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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.2 (Spring 2013)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
The Beautiful Female Face a Second (and Final?) Time
Peter T. Singleton
Pudor dimissus numquam reddit gratiam.
A relaxation of shame never increases gracefulness.
I was shocked, mostly in a very pleasant way, by the interest which my previous essay on this subject elicited. Many respondents were quite charitable in pointing out the limitations of my study. In my own behalf, I will repeat that a man’s judgment of what makes a beautiful female face is inherently subjective. Perhaps I should have stressed earlier that most men (including myself, very definitely) under-appreciate all that goes into creating this beauty by way of cosmetics. But then again, this was not at all intended to be the focus of my comments. If you stand before a mountain valley that takes your breath away, you probably don’t stop (unless you’re a geologist) to consider how many eons of erosion and what particular kinds of wind and water activity went into creating the chasm at your feet—and your not doing so in nowise detracts from your appreciation of the landscape’s sublimity, or even from your “objective” determination that it deserves your admiration. “Beauty points” are not assigned either on the basis of hard work or on that of creative intent. An inkblot test can be beautiful, once in a blue moon. A blue moon, come to think of it, would also be beautiful.
In the same way, I was simply reacting to faces that I find hauntingly beautiful. One of the least helpful comments I received accused me of having low testosterone. I presume this critic would find a book especially delectable if it were written in chocolate cake and could be “consumed” page by page. I wasn’t writing for him, and he wasn’t reading for my purposes (or doing whatever he calls reading). Several more helpful remarks seemed to chide me mildly for not being aware of the camera-man’s role in the product (for it would almost certainly have been a man, especially in the older photos). My praise of certain facial qualities was naïve in attributing them to a given woman (I was told), or even to what might be called “female culture” of that woman’s day. The subject was likely being posed as directed by an invisible but authoritarian will behind the lens.
If I left any doubt about this point, let me clarify now: I know that these faces, all belonging to professional actresses, were first being marketed to the American public of their day, second being groomed to the taste of their male handlers (who, naturally, supposed themselves to be creating a marketable result), and only third reflecting certain elements of their own personality and character. I should perhaps have underscored these priorities, but I thought them strongly implied when I raised a vigorous protest against the charge of Amy Cunningham (and other more or less contemporary feminists) that men used to require brainless, flashy smiles of their women. The photographic archive gives this charge the lie in the face. On the contrary, the men imperiously circulating behind these photographs were obviously (so I argued) trying to make the portraits project a wistful intelligence, often with heavy dashes of introversion and reserve. If I might pick up where I left off—or almost where I began—last time, consider the incomparable Loretta Young:
These images, and others like them available on Google, evoke the very opposite of a giggling, fawning peddler of easy sexual favors. The one on the left, especially, is certainly not sexually unprovocative (even to an old man with low testosterone); but in tandem with that voluptuous recline is an unmistakable depth. Part of what makes this woman so seductive, it seems to me, is that very sense of mystery projected by her high eyebrows and full, low eyelids. What is she thinking? Many a man would give far more than a penny for her thoughts.
I called Loretta incomparable, and she certainly was as a complete person; but as a beauty, I find Dana Wynter possessed of the same qualities with a slightly superior touch of finesse. This “British Loretta” has features suggestive of the finest china, lending her a kind of delicacy that inspires the most respectful handling. I fully realize how obnoxious such remarks must sound to the Cunningham generation. If you like, I will say that I offer them in self-indictment. I cannot help myself. I respect, and even worship, this face. That the inner brows project slightly more downwardly than Loretta’s perhaps creates an overall impression less Olympian, less aloof, and instead more personal and intimate—a sense of deep understanding whose strength contrasts exquisitely with the fragile face’s slender “v”. Again, I speak only in an aesthetic register (though Wynter was no intellectual featherweight: she was preparing for medical school when she decided to opt for an acting career).
Another starlet from the fifties, and whose early career hence overlapped (like Wynter’s) the black-and-white era, is Janet Leigh. The few “oldies” in which I saw her (and no, I am not so old that I watched any of these beauties on the big screen) left an indelible impression—and I do not allude to Psycho primarily, where she really had a very small role. (I love her in The Manchurian Candidate, whose release was suppressed because its subject matter would have seemed indelicate after the Kennedy assassination.) One can readily confirm through her Google results that Janet was marketed as more of a vamp than Young and Wynter—who in fact were among the most wholesome Hollywood divas ever, both on and off the screen. Yet in spite of the more blatant selling of sex appeal, well illustrated below, Leigh still captures for me something of a more innocent Golden Age: an altogether better time to live, culturally speaking. The woman below, that is, still strikes me as someone with whom a young man might dream of spending his life rather than his next free weekend. Testosterone is one of the ingredients in this yearning… but then, it always has been (though I say it to the shame of the male sex).
