Sunday, July 20, 2008

Frizz Frame: In Search of Frizzy Heroines

The message is powerful. As pungent as the odor from a bottle of perm solution.

Frizzy hair means geek, wacko, frazzled, frayed, untamed, uncivilized, unacceptable.

After all, when was the last time you saw a frizzy-maned leading lady walk into the sunset with the sexy hunk? Certainly not in “The Way We Were” or “Princess Diaries.”

Unless of course the leading lady gets a makeover, calms the curls or all out straightens them. This usually comes with other “improvements” like a nicer wardrobe, makeup and plucked eyebrows, ditching the glasses and braces.

The most recent example? “The Women,” a 2008 remake of a 1939 film now starring Meg Ryan — with a mass of cascading curls — who discovers her husband is having an affair with a perfume saleswoman, the smoothly-styled Eva Mendes. Ryan’s curls are not even frizzy. Bo-ho chic, maybe. But if you believe the not-so-subtle subtext, Ryan’s way to victory is through a flat iron. Need more proof? Her BFF, Annette Bening, a Hermes bag-toting high-powered magazine editor. Her style: straight. Stick straight. Another friend, Jada Pinkett Smith, also with straightened locks, is a smart, hip writer. One friend has frizzy hair: Debra Messing. Guess what? She plays the oft-frazzled, endearingly goofy earth mom, pregnant with yet another child. It would be nice to think some of the film’s bad reviews were by curly heads who are not going to take it any more.

The reality is, movies just don’t have a lot of time to build a character. So unless you read the book, you probably don’t know the back story. So they use superficial traits and hints we all agree on to make sure we get it. (You didn’t know you were so judgmental, did you?)

Sure, there are exceptions. The frizzy hair message is not always a total put down. Some women with frizz actually do get the guys. There’s Sarah Jessica Parker, best known for playing loveable fashionista Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City” (most recently made into a movie). She often lets her frizz flag fly.

More common are the heroines like Cher in “Moonstruck” (1987). Her wild mane with streaks of gray didn’t dissuade the already smitten Nicholas Cage, though he wasn’t any major catch. Frankly, Cher’s hair spoke more to her working class roots and lack of sophistication than any kind of style. Even she gets beautified (neater curls and hair color) for a date with Cage at the MET.

There are also plenty of frizz-filled frames in movies made around the 1980s, mainly because they reflect the big-hair, perm-rage of the time.

For the most part, though, frizz is more typical among supporting roles — character pieces or “the unattractive best friend” — certainly not emblematic of the heroine, the leading lady we love for her beauty and success in life.

Here are just a few examples from movie history:

“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

Examples don’t get much better than this. This film pretty much set the standard for hair from hell hair (with added streaks of gray as a bonus). The Bride of Frankenstein’s frizzy out-of-control mane unmistakably telegraphed everything you want to avoid in a woman. After all, she was a monster. And not a likable one at that. As movie lore goes, to get the look actress Elsa Lanchester’s frizzy auburn hair was actually brushed over a wired horsehair cage. Nice. I mean, you don’t seriously expect to see the Bride of Frankenstein with Miss America curls or a swingy flapper cut. It had to be wild. It looked electrified. What better style to invoke fear than frizz?

“Little Orphan Annie” (1938), remade as “Annie” (1982)

Well, sure, if she’d had cute hair — nice straight bouncy locks pulled neatly back with a headband — she wouldn’t be an orphan in the first place. Right? But then there would not be a movie. Annie’s hairstyle -- a goofy Harpo Marx mop of red curls with slight degree of frizz -- is one of the worst styles on the silver screen worn by someone not openly mocked by the look. Only a precocious song-belting child could get away with a style like this and still find love. Oh, and you just know as Little Orphan Annie grows up she is so ditching that ‘do.

"The Way We Were" (1973)

This is a glaring example of how changing your hair gets you the guy, Robert Redford no less. We meet Barbra Streisand’s character as a geeky overbearing political activist with short curly hair, a dramatically different look from the neatly coiffed college girls Robert Redford hangs with. Years later, after she’s begun ironing her hair, they hook up and marry. Things don’t work out because she really never changed inside. Big surprise: After they divorce, she goes back to the goofy ‘do: The real her. Sure, she’s remarried (but you know he’s not as hot as Redford). One glimmer of hope during a chance meeting with Redford, now with a pretty, normal-looking wife: He genuinely seems to miss her despite the hair.

“Fatal Attraction” (1987)

This one is a bit tricky because Glenn Close’s wild mass of frizzy blond curls simultaneously signal her freak factor while acting as bait for Michael Douglas, who is easily seduced by her out of the lull of his routine marriage. So in this case, the wild 'do is a turn on. At first. But clearly, Close’s hair gets wilder and frizzier the nuttier she reveals herself to be, culminating in a scene at her home while listening to opera. She looks disturbed and demented as fuzzy tendrils eerily illuminate her crazed expression. Somehow, I don’t think this scene would have worked as well with the character coiffed in a sultry hair-over-one-eye Veronica Lake style.

