Sunday, December 20, 2009

The puzzle of "plain"

In which our Diva does not think Miss Lucas so very plain, but then she is our particular friend

When playing a historical or literary character, there's both a blessing and a curse in the easy availability of other people's opinions about that person. I understand -- intellectually, at least -- why many actors avoid those opinions. (Some with a fervor generally reserved for, say, Barney the purple dinosaur.) Especially when there's a breadth of opinion available, it takes a little doing to take them objectively, with particular care needed to deal with the most thoughtful and the most forceful.

Even before my recent few months of living with Charlotte Lucas, I'm pretty sure I would have rolled my eyes at some of the criticism I've seen. I've always had a soft spot for Charlotte. But that little pang of taking it a bit personally, that's new. Kind of fun, though, if you keep it in its place.

In my various reading around for that show, I rediscovered something that I really already knew: Even more than "the one who marries Mr. Collins" (whether out of simple pragmatism or outright gold-digging selfishness depends on whom you ask, and I'm not even going to touch the blog post I ran across that accused her of duping Collins into thinking she loved him -- as if love and marriage had any bearing on one another in HIS thinking!), she's always "the plain one." Not quite so repetitively as Mary Bennet, perhaps, who has the misfortune to be lost in the middle a sparkling set of sisters. But it's certainly a defining characteristic fixed in people's minds, giving rise to perennial debates as to, for instance, whether Lucy Scott in the 1995 miniseries is "too pretty" for the role.

Which is why one of the first things I noticed about Christina Calvit's script is that the word is not used to describe a person even once.

The closest thing to it in reference to Charlotte is Mrs. Bennet's dismissal of Bingley's having danced first with Charlotte at the Meryton Assembly: "But he did not admire her at all -- nobody can, you know." Nor is her age -- twenty-seven, the Austen point-of-almost-no-return that she has in common with Persuasion's Anne Elliot -- specifically mentioned, though that "She will finally be married!" near the close of the first act is crystal-clear. "The only recourse for a young woman of small fortune" was nearly out of her reach... why?

By the same token, I've seen praise for versions like the Keira Knightley film for showing Charlotte as "actually plain" -- which apparently means dowdy clothes and careless hair. Which, to me, makes very little sense. It seems to me to be projecting onto her the modern idea of an intelligent woman who rejects the trappings of beauty as frivolous. It seems to me, though, that her very intelligence and pragmatism dictate that she make herself as attractive as possible. She's the firstborn daughter of a man with a title but relatively little wealth, and her stated and confirmed goal is to secure her future by marrying well. She's not going to accomplish that by looking like she's given up, and she's too smart not to know that.

My Charlotte, then, was perhaps a little awkward. A little self-conscious of being not as pretty as Lizzy or Jane. Whether that self-image is factual or not doesn't matter. Red hair wasn't terribly popular then, so that was to my advantage, as was the simple expedient of using less makeup than I normally would for stage, resulting in a generally washed-out impression. I didn't have to be a mess for the audience to believe the eligible male attention would be fixed on those younger friends.

So that solved my approach to what "plain" meant for this particular role. But the expression itself? That's a bigger question.

I remember studying the illustrations in fairy-tale editions of my childhood, searching for the oddly elusive meaning in context of that very simple word: Plain. While its usage in the stories told me it was some sort of contrast to the "beautiful" heroine, it was obvious even to my eight- or nine-year-old mind that there were nuances I found murky, which were probably crystal clear to the readers/audiences of the time in which the tales were written down.

That time, I know now, was mostly the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, and sure enough, it's in the literature of that age -- Austen, the Bronte sisters -- that I found more instances of this linguistic enigma to ponder.

During rehearsals for P&P, out of curiosity, I took an informal poll of my online friends and acquaintances. What emerged was a pretty equal balance of two basic interpretations, with a third clocking several votes as well:

One, that it's genteel code for "ugly," reserved for people (mostly, but not entirely, women -- Austen in particular applied it to several male characters) whose class and/or breeding made it taboo to openly describe them as such.

Two, that it refers to someone who's neither beautiful nor ugly, but somewhere in between. There's division within this one on whether it means that the person is entirely nondescript, or that they could have some distinctive features that would disqualify them from "beautiful." (Which merges at the edge into the first interpretation, depending on how narrowly the standard of beauty is defined and how little deviation is tolerated before a person is considered outright ugly. Told you this was complicated, didn't I?)

The third, less common interpretation had less to do with a person's actual physical structure, and more with their demeanor and style -- that a "plain" person was one who did not stand out, but with more glamorous trappings and confidence they might be considered beautiful. One answer in this category equated it with "Hollywood homely," and there's another word -- "homely" -- that one could puzzle over for ages!

Though the first two are the ones that have always played tug-of-war in my head when I ran across a "plain" character in a story, it's this third one I find intriguing me the most. And the one that just might be the most accurate after all. Even if you've never heard that "Hollywood homely" phrase above, I'm betting you knew immediately what it meant: Take a perfectly attractive (if not outright gorgeous) woman, add insecurity and an unfashionable hairstyle and/or clothing, play down every feature a makeup artist is trained to play up, and top off with optional glasses. Boom! Instant "plain."