The more important thing—the thing I keep trying to get at, and the reason why I am again groping at specters through these photographs—is “soul”, for lack of a better word. These images project a woman who has something going on inside, something that fascinates me and subjugates me. A man could share much with a woman like this, perhaps almost everything. This is exactly what Leigh offers Sinatra’s lonely character in Manchurian Candidate once the sex is out of the way, though I wonder if any intimacy is ever “just sex” when a man finds true sympathy in a woman. In other words, a man could make such a woman his judge (something I think all men really want out of their women, though none will say so). After his confessions have echoed through her scarcely fathomable depths, they would come back to him with a final verdict on his grand ideas and plans, the verdict he desperately wanted to hear: not a logical analysis, but a “feeling”. Was he being fair to others? Was he being true to himself?
Well, no man seems to look for that kind of spiritual litmus-testing in a woman any more. The New Woman would consider all that I have just written to be obnoxiously, perhaps criminally sexist; and, frankly, I can’t imagine a contemporary man—or any sane man—being in the least inclined to make the New Woman his judge in matters of the soul.
One of my critics both irked me and made me feel uncomfortably guilty by charging that I had included no black women in my pageant. I should certainly have seen that one coming. I suppose a person does tend to be more attracted to those of his or her race; yet I did enshrine and Indian and a Filipina in my catalogue, either of whom I would willingly agree to call the most beautiful woman of them all. There may be something else at work here. Proponents of “identity politics” always have the argument knocking around in their grab bag of rhetorical debris that previous ages have kept Group X down AND that the status quo refuses to represent Group X with statistical fairness in its story of the past. I’ve never understood how this works out logically. If black women, for instance, were given very few major parts in films before about 1970 (and this is doubtlessly true), then how can I be expected to find a boatload of black starlets from the thirties?
I contented myself this time with the lovely Dianne Carroll. Yet I would be lying if I said that I find her images as powerful as Dana Wynter’s. One of the photos below has Dianne smiling—a beautiful smile, but also something of the “smile on demand” that Cunningham et al. charge us men with programming into women. The second photo, while also lovely, lacks that depth that I tried to describe above. I certainly don’t believe that black women lack depth—but I conclude that the Hollywood establishment was in fact marketing them in the somewhat degraded fashion to which feminists claim all women of yesteryear were submitted. This surely wouldn’t be the first time that a white victimization movement has tried to ride on the coattails of a group persecuted by genuine racism.
If you apply Cunningham’s comments to Dianne’s photos, in short, it seems to me that they actually make some sense.
One of the propositions I advanced in the earlier piece that has the most holes in it concerns hair. I was attempting to draw attention to how much more intellectual the beautiful women of yesteryear look than the “hotties” of today—and it seemed to me that a more revealed forehead had something to do with this. Mea culpa. Contemporary starlets and glamoratae are apparently pulling their hair back with a vengeance, or else just shearing it off. I admit that I don’t pay enough attention to them to be very alert to these trends. But the first photographic stage of my recantation must begin in the Sixties, when the women who were slaying me in early adolescence were actively churning out films rather than appearing in the Late Show’s gilded classics. Most of these, as a matter of fact, were frequent guest stars on TV serials (for we didn’t have a lot of money to waste on movies at my house).
Take the two Susans, for example: Susan Hampshire and Susan Oliver. The former played Fleur in BBC’s rendition of The Forsyte Saga—a magnificent black-and-white production every one of whose actors was picture-and-letter perfect for John Galsworthy’s characters. (In fact, I read the sequence of Victorian novels only after seeing the TV serial, and I can’t imagine that the former would have given so much enjoyment if the faces and voices of the latter hadn’t been fixed firmly in my mind.) The success of the Saga was so dazzling that PBS christened Masterpiece Theatre to capitalize on it, parasitizing off the abundance of similar (if lesser) productions from across the pond.
