This week, my Introduction to Film students and I are considering scars (and wounds) in Hollywood film and what they mean for the characters who bear them. As you might imagine, the marks figure differently on men and women.
For example, many Hollywood films, classic and contemporary, attribute scars to women who are highly sexual and/or independent. In Fritz Lang’s film noir The Big Heat (1953), Gloria Grahame’s character, the sexy mistress of a gangster, is brutally disfigured after her jealous lover throws a pot of scalding coffee in her face. For the remainder of the picture, she appears repulsive, unwanted, useless; her power (i.e., her beauty) is no more. In the end, the scarred woman is allowed to exact revenge on her lover by tossing hot coffee in his face, but (per the Hays Code) her independent and sexual nature is punished by death.
Similarly, during the first scene of Clint Eastwood’s revisionist western Unforgiven (1992), a cowboy slices open the cheeks of a prostitute (sexual!) because she laughs at the size of his penis (independent!). Almost immediately, like The Big Heat‘s mistress, the prostitute becomes valueless, this time literally; no man who enters the brothel wants to purchase “damaged goods.”
In these cases, scarring obviously ruins the woman’s beauty or her power. Furthermore, these films along with many others (e.g., Flesh and the Devil, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Birds, Psycho, Fatal Attraction, Thelma and Louise) suggest that strong-willed and/or promiscuous women are a danger not only to themselves, but also to the men who encounter them. Consequently, they must “learn their lesson,” usually via some form of punishment (Lehman and Luhr 269, 273).
We might contrast these scenes from The Big Heat and Unforgiven with a memorable one from Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) in which the three main (male) characters — considerably drunk and tired from bobbing on the water — compare scars, bumps, and false teeth. As each man tries to best the other, he reveals his scar and tells a story of how it came to pass. What we learn here is that, unlike the disfigured women above, these men are tougher for their experiences and wounds; they are not worthless and broken but strong, survivors. This notion of endurance is also represented via Charlton Heston’s character from True Lies (James Cameron, 1994) whose eye patch hints not at weakness but combat survival (273). See also Rocky, Rambo, Die-Hard, Braveheart, and/or most any Hollywood action-adventure film.
As I point out to my film students, there are times when male characters, like female, are negatively effected by scarring and wounding. See for example,
- Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) in The Lady from Shanghai
- L. B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) in Rear Window (below)
- Lt. Dan (Gary Sinese) in Forrest Gump (below)
- Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) in Born of the Fourth of July.
Each of these men spends the majority of the narrative tied to crutches, canes, or wheelchairs. His legs and usually genitals (i.e., his power) do not function properly. He is broken, inadequate, impotent; he cannot acquire or is not interested in women. The theory: because male characters are generally defined in active terms (muscles, agility, speed, virility), wounds to the legs result in and signify weakness, sexual and otherwise (273). In brief, women “get it” in the face, men in the legs.
This is how scarring and wounding are represented in narrative film with (mostly) fictional characters. But what about those actors who bear visible scars? Do they ever fall into the same categories as the male and female characters listed above? Is the viewer ever repulsed by the actor’s scar or does s/he even recognize it? Does the actor ever cover up or airbrush his/her disfigurement, or are his/her markings a part of his/her star persona?
Lately I’ve been writing and thinking about Gene Kelly, an actor/singer/dancer with a very visible scar on his left cheek. According to Clive Hirschorn’s biography of Kelly, the mark is the cause of a childhood bike accident:
“As a child he was singularly accident-prone, and at the age of six, while riding a tricycle without handlebars on Mellon Street [in Pittsburgh], he lurched forward on to an exposed piece of cast iron. The metal went through his cheek, causing a deep gash which bled profusely. Mrs. Kelly was out at the time, and a neighbour, hearing him cry, rushed him home, and as his wound continued to pour blood into the kitchen sink over which he was perched, she called the family doctor who stitched him up. To this day he still carries the evidence of the accident in the shape of a small, half-moon scar on the right [sic] side of his face.”
Kelly’s first wife, Betsy Blair, writes in her memoir that fans denied the bicycle story, opting instead to “invent more glamorous causes” for the hairline scar. Blair further reports that, unsurprisingly, “MGM’s publicity department didn’t discourage [the fans or their anecdotes]” (108). Kelly didn’t mind though; the scar was a part of who he was — and, according to lore, he did not want it airbrushed, touched-up, or covered heavily with makeup.
The scar was even mentioned when Kelly received the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985. Host Shirley MacLaine began by calling the little mark, “the sexiest thing I ever saw.” On a more serious note, she claimed that Kelly’s refusal to cover it up told viewers a great deal about him as an actor, dancer, and person. By turning down offers to “fix” his face, Kelly implies that actors and dancers should not lie about their performances, the emotions they are attempting to convey, or the characters they are inhabiting. After all, MacLaine concludes, Gene Kelly is not only dancing for himself and the narrative, but for each of us in the audience who dreams that one day s/he’ll also be able to dance in that manner.
While somewhat corny, MacLaine’s theory resonates. I think of the 7-inch scar down the right arm of model/Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, the result of a horrendous car accident when she was a teen. Although initially distraught about the visible mark, Lakshmi now accepts it, embraces it, leaves it uncovered. Like Kelly’s (much smaller one), her scar is a part of who she is:
“In my career as an actress, the scar is no longer an issue. I cover it when necessary, but I prefer not to, especially in my private life. I love my scar. It is so much a part of me. I’m not sure I would remove it even if a doctor could wave a magic wand and delete it from my arm. The scar has singled me out and made me who I am. [...] I’ve started seeing my body as a map of my life.” (from Vogue, April 2001)
Several stars (and singers) have visible scars: Tiny Fey, Sharon Stone, Seal, Ray Liotta, Sandra Bullock, Harrison Ford, Catherine Zeta Jones, Joaquin Phoenix, Elizabeth Taylor, Diane Lane, Humphrey Bogart, Parminder Nagra, Edward James Olmos, Adam Lambert. Their scars are the result of tracheotomies, childhood and adult acne, car accidents, adolescent tumbles, and frightening encounters with knives.
Some stars periodically airbrush their disfigurements (Stone, Zeta Jones). Some incorporate them into their film roles (Nagra, Ford, Bogart). Some prefer to be filmed from their more flawless sides (Fey). And some, like Gene Kelly, don’t seem to care at all. So are those who fall into the latter category really more transparent as people, as celebrities? Are they, as MacLaine suggests, seemingly less narcissistic and more “real” than those who rely on restorations and heavy make-up? Or conversely, are the scarred stars who insist on touch-ups the more authentic? After all, they know they are playing a part.
More on stars and their scars: