Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Nose Knows

With the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival rapidly approaching, this is as good a time as any to recall former silent film star Norma Desmond's comment in1950's Sunset Boulevard: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" Each year, as I thrill to the joys of watching restored films from the silent era, one quirk quickly becomes obvious. Back in the days of vaudeville, burlesque, and silent film, people had great noses. Proud Roman noses. Protuberant honkers. Noses that could bless someone with a long career as a character actor.

Jimmy Durante goes face-to-face with a turkey

In the first half of the 20th century, cinema (along with its closeups) was a new art form. Pretty girls were readily available, but a baggy-pants comedian with a funny face and an appealing personality? Comic gold! How else could Jimmy Durante (who was originally known as "Ragtime Jimmy" for his piano work in New York City's saloons) earn the nickname "The Great Schnozzola"?

Rudolf Nureyev with Jimmy Durante

Jimmy Durante (a/k/a "The Great Schnozzola")

While it was easy for men to get away with having a big nose, women were more concerned about their beauty. Although Fanny Brice started out as vaudeville's comic ugly duckling, in 1923 she underwent rhinoplastic surgery to fix what was commonly known as a "Jewish nose." Compare the picture of her as Baby Snooks with the 40-year-old Brice's performance in a 1931 video.

Fanny Brice as Baby Snooks

In 1962, when Harold Rome's new musical, I Can Get It For You Wholesale, opened at the Shubert Theatre, 19-year-old Barbra Streisand made an impressive debut as the beleagured receptionist, Miss Marmelstein. Two years later, she was starring as Fanny Brice in Jule Styne's hit musical, Funny Girl.

A singular talent determined to achieve stardom on her own terms, Streisand refused to get her nose fixed. Instead, she found ways to turn it into an asset. Within a few years (largely through the creative costuming in her television specials), she was redefining beauty and becoming a fashion icon with exotic tastes.

Barbra Streisand in a costume from Color Me Barbra

Barbra Streisand as Daisy Gamble in 1970's
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
Barbra Streisand as Queen Nefertiti in a scene from Color Me Barbra

A profile shot of Barbra Streisand from Color Me Barbra

* * * * * * * * *
Nearly 90% of cosmetic surgeries performed in the United States (close to 15 million in 2014) are requested by women. From nose jobs to ear pinnings, from nip and tuck procedures to breast reductions, women are often more conscious of their bodies than men. In a society that cruelly taunts them for not being a "10," many women are likely to be motivated by self-loathing to undergo plastic surgery. For some performers, having work done is looked upon as a simple cost of doing business. Want to get more work? Get a face lift.

For others, complex emotions haunt their self image, such as worrying whether their spouses will still love them for who they are or, in some cases, whether they'll still be able to "bring the funny." Painfully aware that entertainment legends like Joan Rivers and Totie Fields died from complications incurred during plastic surgery, many female comics are especially cautious about undertaking elective surgical risks.

In her 99-minute documentary entitled Take My Nose, Please! (which will be screened at the 2017 San Francisco DocFest) Joan Kron follows two comic talents from their decision to have work done, through the surgery, and follows up with them after their scars have healed and they've had time to adjust to their new looks.

One of Kron's subjects is Emily Askin, an up-and-coming improv specialist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who is about to get married. Although her boyfriend insists that he loves her with or without the bump in her nose, the red-headed Emily's vulnerability and insecurity is very real (and hardly just a professional consideration).

The other patient is an older comic who has built a loyal following through her work in New York comedy clubs and recently appeared as Mamacita in Feud. The kind of neurotic Jew who has always felt ugly and will do anything for a laugh, Jackie Hoffman has appeared in such Broadway musicals as Hairspray, Xanadu, On The Town, The Addams Family, and is now appearing in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She's the kind of refreshingly blunt, New York wise-ass who, when her plastic surgeon asked if she had any questions, replied "Will I still be able to blow my husband?"

Kron's film traces a curious history of plastic surgery from when it was an exorbitantly expensive procedure that women would try to hide from the public to the way female comics like Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, and Kathy Griffin have frequently talked about their surgeries. For some people, plastic surgery is a means of taking control of their lives by rearranging their faces. For others, it reassures them that they can compete with the ingenues and "lucky ones" who were gifted with good looks at birth.

Along the way, a string of female comedians balance the authoritative talking heads (plastic surgeons, sociologists, psychologists) with blunt talk about the reality of trying to succeed in the entertainment industry. From Judy Gold and Julie Halston to Lisa Lampanelli and Adrianne Tolsch, these women don't hold back at all. One reason might be that the filmmaker knows more about plastic surgery than almost anyone behind a camera.

Filmmaker Joan Kron (Photo by: Lotta Kilian)

After years writing for publications like New York magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Star and The Wall Street Journal, Joan Kron (who majored in costume design at the Yale School of Drama) took a job at Allure magazine. Beginning in 1991, she became the first reporter to cover plastic surgery for a consumer magazine. In 1998, her book entitled Lift: Wanting, Fearing and Having a Facelift was published.

Although Kron had no previous training as a filmmaker, at the age of 81 she decided to audit a night course in social-documentary filmmaking at New York's School of Visual Arts. Her debut film rests on a solid foundation of journalism and years of speaking candidly with women who have undergone plastic surgery. Following the accidental death of her good friend, Joan Rivers, Kron wrote:
“Perhaps her most influential and controversial act was remaking her own appearance, one nip and tuck at a time. Rivers joked constantly about the ravages of aging as she morphed from homely to pretty to glamorous to ageless. She wasn't the first comedian to try plastic surgery but she was the most honest about it, admitting to small procedures as frequently as every six months after having a face lift, eye lift, and nose job. In 2005, when I profiled her for Allure, she gave Steven Hoefflin (her plastic surgeon at the time) permission to read me his notes. Nothing was off limits, not even the revelation that she was recovering from liposuction when she learned her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, had committed suicide."
"Rivers brought attention to cosmetic surgery when most people preferred to keep it a secret, and her audience was free to make their own judgments. Some asked their doctors to make them look like Rivers and others asked them not to. To Rivers, it wasn't about vanity, it was her effort to correct the inequitable distribution of youthfulness and beauty. She was well aware of how her surgery was perceived. ‘I became a big advocate of it, then I became the poster girl for it, then I became the joke of it,’ she said matter-of-factly in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the 2010 documentary about her career. She died, I'm told, in full makeup, every hair in place, thanks to her daughter who brought in the appropriate artists -- as Joan would have wanted.”
Take My Nose, Please! is a fascinating documentary which treats its subjects with care and candor. Kron's camera focuses on women who, in public, may appear to be utterly fearless yet, in private, are acutely vulnerable. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

joan kron said...

Very good story George--but one mistake that needs correcting:
Joan Rivers did not die of a plastic surgery procedure. She was having endoscopy procedure to look at her vocal cords and find the cause of her raspy voice.
Joan Kron, director of take My Nose...Please!