Pretty Pictures

Movies are all about “looking.” Film critics have written at length about the “camera’s gaze” and its ability to turn people into objects. Hollywood, beginning with the “studio look” and glamorous star system, and continuing with today’s computer-enhanced spectacles, has always strived to present beautiful locations and beautiful people. Even war is rendered beautiful in films like “Black Hawk Down” and “Apocalypse Now.”

Maybe it is because movies are so prone to capturing beauty that actual examinations of the idea are more rare than we might expect. Often the strategy is to present a beautiful surface, elegantly framed and perfectly designed, in order to suggest the ugliness beneath (a trick used by directors like Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock).

Television has been even less inclined to bring anything but pretty pictures into American living rooms, but recent shows like “Mad Men” and “Nip/Tuck” have excelled at exposing the ugly side of glamorous industries. And then, of course, there are those Kardashians and real housewives, reminding us that beauty may be skin deep but ugly goes right to the bone. Here are four entertaining meditations on the nature of beauty available on DVD.

 

“Miss Congeniality” (2000)

Sandra Bullock, already America’s sweetheart, established herself as a powerhouse producer with this smash hit; part action comedy, part Pygmalion rom-com, part “girl power” movie. Bullock plays maverick FBI agent Gracie Hart, ordered to go undercover at a beauty pageant (excuse me, “scholarship pageant”) to thwart a domestic terrorist. With its thriller plot firmly established, “Miss Congeniality” shifts into chick-flick mode delivering the fantasy transformation of awkward tomboy into beauty queen.

Key to this transformation is Michael Caine as an on-the-outs pageant coach who molds geeky Gracie into a picture of elegance (when she isn’t tripping over her high heels). Caine’s committed fairy godfather is also the key to the movie’s success, adding both a sense of movie history and down-to-earth believability to the proceedings.

Once Gracie is dropped into the pageant world, the movie becomes a fish-out-of-water tale and then, due to the chemistry between Bullock and a fellow agent played by Benjamin Bratt, it flirts with romantic comedy. This genre-jumping works surprisingly well, informed by the tension between beauty pageants as spectacle for men (FBI agents constantly peeping via hidden cameras) and the insecurities felt by women forced to compete against each other.

None of this ever gets too heavy or cruel (for that see Michael Richie’s pageant satire “Smile”) and by the time we get to the contest we’re rooting for Gracie to win and, of course, thwart the ticking bomb.

“Miss Congeniality” is that most sought-after Hollywood creation: a movie that succeeds at being all things for all audiences.

 

“10” (1979)

Nobody is more beauty-obsessed than George Webber. Depressed upon turning 42 and distracted by the fit young bodies of Beverly Hills, he spies Jenny on the way to her wedding. Mesmerized by her beauty, he follows her into the church with disastrous results.

If this sounds a little creepy (today we call it “stalking”) rest assured that in the hands of “Pink Panther” genius Blake Edwards, “10” reveals itself to be an old-fashioned morality tale.

The Jenny in question is played by Bo Derek, who became an overnight star and beauty icon. Also catapulted to superstar status was Dudley Moore (as George), showing a gift for slapstick in a script that shrewdly uses George’s sexual obsession to expose hypocrisy in gender politics, language and standards of beauty. George’s over-the-top pursuit of Jenny on her honeymoon in Mexico is offset by encounters with a variety of warm and critical characters including Julie Andrews, Brian Dennehy, Dee Wallace and Robert Webber (whose portrayal of George’s gay writing partner was a huge advance in shattering stereotypes).

When George finally finds himself alone with Jenny (and strains of Ravels “Bolero” fill the air) the movie delivers a series of surprises that stay true to its character and message.

 

“Mudd’s Women” from “Star Trek: The Original Series” (1966)

The original “Star Trek” series was a product of its time, inspired by television dramas of the ’50s like “Playhouse 90” and Rod Serling’s “Twlight Zone.” It aspired to big, important themes.

With episode titles like “Is There in Truth No Beauty” and “Requiem for Methuselah,” the show tackled universal themes like truth, justice, race and war.

In “Mudd’s Women” the topic is beauty. The Enterprise rescues a space cruiser piloted by interstellar conman Harry Mudd (Roger C. Carmel) who provides wives to settlers in far corners of the galaxy. With him are three stunning beauties who stop every crewman in his tracks (including Captain Kirk).

Between the seduction of Captain Kirk and weird sick bay readings noted by Dr. McCoy, stoic Mr. Spock suspects there is more to these ladies than meets the eye. When a shipboard crisis demands an emergency stop at a mining colony, three single miners take a liking to Mudd’s women – until their beauty starts to mysteriously fade and Mudd’s secret agenda is revealed.

For mid-’60s TV, the implied themes of drug addiction and human trafficking add weight to the obvious questions raised about the nature of beauty and how far a woman is willing to go to be appreciated.

I admit I was a pre-teen when I first saw this and between the stunning glamour photography, revealing gowns and grown-up themes, it all seemed pretty profound. Watching it again as an adult, I’ll stand by that lad’s assessment.

 

“Looker” (1981)

A guilty pleasure if ever there was one — and yet few movies have more things on their mind than this sly look at beauty and technology by Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”).

In many ways it’s a perfect ’80s movie: glamour, greed, overreaching faith in technology, pastel colors, computers, Victoria’s Secret lingerie, big hair, mirrored walls, electronic music scores, and a B-movie plot gussied up with a big budget.

Albert Finney plays a well-heeled Beverly Hills plastic surgeon with a thriving practice.

When not operating to Vivaldi in his shiny surgery center, he is consulting with beautiful models, three of whom request miniscule plastic surgeries in the hopes of making themselves perfect. When he learns two of the models have died under mysterious circumstances, he teams up with the remaining girl (played by Susan Dey) and uncovers a sinister tech company’s scheme to use perfect females for computer-generated figures that can be used forever (rendering the real models expendable).

In addition to this comic book plot, there is a futuristic “looker gun” that seems to freeze time, amoral corporations with global ambitions and silver fox James Coburn as the bad guy in charge.

With satirical digs at cheesy TV commercials and some of the first computer-generated images in a movie, “Looker” never stops moving, as if hoping it can distract us from giant plot holes with beautiful girls and shiny gadgets. It is a reminder that some of the most charming movies are the ones that dare to predict the future and get things totally wrong.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre

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