Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Thing of Beauty

I recently saw the French film “Le Havre” a fine story of people helping people for no other reason than to help. About midway through the film, it struck me that with one exception (the detective), every single person in the film was physically unattractive. And I had to admit that it made it just a tad more difficult to watch. It might have been my expectation forged by decades of Hollywood’s glamour girls and handsome guys, but I also considered that Hollywood’s standard exists simply because beauty is attractive. Not exactly a profound thought, but one I had been schooled to reject and now had to confront as truth— we like seeing attractive people.

As soon as I say that, I know that physical attraction is just one facet of a whole person and one easy to bypass when you know a person. Even in the Hollywood of yore, actors could make it without great looks—think Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford sharing the screen with Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor. Ultimately, we care more about substance than surface. But in the world of packaging and people, an attractive book or album cover does indeed attract and when surface and substance are married, we feel lifted slightly higher into an exalted realm. And that’s why we expect to be in the company of people mostly better-looking than us when we pay our ten dollars at the movies.

Soon after “Le Havre,” I saw “My Week with Marilyn” and that was a good companion piece, a study of beauty gone rampant, people so entranced with the mythos of Marilyn’s beauty that upright English citizens of the Empire felt their stiff-upper lips go slack when she passed on the street and gave up any pretense of propriety, simply dropped everything and rushed over bewitched by her blonde top and bouncing bottom. And also a good meditation on a frail human being who was the prisoner of her own beauty, exhausted by the work of trying to live up to the image of Marilyn Monroe at the expense of the vulnerable, aching-for-love person inside. But alongside your desire to know that person (and here I’m speaking as a straight man), you couldn’t help but be bewitched along with the rest of the people who stopped and stared when she passed by. When she was in the picture, she trumped everything and every one around her.

Though sometimes loathe to admit it in the face of the damage it does to women in particular trying to live up to a pre-fabricated image, we would do well to say out loud that beauty attracts. For those who have it (and here I am not speaking from personal experience!), it is a gift and a curse. Most would probably not willingly trade it, but it can cover up or cover over or confuse the greater character inside the package. We know that those without it (think Gandhi and Mother Teresa) can achieve extraordinary things and that those with it can be extraordinarily superficial and destructive. And it also is important to note that beauty in people is often entirely subjective, both personally and culturally. Big-bottomed women are desperately dieting in the U.S. while they are the standard of sexiness in Ghana. Years ago in India, a pot-bellied man was a symbol of wealth and power. And even in the U.S., Marilyn Monroe’s 1950’s slightly-plump figure would have disqualified her to be a 1980’s super-model.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” wrote Keats, but when it comes to the human body, it’s more like 50 or 60 years. Hard to imagine Marilyn as an 80-year old doing films. So while we preen and fuss, reject or support a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry, begin from the fact of physical beauty as nature’s delight with aesthetic display, let’s also pay attention to the inner beauty that doesn’t corrode with time. And remember, as the couple in “Le Havre” showed us, that love creates beauty and that, as Marilyn showed us, beauty can repulse genuine love.

More to say, but I have an appointment with my hair-transplant doctor. 

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