Posted by Greg Ferrara on May 15, 2013
The movies are now and have always been eager to please. They want you to like them, even if they’re giving you a bit of history along with the entertainment. They want you to know they have you in mind no matter what, and when I say “you,” I don’t mean whoever is watching the film at any given moment. I mean whoever is going to see the movie in the theater during its initial release. That’s the audience the movies want to please because they don’t know who the audience is going to be in 40 or 50 years so best to concentrate on the one before them right now. And that’s why period movies always give more than a passing nod to the present day and if the choice comes down to period accuracy or present day pandering, pandering will win every time.
Most perceptive movie goers have noticed that no matter what decade (or century) a film takes place in, you can always tell what decade it was made in. I’ve often referred to it as the “Rule of Hairstyles” in which, no matter what the actual hairstyle of the movie’s period is, the actors, by God, are going to wear their hair in a contemporary do, like it or not. In fact, I once watched an interview with Julie Christie who laughed about her hairstyle obsession while filming Doctor Zhivago. She didn’t want it changed. Looking back, she wondered why they were all so concerned with keeping their sixties hairstyles intact in the first place, it wasn’t like they couldn’t just put it back at the end of the day. As a result, despite taking place during and around the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War, anyone can accurately place Zhivago‘s production date to within a couple of years. The hairstyles give it away.
Sometimes, it’s a lot more than just the hair. When I first saw The Cincinnati Kid (a movie set in the thirties) on television as a kid, I had no idea it didn’t take place in the sixties. Not a clue. Even when I saw the old fashioned cars, I just figured these card shark types liked their classic cars. Certainly nothing Ann-Margret was wearing and sure as hell not her hairstyle gave any indication whatsoever that it wasn’t taking place in the sixties. When I saw it again, a little older, I picked up on the period but no one older than ten should have any trouble at all picking out the decade of that movie’s production.
And then of course, there’s Bonnie and Clyde with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty looking about as much like a couple of poor, downtrodden midwestern gangsters as, well, as I look like them. Or Elvis Presley and Debra Paget looking decidedly un-Civil War like in Love Me Tender. But I’ve talked about these examples before (in comments, on other blogs, on Facebook) and, basically, though it’s fun pointing it out, I understand the reasons behind it. With Bonnie and Clyde it even helps drive home the point of criminals as media superstars by making them look like they should be on the cover of Vogue (the same idea kind of applied with Amadeus, in which the styles of the 1980s drove home the celebrity centered self destructive lifestyle of Mozart in the 1780s ). And generally speaking, where’s the harm in giving a visual nod to the present day, especially when it comes down to centuries ago, rather than just decades?
The first time I noticed it in a deep period piece, that is, a period piece taking place centuries ago, not a mere few decades ago, was Excalibur, a personal favorite then and now. I’ve always loved the King Arthur legend and Excalibur is my favorite of all the King Arthur movies. But favorite or not, I always get a chuckle when the movie arrives at an older Arthur, having taken the throne and built Camelot and the Round Table. At that point, it becomes more the Bee Gees of the Round Table than the Knights of the Round Table. Also, perms. At least two major ones from Lancelot and Mordred.
Even more off putting than the hairstyles is the lack of a grimy, filthy, disgusting appearance. Now, it was at its worst back in the fifties with The Knights of the Round Table in which, I’m pretty sure, no character ever so much as gets dirt under their fingernails. But it’s been around in all of them, in one way or another, throughout the decades. Yes, Excalibur looks great in its battle scenes. The men are dirty and bloody with filthy armor and yet, everyone has great teeth and no visible scars or deformations from childhood infections (before antibiotics when some infections lasted months). One of my current favorite shows, and one I mentioned here just last week, Game of Thrones, suffers from all the same problems.
In the second season, the Men of the Night’s Watch, ventured beyond the wall and… actually, I’ll spare non-viewers all the specific names and locations and just dumb it down to this: One of them, Jon Snow, who, like the rest of them, looks remarkably good for someone who has, quite possibly, never taken a bath in his life, comes upon a wildling girl (that’s what they’re called) and, even more than Mr. Snow, our wildling girl could easily, if pressed, show up on the cover of any magazine at the checkout of your local grocery store on a moment’s notice.
Despite no CVS selling the latest varieties of shampoos and conditioners, her hair is not a clumped, matted mess. Despite no dentistry in the area, her teeth are white, straight and clean. As for the rest of the cast, we can always forgive the royalty for looking well kept but even then, Robb, who fights for months without rest, looks ready for a model shoot when he and Oona Chaplin get down to it in his tent off the battlefield (quite a few characters get intimate in GoT and damned if they don’t look like models every time).
Of course, I understand this as well. If we really made the characters in Game of Thrones, Excalibur or even something like Pirates of the Caribbean (here’s a funny bit about just this thing) actually look like they would look under the same circumstances, people might avoid the movie just to keep from getting sick in their popcorn bag. We make them look movie gritty, just enough that it looks acceptable but not so much that we get queasy looking at them.
We want to see period movies but we want to recognize the characters, too. To do this, we make them more like us. When audiences in 1936 saw Romeo and Juliet, the absurdly too old for the character Leslie Howard, and not as absurdly but still way too old Norma Shearer, made audiences comfortable. In 1968, they were closer to the right age (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey) and, more importantly, sported hairstyles that signaled they were a part of the sixties. One thing we will never know, because we were born far too early in the process, is how this is going to look to people watching in three or four or five hundred years. If some cultural historian comes upon our period movies and tv shows of today, will they look and feel ridiculously wrong for the period, or just slightly off? There’s no way to know for sure and no reason to be embarrassed. It’s just a marker of time on the cinematic landscape. Personally, I find it fascinating that we cannot extract ourselves, or the way we speak (also quite different in most period pieces than the actual dialects, cadences and language of the day), from the entertainment we make. It’s a way of putting the present in the past and the past in the present. Of announcing we are here, all of us who live in the time the original work was made, to someone watching it in the future. Doctor Zhivago and The Cincinnati Kid are as much about 1965 as Darling, made in the same year and taking place in the present, and that’s important because one way to study any particular time is to see how the people in that time portrayed other times. And how we portrayed ourselves. So here’s to the go-go look in the thirties, clean teeth in centuries past and bouffant hairdos in revolutionary Russia. I wouldn’t trade them for anything, or any time.
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