Hair Apparent

By Tindara Sidoti-McNary

Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig, Our Friends in the North, 1996

Do you remember the acclaimed nineties BBC drama that brought actors Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig to popular attention? I recall it fondly as ‘Our Wigs in the North’. You see, friends, I have a problem with hair and make-up. The anachronistic mullet, the dreadful syrup, the misplaced pout; I cannot rest when it doesn’t work in a TV or film drama. Immune to the frustrated protestations of my viewing companions, I just can’t ignore it and be another brick in the fourth wall. The distraction of an obvious scratchy looking wig or time travelling bonce infuriates me deeply, often forcing me to shout obscenities about fringes at the telly.

Hair and make-up are a really important element of any production. This becomes all too apparent when it goes wrong, as can be evidenced by many costume dramas produced over the years. Austen adaptations, for instance, are a rich seam of bad hair and anachronistic maquillage. You can almost chart the fashions by the period in which they were made. Beige sixties lips, horrible wigs, they’ve got it all.

In Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 Pride and Prejudice a brylcreemed Larry Olivier Darcy woos Greer Garson who is sporting a distinctly forties look. Max Factor had obviously been doing his thing for a while when this was made. The vast crinolines also give a strange Scarlett O’Hara air to the Bennet sisters and it’s obvious that this was made the year after smash hit Gone with the Wind.

Greer Garson and Laurence Oliver, Pride and Prejudice, 1940

Certainly, anyone who has ever seen a sixties or seventies film will know that they frequently prove themselves the decades that authenticity forgot with literary adaptations featuring blue eye make-up and backcombed bouffants, one of the most memorable being Diane Cilento in the bawdy romp Tom Jones,  where she gives Monica Vitti a run for her money: I’m not sure Henry Fielding would approve of the cat’s eye look.

Diane Cilento, Tom Jones, 1963

Conversely, some productions do realize its importance; the nineties BBC revision of Pride and Prejudice was a lavish production featuring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. The hair, make-up and costume design was fairly authentic, but there is a bit of character development in the hairstyle. It’s all very symbolic, the more obnoxious the Bingley sisters get, the sillier and more extravagant their dos. The Bennet girls have more ‘down home’ barnets, but each of theirs points to their character; Lydia’s is wild and slightly unkempt, Mary’s is far more structured and slightly puritan, and so on.

Julia Sawalha, Jennifer Ehle, Susannah Harker, Lucy Briers, Polly Maberly, Pride and Prejudice, 1995

Even in the more self-consciously masculine film world of the Coen brothers this kind of detail is given a special significance. The Coens apparently paid particular attention to hair in No Country for Old Men. Javier Bardem’s alarming bowl cut is such a humdinger of a style, when I first saw it at a London Film Festival Surprise screening, I leant over to my sister and whispered “But Sid, what about the girls!?” Bernard Bresslaw has never looked so good. The Coens actually chose this hairstyle specifically, to make the character look ridiculous. It’s a bold move and in playing with your expectation of character, it’s comparable with Sergio Leone’s casting of Henry Fonda in Once Upon A time in the West heightening the surreal nature of the Coens’ style. There is no doubt that the character is a ruthless and cold blooded killer, but the incongruous hairstyle makes for a comedic element to the characterisation.

l: Bernard Bresslaw, Carry On Matron, 1972
r: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men, 2007

When it comes to hair indicating personality traits another of my favourites is Mark Wahlberg in The Departed. Wahlberg’s character is uptight with a hair-trigger temper and his parted and restrained hair is just right.  Wahlberg has spoken about disagreements with Martin Scorsese about hair during filming; Scorsese wanted Wahlberg to cut his hair but he was growing it for another role. I’m glad to hear a director of this calibre feels it’s that important, but don’t worry Marty, it was brilliant and worked perfectly. Particularly in the final scenes where he stalks the joint with a shotgun wearing plastic shoe covers like a Cillit Bang avenging angel.

Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg, The Departed, 2006

Do you have any examples of egregiously bad hair or make-up in a film? Of course, we can’t discuss bad hair without mentioning some of the worst offenders. John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, I’m looking at you. Where would we be without some of Hollywood’s favourite baldies entertaining us with their seriously awful hairpieces? Sean Connery is still lauded as one of the most attractive men in the world, despite his shocking wigs. Perhaps they’re just not charming enough to hair and make-up.

Tindara Sidoti-McNary is an art and film geek and fatshionista. Special interests include artist filmmakers and lipstick. She tweets as @Tindara

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9 thoughts on “Hair Apparent

  1. I too am an inverterate bad hair spotter. Billy Zane in “Titanic” springs to mind. The real culprits are the movies and telly dramas featuring WW1 and WW2 and possibly anything up to the mid-50s especially series like Downton and Upstairs. The male actors simply cannot bring themselves to have a short-back-and-sides. Just look at early photos of Edwardian to Georgian (VI) period. Hardly any coiffures, just shaved up the back of the neck and round the ears. I should know, I was one of ’em. The women are just the same, no, not short b & s but more attractive hairstyles than there ever was in reality. Like Tindara, I offer groans of despair at the screen and sometimes get so totally distracted by the hair and makeup that I miss bits of (perhaps crucial) dialogue.

  2. Great piece. I always like it when they go for proper period ugly hair in Victorian costume drama – the recent Jane Eyre adaptation was v good at this even though I wasn’t mad about the film generally.

  3. Ewan McGregor in Emma confirms your attention to Austen adaptations. He was really amusing when talking about it at the time (funnier still about how much he hated his own performance, muttering ‘shut the fuck up, Frank’ when he saw it for the first time). Here you have to wonder if it comes off with the hat.

  4. Frank Churchill of course is famous for scandalising Hertfordshire society by going to London for a haircut.

    Really fun piece!

    The blog, not the hair.

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