“Dead Calm” (1989), “Days of Thunder” (1990), “Far and Away” (1992), “Portrait of a Lady” (1996)

These early Nicole Kidman movies showcase the actress’s formerly trademark long red corkscrew curls frizzed out like a giant mass of cotton candy. She plays an unglamorous role in the first, trying to save herself from a killer at sea; in “Days of Thunder” she plays a sexy doctor who gets Tom Cruise all hot under the collar so, okay, score one for the frizzies here, though it was not a leading role. The frizzy locks in “Far and Away” can be attributed to it being a period piece about Irish immigrants who, in the 1890s, barely had time to bathe. Her lead role in “Portrait of a Lady” found Kidman decidedly unglamorous. But director Jane Campion is known for her wrinkles-and-all approach, one that rejects the image of the beautiful heroine. Ergo, frizzy, unkempt mane. She’s not supposed to look beautiful. She’s supposed to look real. Kidman’s star has risen astronomically since then. Her frizz is rarely seen in film roles or tabloids. More often it’s stick straight or at the very least shows off contained curls (beaten into submission by anti-frizz product no doubt). After all, she’s a leading lady.

“Princess Diaries” (2001)

Once again, this time with Anne Hathaway as the geeky, clumsy lead, we see how frizzy hair (along with other unmentionables like shaggy brows and eyeglasses) leave little doubt this chick is living in uncool nerd-dom. She’s certainly not appropriate to take over the throne of a small European monarchy. Or course, after a Pygmalian-esqe makeover from her snooty, dignified grandmother, Julie Andrews, Hathaway gets straight well-behaved locks and, voila, she’s the “it” girl at school, a man magnet and darling of the local media. In her ascent to a more perfect life, she kept some of her klutziness, ostensibly to prove she’s human or at least not perfect. God forbid she kept the frizz.

“Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and “I'm Not There” (both 2007)

When you think of Cate Blanchett, you might think great actress, beautiful woman. Blanchett, however, does at least take risks. In two recent roles she is not at her most attractive and, surprise, sports frizzy locks. First, as Queen Elizabeth I, but here you can excuse the hair simply for being true to the time period when frizzy hair was in style and was even favored by the Queen. In her other role, in “I’m Not There,” she takes an even greater risk by looking decidedly unfeminine, donning Wayfarers and a frizzy mop of hair. And wouldn’t you know it? She’s a man, baby! And not even a cute one at that. She plays Bob Dylan.

“Sweeny Todd” (2007)

So Helena Bonham Carter is cute. Yes, even with the wacked out ‘do. But take note: She is a crazed crazy and hence, she has unkempt curly hair. Oh, and the long lost wife of Johnny Depp’s character? Yeah, she was real pretty and had nice smooth hair when they were young lovers. But — spoiler alert — guess who turns out to be the creepy, wacky, scabby-skinned woman in later scenes? You guessed it. And nothing says: “Man, I seriously need to get to a hairdresser but I’m a street urchin who’s lost her noggin’” like a head of unkempt frizz.

“A Mighty Heart” (2007)

Okay so we actually have sex queen Angelina Jolie trading in her straight locks for a tight-curl frizz look. And she is the heroine in this film. But, a big but, this is a biopic about Marianne Pearl, a beautiful woman in her own right and widow of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl. So the hair here was less about a character statement than about just looking the part. I will say I’ve never seen Jolie look less attractive. (Damn.) Though that was partly due to her having uncharacteristic dark eyes (via contacts) and little makeup. She also wore the hair on top of her head in a kind of no-style mop and looked tired, as any woman whose husband has been kidnapped by terrorists has a right to look. Still…. Troubling.

So what does all this tell us? I think frizz is indelibly etched in our minds as a problem that needs to be solved. At least in this culture. I wonder if that will ever change? Maybe someone should brainwash us all back to accepting it more. Even finding beauty in it. One can only dream of Cameron Diaz getting a perm for Charlie’s Angels III.


Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a very thought-provoking post, and something I hadn't thought of -- because I LOVE curly hair. I saw Meg Ryan with a gorgeous toss of curls last night on Letterman. I also admire Anne Lamott (love her dreads), my friend Theresa, and well, and there are too many curly beauties to list here.

Only the Half of It said...

Hmmm. I don't think I've ever seen you with curly hair. Looking forward to it. I'm in favor of REAL hair and if it's curly and frizzy, you should be seen as beautiful that way. I'm taking a rather humorous approach here, slightly satirical, but based on some realistic evidence. Being naturally curly myself, I have some strong opinions about it!

Stacey said...

I refused to let my frizz run free until I turned 40 and just said wtf. It's funny, though, if I have an audition I ALWAYS straighten my hair. Even if it's a voiceover.

Only the Half of It said...

See.....! You prove the point. Darn!

Anonymous said...

amy grant

Only the Half of It said...

Yes, Amy Grant, Whoopi, and there's also the beautiful Melina Kanakaredes and Kim Delaney, who more often than not does seem to straighten her hair.
There are definitely some positive role models. Thankfully.