Susan Hampshire and Susan Oliver
Hampshire played the perfect Twenties “flapper”—twiggy-thin, flat-chested, long-lashed, and somehow cryptic behind her bubbling frivolity (made very credible by an impishly upturned nose). Though her hair (and I haven’t forgotten about the hair) was pulled back for the part, I found later that she preferred the cascading, brow-brushing coiffure that would eventually run wild in the frizzes and frosts of the late Seventies and Eighties. I like to believe that my favorite actor, the late Patrick McGoohan, also carried a torch for Susan. The two starred together in Disney’s Three Lives of Thomasina (1964)… but the connection would not end there. Hampshire would guest-star on two episodes of Secret Agent (also a British production, and easily the best of all the day’s many spy dramas); and at the end of one (“You’re Not in Any Trouble, Are You?”), her character would become the first and last female with whom McGoohan’s super-agent persona, John Drake, ever indulged in a romantic holiday. Even Drake’s taste in women was impeccable!
Hampshire’s big dark eyes, I am convinced, hold the key to her mesmerism, though her sweet-sad smile can scarcely be discounted. In the photo above, the locks that drape her forehead only accentuate the profound stare beckoning through their brown-blonde veil like the cool shadows of a bower in Paradise.
Susan Oliver’s mystique, in contrast, was all in light tones. Her brilliant green-blue eyes had such extraordinary luster that they immediately riveted the viewer. The rest of her face was as round, fluid, and smooth as a Renaissance Madonna’s. I knew her from stints on TV serials like Wagon Train and The Virginian, since my parents were heavy consumers of Westerns (a dying genre in the late Sixties, but still a stage through which many rising character-actors were forced to pass on their way to a paycheck). Oliver, all unknown to me until recently, became something of a feminist pioneer in a life shortened by cancer. Her avid interest in aviation appears actually to have interfered with certain acting gigs, but she preferred blazing trails in the air to lapping up whatever few parts might fall to aging beauties. She also molded herself into a director at a time when very few females were admitted into elite positions behind the camera.
In the oddest way, Oliver runs together in my mind with the incomparable dark beauty (and this time, I mean incomparable), Madlyn Rhue. My Western-addicted household introduced me to one of the connections. Rhue guest-starred on late-Fifties TV sagebrush epics like Have Gun Will Travel and Rawhide, often playing a Mexican hidalga or a Pawnee princess. I am told that she later made several appearances on the original Star Trek, though this was never one of my favorites. (Had I only known that she might be “beamed up” on a given Friday, this would have changed!) Like Oliver, too, she found rather limited work outside of television, and her later years were also greatly complicated by illness. Misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she had the stamina only for very occasional employ. The magnanimous Angela Lansbury kept her from destitution by creating spots on Murder, She Wrote that were minimally demanding. I gather that Susan Oliver, too, profited from Lansbury’s compassion during the long-running detective series!
No dark eyes have ever fascinated me more than Madlyn’s. They are an abyss; and, as in the case of Susan Hampshire, one can see in the photos I have reproduced that the brow-covering hair of the time only accentuated the depths of this gaze. If I might describe beauty’s least describable quality as “soul”, then the unfathomable eyes of Madlyn Rhue possessed more soul than any other woman’s who ever filled a screen. If the Starship Enterprise could have warped into them, it would have emerged at the far edge of the universe… or maybe on heaven’s doorstep.
At any rate, uncovered foreheads revealing large brows clearly lack the special power I attributed to them earlier. The eyes are the seat of the intellect, and perhaps of personality: an unencumbered forehead is merely one way of framing them. All of the remaining faces in this sequel to my subjective meander have high, exposed brows, all belong to a period much later than my childhood… and all, it seems to me, lack something. I am still trying to determine just what the “something” is. A cynic might say, “Your childhood”—as if mere association with a more innocent time were sufficient to gild a face or a memory. I disagree: I think there’s more to it.
Even the splendidly russet Virginia Madsen, who seems almost to tear at her scalp in keeping her sanguine forehead bare, does not strike me as particularly simpatica. Beautiful, yes… beyond question. But not someone who would hear out a man’s life-story—not someone who would tolerate being the dumping ground of a man’s existential litter; for I am convinced that that’s just how the New Woman would accept candlelight revelations that had nothing to do with her or her interests. Virginia’s bright expression seems engaged, penetrating, energetic… but not “soulful”. It lacks something like leisure, or reserve, or meditative distance… a “musing” quality. Her eyes have the keen glow of a competing athlete’s, or a hunter’s.
