THE FACE OF BEAUTY
I think it’s cool being older – I still get hit on. People are always telling me how beautiful I am now. It’s like they are almost incredulous because the old stereotype is that we shouldn’t get more beautiful with age. I have respect for the body and live in harmony with nature. That’s where beauty comes from. ~ Marilyn Alex, age 70
People often stop me now and tell me I’m beautiful. I never had this happen when I was younger. So for me aging has, at least on the surface, made others more interested in me and who I am. ~ Betty Silverstein
This week I’ve been contemplating the idea of really seeing and appreciating something for exactly what it is … and giving thanks for it. All suffering comes from resistance to what is and that resistance is caused by our thoughts about what is. If we let go of our thoughts and simply allow ourselves to fully present with what is, resistance uncurls it’s fingers and we are able to rest and take joy in what we already have.
Actors, and women in particular, are constantly aware of how we look. Our faces and bodies are the first step towards getting the audition and booking the job. We tell the story through the instrument of our bodies and the expressions on our faces. We have to consider that extra weight, not enough hair, too many wrinkles or lines or asymmetrical features will, indeed, have a bearing on whether or not we work or at the very least the types jobs we are able to book and the characters we are able to play. It’s not the sum total of what we can do but it is absolutely part of it. To deny this reality is to bury one’s head in the sand. To allow oneself to become enslaved to this reality, however, is a burden that stifles creativity and expression.
It’s so easy to go down the road of comparison … to spin in one’s head that someone else is prettier or better or luckier or skinnier. There’s some vague idea of perfection that hangs over our heads and does a great job of convincing us that we haven’t achieved it yet but we might have a shot if we just run faster, think harder, eat less, do more, start the plastic surgery early enough, win the award, get more people to think we’re amazing, hear enough validation … it never ends. We won’t ever get there because this idea of perfection that’s swirling around in the ether simply doesn’t exist. We are chasing a phantom and it’s driving us crazy.
As I meditated on these thoughts it came to me that all we really need in our business is a face and body that functions well enough to tell a story. And do we already have this? Yes, we do. We’re in the business of telling human stories and the human race has more variety than we can imagine. Does my face allow me to be seen by a camera and an audience? Yes, it does. Do my facial muscles move enough to allow me to express emotion? Yes, they do. Is my body able to move well enough on set? Yes, it is. Do I feasibly represent the characters I’m portraying? Yes, I do. Are there interesting stories waiting to be told about old people and young people, smart people and ignorant people, athletic people and handicapped people, white people and black people, straight people and gay people, glamorous people and ordinary people? Yes, there are. Knowing all of this, am I able to do my job as an actor? Yes, I am. And knowing all of this, does it ultimately matter if – in my thoughts about it – someone else is prettier, younger, thinner or more accomplished than I am at this moment? No. It doesn’t.
Remember Charla Nash, whose face was ripped off by a chimpanzee? Or all of the women in the world today whose husbands and boyfriends and brothers intentionally burn their faces with acid? Just writing these sentences gives me chills. I think about these women whenever I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself. Just to have a face – a normal, ordinary, functioning face – is so overwhelmingly fortunate that we should fall to the ground in gratitude whenever we take the time to really see what we already have.
I care about the work. I care about getting inside the experience of another human being and conveying the truth of that experience as accurately as I can. If I’m concerned about how I look while I’m doing that then I’m not really inside the story and I’m not doing my job. I am, as my teacher would say, a liar. Maybe appearances would matter more to me if I was after the Hollywood studio A-list kind of stuff but that’s not what I care about. I want to tell stories about transformation … stories that have the potential to change someone’s life because they allow tiny shifts in awareness to take place. This kind of work would be impossible if we bowed down to the notion that we must all look the same, talk the same, believe the same and for the love of god never age past our twenties. Sorry, that’s the not the kind of scary alien planet I want to live on.
I’ll never forget the experience of watching Ingmar Bergman’s phenomenal films Scenes from a Marriage and Saraband back-to-back. The films utilized the same pair of actors and were filmed 32 years apart. They qualify as great works of art and could not have happened without the actors’ commitment to their craft over their vanity.
They must be in their 80s now; in real life, Josephson is 81 and Ullmann 65. Because Bergman’s films can be seen again and again, and because he believes the human face is the most important subject of the cinema, we are as familiar with these two faces as any we have ever seen. I saw Ullmann for the first time in Bergman’s Persona (1966), which I reviewed seven months after I became a film critic. Now here she is again. When I interviewed her about Faithless at Cannes five years ago, I noted to myself that she had not, like so many actresses, had plastic surgery. She wore her age as proof of having lived, as we all must. Now I see Saraband and the movie is possible because she did not allow a surgeon to give her a face yearning for its younger form. ~ Roger Ebert
I hope that I’m fortunate enough to do the kind of work Liv Ullmann has been able to do and that, when I’m her age, I still look like myself – an ordinary, functioning, grateful human being.