Real-life women who don't consider themselves attractive (which is, sadly, the vast majority in our society) are then supposed to identify with this creature, but there's a problem: They see right through it. Or they think they do. It's a trick, they say. Under all that stereotype is just another knockout actress.

Sometimes they're right. Sometimes -- usually in cases where the character in question goes through an ugly-duckling transformation (or, as they call it over at TVTropes -- which I will warn you right now is one of the most time-suckingly fascinating sites on the entire Internet, so proceed with caution! -- "Beautiful All Along") -- the actress in question is someone with the kind of flawless physical structure that might make her jump at the chance to have a different image (however silly we all pretty much think it is these days) for part of a movie, in hopes of eventually, somewhere, getting something that will allow her to stretch the chops she's trained for.

(Yes, I know drop-dead-gorgeous-without-a-speck-of-makeup actors -- even guys -- who have to live with that. No, I will never, ever say, "Gee, we should all have such problems." I've seen how much harder they have to work to be taken seriously, especially if they were *gasp* models first. But that's mostly another topic.)

An awful lot, though, I see the "Hollywood homely" label applied to people like Judy Greer or Janeane Garafolo, who've spent much of their career playing best friend to one freakishly gorgeous lead or another. (Yep, we're totally talking about my type here, so I probably think about this more than most people.) And so often I see comments to the effect of "Yeah, but she only looks plain next to THAT. She's perfectly attractive by the standards of the real world."

Which is true as far as it goes... except when it comes from women who I would consider to be equally so, but they don't believe that. They may or may not have realized that, with the careful styling, makeup and lighting going into every frame of film we see, we would ALL look that good. And even if they do, chances are good that they wouldn't be able to see themselves in that light if they tried. Thank you, modern Western culture! *raspberry*

Meanwhile, on the other side of that equation, a lot of the stars I think of as "acknowledged gorgeous" weren't always considered so. Not everyone who captures the public imagination is a flawlessly structured freak of nature. An awful lot of them weren't regarded -- or even cast -- as All That early in their careers, but as they became bigger stars and appeared in more glamorous images, the established opinion shifted. Don't believe me? Look at Jennifer Aniston. Gillian Anderson (the glamorization of Scully over the seasons as The X-Files gained audience is a textbook case). Cate Blanchett. Brittany Murphy.

Not a one of them started out as a bombshell. Now the captions on the red-carpet photos sanction every one of them as gorgeous.

This isn't anything new, of course. Raise your hand if you guessed this winding path would eventually lead back to Lizzie Siddal. (Hey, at least I'm consistent!) Who was, contrary to the romanticized version of the story you run across a lot, discovered because Walter Deverell wanted a Viola for his Twelfth Night painting who could look like a boy. Early letters and other papers of the Pre-Raphaelites indicate that most of them initially regarded her as -- you guessed it -- plain. Her height, angularity, red hair, all worked against her according to the standards of mid-nineteenth-century England.

(I crack up every time I read William Holman Hunt's description of her as "like a queen, magnificently tall." Dude. It's 1851. Your queen is FIVE FEET TALL.)

But the point is, fast-forward a couple years, and Rossetti and the boys have established Lizzie as the archetypal "stunner," and basically nobody admits ever thinking she was anything but amazingly beautiful.

I don't know exactly what the magic formula is of style, confidence, good press, and the herd mentality of the public. But at the end of the day, an awful lot of it really is smoke and mirrors. (Even before the spectre of the airbrush figures into the equation!)

I've wandered rather astray from the "plain" question, though of course it's all related and interlocking and scrambled. One thing that did strike me in the course of this little quest was, while I had assumed it was basically an archaic usage, people actually do still use it! And not just in historical romance novels! I'm suddenly noticing it in movie reviews, casting breakdowns, even several times on that TVTropes pages I linked earlier. People use it like any other word, with the implicit assumption that people reading it will understand it to mean the same thing the writer is thinking.

And the thing that still interests me is that I'm not sure that's ever been the case.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting read and I agree with what you're saying about beauty and its relation to cinema. On a superficial note, I have had the fortune of meeting Cate Blanchett in person a few times and she is anything but plain. Her looks are so incredibly different from anyone else in the industry and because of her paleness she stands out. She is striking with or without makeup. However, I do agree with Gillian. I think the attraction with her was her clean look with dramatic red hair and ultimately her intelligence. To be beautiful and intelligent in this industry is hardly commonplace, so when you do get those, you get the public glorification.

Lora said...

I often wonder what it would be like to have the makeup, and the lighting and all that just once to see the results, to see if I suddenly thought I was stunning by the effect of it all.

Anonymous said...

Food for thought, this entry. The automatic connection between cinematic charisma and beauty is something I would question, though. For example, I agree with Anonymous Cate Blanchett is strikingly beautiful. I saw Gillian Anderson in person, twice, not with a ton of make-up. That woman is simply gorgeous, you (generic you) literally can't take your eyes off her. These observations make me think the camera intensifies the viewer's "romance" with the actor's face, but there has to be something in that face to ignite that romance in the first place.

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