Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Trusting the beholder

I saw a pair of movies over the weekend that dealt either directly or indirectly with the idea of beauty, and featured characters -- either fictional or non-fictional -- who assumed the responsibility of determining what's beautiful and what isn't. Taken in tandem, these two movies made me wonder how much we should trust the eyes of these beholders -- or even our own eyes.

One of the chief pleasures of watching older movies is seeing younger versions of actors you know and love. That is, when you can recognize them.

When we streamed the 1979 Australian period piece My Brilliant Career, directed by Gillian Armstrong, on Saturday night, recognizing the young Sam Neill was no problem. The same could not be said of the young Judy Davis, however.

I'm not sure if this poster gives you a good enough look at Davis to have the same strange experience of not recognizing her that I had, but I found the 24-year-old Judy Davis to only mildly resemble the 40-something Davis I met later on. In fact, if I had been watching My Brilliant Career without any knowledge of who was starring in it, I might have said "That woman reminds me of Judy Davis a little bit ... but it clearly isn't her."

Okay, now that I've written enough text to have room for a couple more photos, I'll show you the side-by-side pictures of Davis then and Davis "now" -- and by "now" I mean at any point in the last 20 years. Let's see what you think:

The different hairstyles obviously accentuate the difference, but this barely looks like the same person, does it?

I pointed out to my wife, in a comment that was fortuitously timed, that she became a much more attractive woman as she got older -- which is certainly not necessarily the case with women in general and actresses in particular. The reason it was well timed was that the plot immediately turned to her appearance. Davis' character, Sybylla Melvyn, has a crisis of self-confidence in which she mourns the fact that she's so "plain." Her aunt, who's supposed to be in the role of comforting her, does something they would do in the 1890s, I guess, but never now -- instead of telling her that she's beautiful, she tells her that even plain girls can attract men if they have intelligence and personality. Oh, we'd talk about the intelligence and personality nowadays, but who wouldn't tell a girl in that situation that her perspective was nonsense, that she was indeed beautiful?

And this is from one of the comparatively enlightened characters. When her grandmother or some other character about that age deals with the issue later, she goes so far as to shroud the mirror in Sybylla's room so she doesn't have to look at herself. Talk about trying to give a young girl a complex.

What's interesting about My Brilliant Career is the extent to which its female empowerment shines through from here on out. For the rest of the film, Sybylla fends off not one, but two suitors -- the goofy, mustachioed Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb) and the dashing, handsome and charming Harry Beecham (Neill). Both seem utterly smitten with her, meaning either a) she's a heck of a lot more beautiful than her cruel relatives initially make her think she is, or b) personality does, indeed, go a really long way. It's a real feminist film, however, because despite its outward similarities to something by Jane Austen, Sybylla doesn't end up with a man in the end -- she ends up rejecting Harry's second proposal because she wants to become a novelist. Which, I suppose, just makes her all the more beautiful to him.

Sunday night brought a very different type of film, in which I again branded someone less attractive than I thought she would/should be. But I'll get to that in a minute.

The September Issue is a 2009 documentary (by R.J. Cutler) about the creation of Vogue's biggest issue of each year, the year in this case being 2007. More specifically, it's about Vogue's editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, who is considered to be one of the most powerful people in the fashion industry, and in fact -- by people with a small world-view -- one of the most powerful women in the world, period. More substantively, it's about Vogue's style editor, Grace Coddington, whose character is more accessible and easier to sympathize with than the icy and distant Wintour.

The most obvious beauty-related commentary about a film like The September Issue is that haute couture seems to be a highly subjective type of beauty, entrusted to a very small number of people who have been credited with knowing what they're talking about. The fashions seen on catwalks are generally so out-there, that any reasonable person could consider the "best" fashions of any particular season to be utterly vile, while things that look beautiful to most of us are dismissed as tacky or ugly. As a magazine, Vogue embodies this paradox. Anna Wintour is basically the last word on what "we" -- as in, Vogue's readership -- are supposed to consider beautiful and desirable. That's a lot of power for one woman, indeed, and it seems to be wielded somewhat arbitrarily. However, the fact that she's been editor since 1988 seems to indicate that another very small group of people -- Wintour's bosses in the publishing world -- think she knows what she's doing.

But never let Vogue be accused of straightforward shallowness. You'd think that one of the main buzzwords of the fashion industry would be "young," and that this industry would more or less follow the same guidelines as the airline/flight attendant industry -- in other words, when women reach a certain age, they are put out to pasture, no questions asked. That may be true in terms of the women who model this fashion, but it's certainly not true of the women who edit the magazine. Wintour herself is 60 years old, and shows no signs of slowing down or being forced out.

But Wintour is at least attractive and put together well, dressing fashionably and paying close attention to her appearance. The same cannot be said of the aforementioned Grace Coddington, who started in her role at Vogue the same year Wintour started in hers. In fact, when Coddington first came on screen, I made another fairly shallow assessment of her appearance, something along the lines of "What is that bag lady doing in charge of style at Vogue?"

Here, you be the judge:

(Okay, she literally has a bag in this picture, but that's not why I thought of her as a "bag lady.")

Here was this woman -- perhaps the second most powerful person at Vogue, who produces the majority of the photo shoots -- wearing no makeup whatsoever, with bedraggled long hair that's not in any particular style, and dressing in frumpy monochrome, at one point even appearing on screen in a tee-shirt. (Heaven forbid!) What's more, she's pushing 70. (Coddington was born in 1941, though wikipedia does not have the exact date.) It went against everything I thought I knew about Vogue that this woman would still be employed, let alone wield the kind of power she wields, when she seems to care so little about personally embodying all the things her magazine embodies.

Of course, I got zapped on this one too. I went on to discover that Coddington had started out as a model, but had to stop modeling after a car accident in which her face slammed against the windshield. My wife had much more charitably pointed out that you could still see beauty in her bone structure, and in fact, the younger pictures of her modeling proved that she was, indeed, quite stunning at one point.

Coddington as we see her now -- at the height of her artistic and creative powers, and not giving a flip about how anyone sees her beyond that -- made me really admire her, and made me feel all the more frustrated with Wintour when Wintour cuts some of her best work from the issue. Even though there are very few parts of The September Issue that one would consider moving, or even very substantive at all, Coddington's disappointment with being overruled by her editor-in-chief was one of them. She may not be a "looker" per se anymore, but this woman's ability to forge one of the most impressive resumes in fashion publishing history, after starting out as "merely" a pretty face, is a thing of true beauty -- and one of the only really inspiring parts of an otherwise surface-level and fairly superficial film.

Talk about a brilliant career.

The young Judy Davis and the old Grace Coddington gave me something to really think about. I'll try not to be so quick, in the future, to decide who's beautiful and who isn't, and for what reasons.


The Mad Hatter said...

Of course the biggest difference between Coddington and Wintour is in what they do. Anna basically acts as a critic at large...dictating to the world what is and is not fashion.

Coddington on the other hand has a creative vision, and maps out some of the publishing world's most stunning images. She doesn't just sit back and give thumb's up or thumb's down - she brings together all the elements of design and lets the work (the subject matter and the image itself) speak for itself.

Glad you got to see this one - it's a very engaging doc!

Vancetastic said...


Yeah, I thought it was reasonably engaging, but I also don't think it contained very many surprises. My comment to my wife afterward was "Yup, that's pretty much what I thought putting together this magazine would be like." Maybe it's just that The Devil Wears Prada got pretty close to being right on it, and I had already seen that. I did think it was funny that Wintour's daughter openly disses her mother's entire career, essentially.