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The Flaw That Punctuates Perfection

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The most significant cultural event of the year may well be the rise of actor Owen Wilson’s nose. Wilson (“Zoolander,” “Shanghai Noon” and “Behind Enemy Lines,” which opens today) is the most recent blond hunk to come out of Hollywood, the same beauty factory that has churned out Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey, to name but a few. The strange part is that Wilson, while charismatic and sexy, has far more in common with Jimmy Durante than he does with Mel Gibson.

For Wilson’s nose is beyond broken--it’s a broken nose as designed by a drunken claymator: a bulbous, dented, twisted lump that sits above his pouty pink lips looking every bit like a loaf of golden-brown challah bread. Yes, Owen Wilson appears to have broken the pretty boy mold--face first.

This is a development that has been a long time coming, as flawed beauty is inevitably more fascinating than perfection. The celebration of oddness as a form of beauty is rarer in women than in men. Aside from Ellen Barkin, with her meltingly crooked smile, the few examples that come to mind often end in tragic efforts at reform.

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Jennifer Grey famously bruised her career when she bobbed her nose. And then there’s actress turned talk show host Ricki Lake. Before she became a mistress of daytime inanity, Lake was cult director John Waters’ favorite teen odalisque. Lake wasn’t just plump, she was downright obese. But when fat little Ricki hit the dance floor in “Hairspray,” you never saw a more fluid, vixenish creature move. She was powerfully fascinating, radiating romantic confidence. Lake’s fat was what made her, literally, buoyant. Nowadays, the slimmed-down, grown-up woman has all the allure of a mean shift supervisor at the DMV.

Does this mean that we should immediately take to carbo-loading at Krispy Kreme? Of course not. It just means that sometimes the body is sexier when the soul rather than the ego is free to do the decorating.

The French have a term for a person who is beautiful because of her flaws: jolie-laide for women and beau-laid for men. They mean, literally, pretty-ugly and handsome-ugly, respectively. Coco Chanel is jolie-laide’s perfect embodiment, a plain little woman who turned herself into a legendary beauty by playing up her own oddness. Chanel likely turned over in her grave at the thought of Claudia Schiffer modeling for her line, so aware was she of the need for a touch of ugliness to set the imagination on fire with beauty. Christina Ricci, with her doughy body, bulbous forehead and sunken eyes, would be a much better spokesmodel for Chanel than any of the nymphets recently picked for the job. Wilson, who is neither pretty nor ugly but is decidedly beautiful, perfectly captures the essence of the beau-laid: His preposterous nose automatically gives his face a rebellious quality (after all, he could easily have had the thing fixed at any Beverly Hills chop shop, and the fact that he didn’t speaks volumes for his sense of self). It also gives him a hint of mystery; you have to peer around the nose to get a glimpse of Wilson’s beauty, which makes it all the more desirable a prize. This makes the appreciation of Wilson a strangely intimate experience: In the darkness of the theater, you feel as though you could adopt Wilson as your own personal sexiest man alive, without ever having to share him with the cover of People.

This kind of phenomenon is not entirely unprecedented. In the 1990s, Patrick Stewart single-handedly made male pattern baldness sexy while playing Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Lesser men would have cried, “My kingdom for a rug!,” or shaved the dome wholesale in a pretentious, King-of-Siam fake-out attempt. Not Stewart. He simply trimmed his gray fringe and carried on with a blustery Shakespearean bearing that made Olivier look like some geek from the cast of “Friends.”

Of course, television and the movies have long harbored secretly sexy stars with seriously flawed features, though usually as villains: The great Robert Mitchum’s eye bags gave him that aura of dangerous world-weariness that is impossible to resist. Forest Whitaker’s lazy eye and lumpy, lopsided face are tools for working voodoo-like charms that could rouse an audience from the dead. And “Gladiator” villain Joaquin Phoenix’s scar, a great gash that bifurcates his upper lip, made his smolderingly handsome face vulnerable. For vulnerability--or the hint of it--is the key to genuine attractiveness. Women, it can be said, have an innately vulnerable quality that men lack, if only by virtue of their being naturally prone to motherhood. With men, the flaw on the surface hints at a way of getting inside.

This is why many perfectly handsome men fail to be truly sexy. George Hamilton, for all his bronzed pulchritude, was barreling toward self-parody even by the time “Where the Boys Are” came out in 1960. Lacking the sheer magnificence of, say, Burt Lancaster, Hamilton had a garden-variety perfection that made him trivial and uninteresting. Fortunately, he appears to have a sense of humor about it in those TV commercials where women flock around him to look at his computer--a machine, the ads imply, that is sexier than Hamilton’s vaunted tan.

Fortunately, men seem to be figuring out that emulating David Cassidy into your 50s may not be such a wise course of action. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, while the overall numbers for cosmetic procedures have gone up 173% from 1997 to 2000, the rates for what have long been the most popular procedures for men have actually dropped. Nose jobs among men are down 7%, and ear jobs (otoplasty) are down 11%, while the demand for hair transplants has fallen off by a steep 30%. Male face lifts have also declined by 1% over the same period of time but plummeted 14% in 1999 and 2000 alone.

It’s all to the good. If only Arnold Schwarzenegger had gone craggy instead of squeezing his cheekbones into a face that seems three sizes too small. Former Dodger outfielder Matt Luke got it right. Luke, who looks a little like Scott Glenn, always had quite a female following despite heavy scarring left over from multiple childhood surgeries to remove a hairy birthmark that had covered a large portion of his face. At age 12, Luke had had enough of the knife and refused further reconstruction, deciding to concentrate on being cool by becoming really, really good at sports. Well, it worked like gangbusters. As a Yankee, a Dodger and later a Milwaukee Brewer, Luke received numerous calls from plastic surgeons who offered to “fix” his face; he casually refused, saying, “My scars are who I am.” As a result of this defiant confidence, Luke has always been eerily attractive to his female fans, not to mention his gorgeous wife.

It may be a good sign that this year’s most popular hero, Harry Potter, has a scar on his forehead and wears taped-together glasses and a bad haircut.

All in all, this may mean that the traditional nose job and ear tuck may not be an inevitable part of the Hollywood rite of passage for much longer. Let’s hope that next year’s crop of hopefuls find they do much better on the audition circuit after a sound beating with the ugly stick.


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