Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Power of Plain vs. Aristocracy of Appearance

More on the topic of the aristocracy of appearance. There's an article in The Age (see below) on starlets who are miscast in classic roles. The chief example is selection of acresses to portray Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. I'm most familiar with Jennifer Ehle in the role so it's hard for me to judge others, but I agree with the author of the piece that Keira Knightley seems to have too much glam to play Lizzy well.

Here's a little table I put together from the Internet Movie Database with stills lifted from some Google image searches.

The character 'Elizabeth Bennet' has been played by:

Celia Bannerman . . . Pride and Prejudice (1967) (TV)

Jennifer Ehle . . . "Pride and Prejudice" (1995) (mini) TV Series

Greer Garson . . . Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Elizabeth Garvie . . . "Pride and Prejudice" (1980) (mini) TV Series

Kam Heskin . . . Pride and Prejudice (2003)

Keira Knightley . . . Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Curigwen Lewis . . . Pride and Prejudice (1938) (TV)
She is Desdamona in this photo.

Daphne Slater . . . "Pride and Prejudice" (1952) (mini) TV Series
Daphne Slater is on right; this is not a still from Pride and Prejudice.

Here's the citation for the article in The Age together with some extracts:

The power of plain
August 20, 2005


Can a beautiful female actor do justice to characters who aren't supposed to be beautiful? Can they really channel the power of the plain? In theory, a good actor can convince us of anything, can make us believe them dowdy or ordinary despite their facial geometry, and give us the interior life instead.

But in practice, on the screen, exterior beauty often proves the most effective shorthand for any interior goodness. We all know intuitively what research confirms: the beautiful get the breaks. An overview of beauty research from the past 30 years, published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2004, found that study after study confirmed the "what is beautiful is good" assumption.

Looking at a symmetrical face with large eyes, small nose and high cheekbones attached to an evenly proportioned, slender female body, people would credit the woman in the picture with hidden qualities - the pretty woman was intelligent, socially adept, loveable, successful.

Keira Knightley is a very beautiful young actress, not yet one-and-20, who looks as sweet and skittish as a young filly, right down to the lanky shanks and aristocratic cheekbones. Her career has certainly bolted - since she played the spunky tomboy in 2002's Bend It Like Beckham, she's worked on 16 films. And now she's about to star in what is fast becoming the key role in the classy starlet's rung-climbing repertoire, Elizabeth Bennet, in yet another remake of Pride and Prejudice.

Knightley is yet another actress completely unsuited to the part because she is far too pretty. In the carefully calculated measurements of Jane Austen's socio-economic treatise masquerading as a love story, Lizzie was at best the second prettiest of the five Bennet sisters, and occasionally relegated to third behind the tarty Lydia. She was certainly not a doe-eyed stunner like Knightley, even if the actress is a little undernourished to make a convincing Regency era beauty. No, Lizzie may have been cuter than some of Austen's other heroines, but part of her allure comes from the power of the plain.

It's a power that many of the great women writers have harnessed directly from their own lives, but it's something that has never translated well to the screen. Books link readers directly to the interior lives of their heroines, but the camera needs the beauty out on the surface, where the audience can fall in love with it faster. In novels, other characters are wooed by wonderful minds, and infer beauty from what's within. On film, a plain face has to work so much harder to persuade people. It's so much easier to start with the lovely, but it loses so much. The great women novelists of the 19th century had no great interest in the great looking; among the first to trade on their brains rather than their appearance, they created characters who also had greater interior than exterior worth. And in a world where women still are judged on face value, the power of the plain is a large part of the reason why these characters are still loved.

As a writer, Austen mistrusted beauty as a sign of inner goodness but she respected its worth as a woman's most marketable asset. "To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain for the first 15 years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive," she notes in Northanger Abbey. Many of her heroines are plain girls: Catherine, Fanny and Anne, the muted creature at the heart of her last novel, Persuasion.

"Her bloom had vanished early; and as even in its height, her father had found little to admire in her (so totally different were her delicate features and mild dark eyes from his own), there could be nothing in them, now that she was faded and thin, to excite his esteem."

Researchers this year have argued that the beautiful really are smarter because they are the product of pretty women mating with intelligent men and passing on a double dose of genetic goodness.

But in a world, as the man who narrates the trailers would say, where all the women are beautiful, the value of beauty can be strangely devalued. Many films are populated with stunners but the plot demands that nobody notice.

1 comment:

GobberGo said...

You've been blogged about!

I found this when I installed a beta Google/Blogger Web Comments extension for Firefox. You should check out the extension too. I went to your site and it popped up in the bottom right corner with info about what Blogger blogs link to it. It will probably become annoying soon, but it's simple to disable/enable the pop-up, so problem solved.

In fact, Google's got a couple Firefox-only extensions in the works that I didn't know about. The "Safe Browsing" one--which analyzes the site you're visiting to determine if it's a phishing site--is a good idea, only it works best when it sends lots of information about the sites you visit to Google. A tough call. I have it disabled. Might not even want to keep using it, because I think I'm pretty good at protecting myself in the first place.