Finding the two Madsen photos above wasn’t easy. Just to keep myself honest, I tried to select my more or less contemporary samples from photos that actually show these faces to full advantage, as I see it. (I was excoriated by one reader of the previous piece for cooking the books on this score, although I thought I had explained that I was exemplifying exactly how unflattering the commonest current poses are.) This search for graceful angles and soft lighting can be a Herculean labor on Google, which bombards one with dozens and even hundreds of photos all shot at some Hollywood reception or event or premiere or ceremony. Nobody looks good at these moments, I have concluded. Mascara beats back flashbulbs like a bullet train answering to a radar gun, fake lashes try to mime seductiveness in the midst of feeding time at the ape house, and skanky dresses probe for some compromise—unsuccessfully—between the ballroom and the Friday-night street corner. I cling to the fond notion, I admit, that Loretta Young would have navigated these Tinseltown festivities of the Red Death better than any of her less worthy heirs… but why? What did she have that they don’t have?
I would probably be verbally flayed by most female readers if I answered, “Less mascara.” I don’t know about these things, except to confess along with Socrates, “I know that I know nothing.” All the same, with the exception of all that thick red lipstick, yesteryear’s faces don’t appear nearly as made-up. The black-and-white format must have something to do with this impression, to be sure. Three out of four of the photos directly below are… how shall I say it? Shiny—almost metallic! Their illustrious owners seem to be trying to further the development of non-carbon-based energy by turning their faces into solar panels.
Again my head will probably be shot off before I can duck for cover… but let me at least try to assuage the descending criticism by acknowledging that I know almost as little about the art of photography as I do about the art of make-up. I’m sure that technical differences between our time and that of our grandparents can account for some of the effect that I am struggling to define. Beyond the black-and-white versus color issue, photos today are probably more accurate in regard to minute detail—which perhaps creates a greater need to smooth over wrinkles and blanch out moles and freckles. I would bet, as well, that most photos shot by gossip-sheet hacks and rushed to the Internet are electronically processed in some uniform, one-size-fits-all manner that pays little attention to the subject’s visual assets and liabilities. The medium, perhaps, is the final message.
Yet I doubt it. The one shot above in muted light—the second one of Jeri Ryan—completely removes the “shrink-wrap” quality of the previous one and of Zeta-Jones’s two. Both of these women, by any measure, are stunningly beautiful, or so I would affirm. But both, as well, lack that quality that I believe I observe in Madlyn Rhue’s photos: simpatia. They do not invite the male to calm down, sit down, and unburden himself of whatever torments his soul (something that every true male wants to do, I repeat, and probably needs to do). They are not at all interested in being used as the receptacle for his exorcised nightmares—as the Gadarene swine for his personal demons. Camille Paglia, in that indelicate and aggressive fashion so beloved of proto-feminists, once charged that women are mere “sperm spittoons” to men. The women in these photos, I would hazard, are determined not to be any man’s “anxiety spittoon”. They intend to busy themselves with their own lives. Their personal ordeals are quite as harrowing as any male’s—yet they will deal with these on their own, and they expect other people (especially men) to do the same. Even Jeri’s mellowed photo seems to say, “Admire my beauty—make a bid for my favors, if you think you have what it takes. I might just spare you a few minutes to pursue that ambitious enterprise. But the rest of my life… stay out of it. I’m busy. I have things to do. I’m a multi-faceted person, and your maleness interests only one of those facets.”
In fact, I recall as I write these words that Jeri’s character in one of the follow-up Star Trek TV serials delivered a supercilious tirade that substantially reproduces the one I have just put in her mouth. (I remained Trek-resistant into my later years… but if I ever spotted Jeri while channel-surfing, my fingers would freeze.) This creed, I suggest, belongs to the New Woman: hence the readiness with which Hollywood writers feed it through the beautiful lips of Space Queens. It is a radical egocentrism, openly hostile to self-sacrifice, which has been forever tarred through an association with that most oppressive myth of all, Motherhood. The New Woman says, “Go ahead, love me. Fantasize about me. Then drop me a hint, and if I like you, maybe I’ll take you home for a weekend. But bring a bag—an overnight bag, not a suitcase. You won’t be around long—I have to be in Seattle on Monday.”
I don’t know if any of Madlyn Rhue’s characters ever have said anything like this in the old Star Trek. Even if one of them had, I wouldn’t have believed her. The eyes tell a different story.
These women, rather, belong to the age of the tattoo and of various lip/nose/brow rings. Their generation of female seems to want to turn her epidermis into something mineral: a sculpted stone or a glittering coat of mail. As if she would repel instantly any male attempt to pry into her feelings and demand attention, she turns her passions and obsessions into arm- and leg-length placards. “You men can read whatever loves, hates, commitments, or crusades I care to share with the world in the tattoo’s encryption, if you wish,” she declares. “Otherwise, stay the hell out of my sentiments, if I have any—and I’m not saying that I do. No trespassers.”
Madlyn’s eyes (and Loretta’s, and Susan’s, and Susan’s) were a magnetic portal to the trespassing male—for it’s really more a matter of eyes than make-up, I’ve decided. Whether they look straight into the camera or away into a dreamy distance… whether they accompany a faint smile or appear to brood… the eyes of today’s beautiful woman just aren’t what they used to be. They calculate rather than meditate. They project rather than absorb. They are a bad-ass tattoo beneath the brow rather than a safe, shaded refuge. They are much closer to a man’s eyes—which is the whole idea, isn’t it?
Halle Berry’s expressions above certainly don’t seem threatening or sullen in the least. Neither do they seem to want to help you save your soul. Last week, I just happened to watch for the thousandth time Robert Wise’s classic and pioneering film about an extraterrestrial visitor, The Day the Earth Stood Still. (I am not, you see, inimical to all science-fiction.) It strikes me that Halle’s look above is exactly what I saw in Michael Rennie’s eyes. “You poor, pitiful Earthlings! Your petty squabbles are amusing up to a point. But do not try the patience of your superiors in the galaxy—our tolerance is not unlimited!” I gather that the re-make of Wise’s movie did not insert Halle into Rennie’s role. What a missed opportunity!
The New Woman will laugh scornfully at my nostalgia and say, “Too bad you don’t have your saloon girl to listen to you as you cry in your beer! A spittoon for your soul, who later becomes a spittoon for your other needs… a sort of toilet for the emptying of everything you want to get out of your male system!” I understand that reproach, but I don’t think it’s at all fair. I wrote of the soulful women in this essay’s first paragraphs as beings with whom a man would want to share his entire life. The ongoing exchange, I admit, would be somewhat differentiated: not unequal, but involving a trade of different gifts. The man has traditionally looked to the woman to correct his moral vision. The lady in medieval romances, for instance, typically redeemed her worshipful knight from an efficient killing machine to a hero who had learned compassion and mercy. The cult of the Virgin Mary soared to prominence in Christendom during these years. In return, the lady receives a kind of insulation from the real world’s brutal facts. Certain horrible truths about human beings are almost impossible even for the staunchest male to bear. The man screens his woman from these horrors lest her purity and idealism, which sometimes are all that keep him going, be sullied and ruined.
One could argue that the New Woman, with her insistence upon being immersed in public policy, proves the validity of this traditional exchange by demonstrating the disastrous results of its destabilizing. Idealism in the wrong places and of ridiculous proportions gives us, for example, school campuses where our children are sitting ducks for the first armed lunatic or the first van of professional kidnapper-homicides. Women and feminized men are the authors of such policies.
But I would prefer to close with another kind of rebuttal of the New Woman’s impassioned declaration of independence: a last pair of photos:
This Russian model and film star is simply gorgeous, from any angle. I do not recall when or how her images crossed my path, but I found them instantly arresting. However… however, Tolkalina is not Loretta Young, even if she is also not Jeri Ryan. It’s the eyes again. She does not seem on auto-pilot to me, ready to concede five minutes to a worshiper out of her busy schedule if she can multi-task during his pitch; but she also does not seem willing to listen to Atlas complain about how heavy the world is. Or perhaps she might be willing… but she is not able. She is too fragile. To me, she seems frightened. In some of her photos, very frightened. A lot of her online images are quasi-pornographic. What would you expect of a woman controlled by Russian media and marketers—a woman whose sole commodity is really just her ability to stir desire and look defenselessly “possessable” before degenerate male stares? Her dark eyes, prominent from any angle (though made more so by these slightly high-angle shots), dispel any impression of nullity; but the intelligence behind them, in my view, has reached the conclusion that the best of the several bad options available is to give men what they want. The willingness in those eyes is the willingness of a sex-slave who knows that she can buy her freedom one day if she cooperates.
This is where too many women end up in a world without cowboys in white hats or knights on white horses. When the New Woman is no longer surrounded by feminized men who humor her high aspirations, she becomes the prey of male predators; for degenerate men, when they do not follow the road to feminization, take the other road to soul-hating, mercy-scorning brutes. Part of the reason I miss the beautiful women of yesteryear, it turns out, is that I miss the gentlemen of yesteryear. The one is integrally related to the other. When women are uninterested in helping men master the demons in their souls, then men become demons. What a sorry exchange for both sides!
.Peter Singleton’s previous piece on this subject appeared in our 12.4 (Fall 2012) edition. Dr. Singleton resides in the North Texas area in a semi-retirement of writing, consulting, and occasional teaching.