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From Phyllida's Desk

Beauty and Truth

It’s a truism that people become actors because they want to be someone else. But isn’t it true for everybody?

I went to a Christmas Eve party with a man I met a week earlier, at the holiday party at the Center for Fiction (formerly the Mercantile Library). Steve won me over because he told me, completely spontaneously, that I look like Bette Davis. At the Christmas Eve party, several people told me, “you are a very beautiful woman.”

Why am I reporting this vain, trivial, vaguely insulting incident? Because it reflects something important about me, something defining. Regardless of what the world tells us we should care about, or what readers think that I, as a writer, should care about, it matters greatly to me that I can still present myself as, and be recognized as, a “very beautiful woman.”

Does this mean it’s more important to me to be seen as beautiful than as witty, funny or a good writer? Not at all. All those things matter to me. But it’s interesting how they go together. I can be a good writer invisibly. It’s probably best not to have any mental image of a writer’s physical reality when reading his or her work and evaluating its quality. (Although good luck these days getting published and not providing a back-cover or jacket photo.) But, as I’m sure any performer will agree, it’s much easier to be witty when you feel beautiful.

Most of us, men and women, want to be considered good-looking. But it’s mostly women who have a kind of schizophrenic double-identity going on inside. Men tend to go for a generic model of what’s fashionable, as in the dandy look I talked about (Beau Brummell), and in the recent concept of the metrosexual. It’s more about being well-groomed or well-dressed than about good bone structure. Yes, there are women who aren’t “pretty” and are OK with that. But for many of us who are or want to be performers, there’s a sense of two selves: our everyday, drab, if not quite ugly, unremarkable self, and the star who comes out onstage and looks fabulous.

Which is the “‘true” self? The unadorned, plain, naked face? Or the glammed-up actor? One of the great examples is Lynn Redgrave, as profiled in the year-end themed issue of The New York Times magazine, The Lives They Lived (people who died in the past year). She was the disregarded, overlooked, undervalued third child in her famous family, the one who was “let go” from the National Theater of Great Britain by Laurence Olivier because she wasn’t glamorous enough (unlike older sister Vanessa) to be leading-lady material; who struggled with her weight and for a significant part of her career was a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers. Yet at her death she was acknowledged as a great actor, unique and talented.

Lucille Clifton, a poet also profiled in the “Lives” issue, said, “I think everyone has in his or her self the urge to express…. I loved words, always … and so I did it that way.” As a child, she saw her mother burn her own poems after her father forbade her to publish them. It was the “inspiration,” if we want to call it that, for Clifton’s career, told in her poem “Fury.”

Where does expressing oneself turn into becoming someone else? And isn’t the someone-else we turn into simply a better, more glamorous, sexier or wittier version of oneself? “I started acting because I was miserable and crazy and wanted to be someone else,” the actor Michael Shannon says in Sunday’s New York Times. “My dad used to say, ‘You have to become part of the machine to beat the machine,’ … But honestly, even when I’m inside the machine, you still see me. I stick out a little bit.”

I’ve heard that Norma Jean Baker could “become” Marilyn Monroe at will, simply through some sort of internal psychological transformation. But for most of us, becoming that beautiful woman/brilliant actor or comedian requires, for a start, makeup—lots of it. When I prepared to become Beautiful Ann Herendeen for the party, I devoted several hours to the process: a long shower to wash my hair and brighten my complexion with the hot water and steam; combing and picking and spraying my hopelessly damaged, colored, fine-yet-frizzy middle-aged hair; and then the careful application of foundation, eye shadow, liner and, last of all, the kind of shellac lipstick that withstands any and all foods, drinks and even, just in case, kissing.

Most women over the age of thirty wear makeup every day, and they often wonder why I don’t, especially as it provides such a dramatic transformation. Here’s why: To do a worthwhile job requires time that I don’t have on a regular workday morning, or would rather devote to sleep. With severely nearsighted eyes, I wear contact lenses in a strong prescription and, at my age, my eyes are dry. Eye makeup, which does the most to transform me, irritates my eyes further. Ultimately, it’s too much wasted effort for a job that involves sitting in front of a nonjudgmental computer screen all day (at least it isn’t judging me for my looks).

It’s also why I’ve chosen to wear a cardboard mask for my readings of Pride/Prejudice (a chapter a week in short segments on Facebook and YouTube). As I say in my introductory segment, the amount of work required to make myself look presentable on my homemade videos is prohibitive. By the time I transformed myself and did the readings, I’d be exhausted, late for bed, and would probably still look wretched in the overhead glow of my bedroom’s ceiling fixture. At the party, by contrast, the lights were low and there were other people to talk with. On stage, there’s the animation and internal spark provided by a responsive audience that counteracts the harsh lighting and brutal camera views. I’m not simply painting my face, but switching personas.

Some women I know despise the idea of making themselves look beautiful. They think it’s conforming to unrealistic cultural standards, sexist and humiliating. But that’s not what this is about for me, nor, I suspect, for my fellow performers. It’s about Who We Are. The “real” Ann Herendeen is the witty, funny—and beautiful—comedian, not the tired, gray-roots-showing librarian. The real Lynn Redgrave was the breakthrough star of Georgy Girl and the writer/performer of Shakespeare for My Father. The star is larger than life, heroic, like Superman or The Incredible Hulk. The fact that we can’t be this person every day is part of the contract. Most of the time, whether we like it or not, we have to be mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent or “withdrawn and reserved physicist Dr. Bruce Banner” (as Wikipedia describes him)

Some people are beautiful their entire lives, from childhood all the way through to old age. Most of us have to work at it. My situation is complicated by having congenital deformities that put men off at first sight. I need to be validated as beautiful occasionally, whether or not other people approve of this hunger. Every time I make the effort and become the beautiful, witty performer, I feel more like ME, less like…me. There’s no escaping the fact that the lesser me is a side of me—but with each successful transformation there’s the promise that I can spend more time on the good side.
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