specifics. Statistics show for example that tall people have a higher income and similar stuff like that. I’m sure it’s something that has to do with having “good genes” and all that science talk I know nothing about. What’s important here is that whether we like to admit it or not looks matter.
What do I mean with ‘beauty’ however? The concept of beauty is something that’s more than just purely physical. Natural beauty, a symmetric face, proportionate body features, no excessive body fat etc. are only a part of what makes a person beautiful. I’m not going to lie and say that beauty is only on the inside, but it certainly comes from the inside.
A person’s character, what they are on the inside, will shine through and influence the way they are perceived on the outside. Beyond that it also has to do with hormones and other biological shit I know nothing about. It’s also a matter of how someone carries themselves, how they talk and how they move. It’s determined socially, culturally and is highly subjective.
In different eras beauty has been perceived differently. The Greek ideal seems to have survived and proven to be the most agreed upon, at least in Western societies. Obviously, mass media has a big saying in what is “beautiful” unfortunately, most of the time they have no sense for aesthetics and zero attention to detail, resulting in the creation of vulgar, trashy and plastic models (appealing to as many people as possible). “Everyone is beautiful in their own way”, but who really believes that? Self-esteem and self-worth, how a person was educated to see themselves and their body all these factors determine if a person will seen as beautiful.
Obviously, a basic degree of natural beauty is required, and realistically speaking some people will never have the chance to be broadly accepted as good-looking. A lot of a person’s beauty however can be directly and consciously influenced with how they dress, their education and some good old-fashioned makeup. If this all sounds too shallow, don’t worry there is a point to it and I’m not some sort of motivational speaker trying to sell you something either. Now that I’ve tried to define beauty I’ll add that for me personally it’s about subtlety, nuance and poise: Think ballerinas. Fetishes and ethnic preferences play an important role into this discourse as well of course.
The Beauty and the Silver Screen
Now then: Back to movies. The first time I thought I started asking myself all these questions was when I watched S. Darko, the sequel to the now cult classic Donnie Darko. Famously, nobody remembers or likes S. Darko, but to me not only was it a better movie than ‘Donnie’, but it also happened to be one of my very favorite films of 2009 (a fantastic year for cinema). Being someone that always second-guesses their choices or motivations and being in the clear minority with my feelings towards the film (and I’ll admit it’s been a couple of year’s since I’ve last seen it) I had to ask myself if I was confusing my love for the film with my infatuation the lovely Daveigh Chase.
Another very similar thing happened when I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso (Red Desert). Monica Vitti is mesmerizing in that movie, but would I feel the same way about the film if another slightly less attractive actress played the role of Giuliana? Would I be bored out of my fucking mind? Would I have re-watched it and praised it as much? I’m not sure. The thing is: The film wouldn’t have been the same without Vitti. She doesn’t just bring her beauty to the picture. There’s also her performance, a great performance. It wouldn’t have been the same with any other actress, no matter how beautiful.
This got me thinking even more. Are there actresses that I think are beautiful, but gave horrible performances? Of course there are, plenty of them. Yes, they add an enjoyable quality to the film (so called eye candy), but ultimately if their acting is bad it usually results in a bad movie. So we can already say that beauty isn’t everything when it comes to film. More than that, since my definition of beauty also includes personality traits and even the best actor can’t annihilate themselves completely from the role they play. As a matter of fact the best actors always act natural and draw heavily from personal experiences to make the character realistic.
The question remains however: How would I feel if the actor or actress was in fact ugly? Or shall we say not pleasant to look at, uneasy on the eye or well, you get the picture. To decide if it was possible for me to relate to characters who weren’t exactly pretty, but I still felt a lot of empathy for. There are certainly examples I could cite, but I don’t want to be disrespectful and admittedly it’s hard to find any really unattractive actors or actresses. The very fact that there aren’t many (if any) actors or actresses that don’t look good, has to mean something.
Great and smart filmmakers and artists have a deeper knowledge of how the human mind works. They know that even if it’s not socially acceptable to admit, we tend to care more for beautiful people. Why do you think all those gossip magazines report about glamorous people? It’s twisted, but simple. Also, and this is more of a cynical point of view, some actors or actresses may have gotten their role in exchange for some “non scripted” performances on the casting couch (if you know what I mean). On a more hopeful note I believe that every great director wants to create great art and true art is about beauty.
Crafting a beautiful film is easier if your cast is beautiful, although I would argue that with great mise en scène (art direction, makeup, cinematography etc.) you can make anyone and anything look beautiful, at least on a surface level. For some reason however it’s just harder to relate to characters that aren’t good-looking. You almost have to force yourself or they have be incredibly well-written and the acting has to be top-notch. Like I said though, there have been instances before of actors or actresses that I don’t necessarily find attractive that gave amazing performances. The weird thing is that through their talent however they managed to transcend their physical appearance and become, in their own way, beautiful.
So in conclusion is it possible to not be beautiful and still make people care about you in a film? And if a stellar performance elevates the actor to a certain kind of beauty outside of the “traditional” definition of the word, doesn’t that prove that we only care about the pretty faces? In a way, yes. If beauty comes from the inside, an ugly person is ugly on the inside. By default if they’re ugly on the inside, that gives us the moral justification not to care about them. They’re ugly they don’t deserved to be liked. Like Walt Disney taught us ugliness equates evil. Prince charming is a handsome, muscular and tan guy on a horse. The classic Disney princess has fair skin, a small waist and pretty eyes. The villains are horrible and disfigured. It’s their interior hatred who has turned them into the monsters they are. This Disney-logic or disneyfication of reality has become mainstream thinking without many even realizing it.
We can also say with a certain degree of confidence that a film is only enjoyable to a certain degree if all it has going for it is a beautiful cast. Good writing paired with empathic and credible acting are what make a character relatable and realistic. In that respect you don’t really need a pretty face, but let’s just say that it helps. A lot of the times an attractive cast is used to lure in younger audiences or mainstream moviegoers. It is worth noting that the quality of a film never only depends on the acting alone, but also on other factors, namely what I like to call the 4 Ms of Movie Magic (Mise en scène, Mood, Message, Meaning). However I’m not going to lie and say that a beautiful actress doesn’t add an extra layer of enjoyably in the film experience, because it really does and at the end of the day we’re all just human. So you see, that the question of beauty in cinema is a very serious one and a lot less superficial as it may appear if you’re pedantic enough to take it seriously.