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Hollywood’s Unattainable Beauty: The Help of a Knife

At this point, it is far from controversial to say that plastic surgery is a large part of Hollywood culture. The days of the images of plastic surgery being only of those who are so-called surgery addicts are long gone and have been replaced with natural appearing beautiful faces, and the once taboo topic has now become an elite party theme where you can get botox as you mingle. Even though cosmetic surgery has not always been a comfortable topic of conversation, it has been a part of Hollywood culture since the very beginning. Hollywood culture begets surgery culture.

Ever since the concept of the star was created, people became fascinated by them. People became so fascinated with Florence Lawrence and beyond that whole movies could be marketed off of them and entire movie studios were created with the idea of them (Paramount’s selling point of having more stars than in the sky, hence the iconic logo). With that fascination came a fascination with their beauty as well as how they got it, to the point that fan magazines dedicated to the very topic emerged. While many of these stars were naturally gorgeous (or at least they claimed to be), it became known that some went the more “extreme” route and went the way of plastic surgery to secure their place on the silver screen.

Plastic surgery came into the public eye around the same time Hollywood was finding its footing. The practice started to resemble the cosmetic surgery we know today around 1910 when techniques were developed to help soldiers from World War I with various types of disfigurement they may have suffered. Hollywood quickly picked up the technique for its own use. As the studio system started signing actors to their various studios their contracts would include stipulations like a “facial and physical disfigurement clause,” that was in the contract of Molly O’Day, who was known as the “little flapper of the studios.” This clause allowed the studio to stop working with her if her appearance changed drastically enough that it “detract[ed] from her appearance on screen.” While in a way the clause prevented her from getting drastic plastic surgery, when she gained a significant amount of weight in 1927, enough that she was unable to lose it fast enough through diet and exercise alone, she had no other choice than to turn to the knife to be able to work.

By 1929 a popular fame magazine noted that the town was being filled with “beauty farms, rejuvenation palaces and plastic surgery emporiums that have sprung up around the movie center like mushrooms in a shady glen.” Stars began getting cosmetic surgery to stay in the business, hopefuls got it to get into the business, and studios encouraged some of their contracted actors to get it to turn them into stars. This included stars like Rita Hayworth who had her hairline raised and her hair dyed in order to get rid of the more “ethnic” look she had, her heritage being from Spain, in favor of something a bit more Anglo-Saxon. As Hollywood sets the beauty standards and Hollywood was and arguably still is exceedingly white.

While the studio system may no longer exist in the way the fifties once knew it, the ways that Hollywood and casting work are still largely similar. How you look determines what parts you can get, if you can get a part at all. Typecasting is a major part of Hollywood. If you look like the girl next door you will always be cast as the girl next door. This is can due to a couple of reasons. Perhaps you are just really good at being the girl next door so you are getting called for roles that are exactly that. Perhaps after seeing you as the girl next door especially after you have done multiple movies as one, the audiences might have a hard time accepting you as the sultry female lead and the horrific villain, but in acting the whole point of the profession is to be able to embody a multitude of different kinds of people.

What it really boils down to is how you look. If you look like a girl next door casting directors may have a hard time seeing you as anything but, and certainly, if your face looks villainous or far from the conventional idea of attractive you will be stuck as a villain or a character actor until the end of your career. You may never see your day as the handsome hero or beautiful heroin. Back in the studio times once you signed that contract as that character actor there was nothing you could do about it.

Louis R. Wolheim was a villainous-looking character actor that got stuck doing only roles that fit that bill. After a while, he became sick of getting cast in evil roles and people attributing his success to the non-beautiful nature of his face rather than his talent as an actor. So, he decided he wanted to change in and sought out a nose job. Problem was, at the time he had a contract similar to that of O’Day and the nose job would drastically change his appearance and therefore breach his studio contract. The studio wanted him only as that “type” so he was denied his ability to alter his face. While the idea of typecasting is still alive and well today actors have a lot more liberty over their bodies as they are not owned by studios so they are free to alter their appearances in hopes of going from monstrous villains to leading men, so they do.

Typecasting points to a much deeper problem in the industry: beauty standards. For both genders, it is seen that in order to work in this town you have to be among the most beautiful creatures to walk this Earth and if you do not fit the bill you have to change it or you have to go home. Girls who thought they were the prettiest girls in their hometowns come to Hollywood, realize they are small fish in a big pond, get insecure and get surgery, people who are conventionally attractive and don’t necessarily need to get surgery, some even feel pressured by their LA peers. Even men who back in the day feared appearing feminine for perusing their appearance, get plastic surgery at a similar rate as women maybe in ways that are less obvious than the plumping of lips but rather removing fat from unwanted areas to achieve a “manly” physique. Being in the town that sets the standard for the rest of the country means that you must fit the standard in order to be accepted into the community.

In the same vein, the beauty standards that the industry has set speak to our culture’s number one fear: our mortality. While beauty standards can still be a bit ambiguous and are constantly changing one this is for certain, aging is something to be avoided. There is an understanding in the industry that it is in some ways a young man’s game. While there are still plenty of actors working into their 50s and beyond not many are ranked among the A-list and they had to really establish themselves in their earlier years. This in-proportionately affects women over men as they are seen more often as silver foxes rather than old witches, but overall if you have not made it in Hollywood by your mid-30s then your chances of making it on to the silver screen certainly decrease as your body takes on the strains of 30+ years of life.  However, there is still hope for those Hollywood hopefuls! A nip here, a tuck there, a touch of botox, and suddenly they have shed decades off their look and are ready for their closeup. Some plastic surgeons even refer to what they do as “pushing back their sell-by date.”

The nature of Hollywood with its inhuman beauty of the elite A-list and through that its ingrained ageism made cosmetic surgery the obvious answer to the town of extremes. Even in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic $9 billion was spent on aesthetic procedures. Some of the top procedures were facial fillers, liposuction, and breast augmentation. The procedures point directly to wanting to flatten out wrinkles, to lessen aging, and losing fat, and gaining larger breasts to fit (specifically female) beauty standards.

Hollywood from the very beginning has thrived off of creating artifice and what better way than altering the faces of their stars to be unattainably perfect, well, unattainable without the help of a knife or a needle.