by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
April 3, 2008
YOU SO BEAUTIFUL
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Running through my head for the past few weeks have been the lyrics of an old boogie-woogie song by Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. It's called "Roll Em Pete," and you may know the chorus: "You so beautiful you got to die someday/Honey, you so beautiful you got to die someday/All I want, a little lovin' just 'fore you pass away."
Having long ago internalized the idea that "90 percent of life is just showing up" (a quote I've seen attributed to Woody Allen, among others), I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my looks.
Then I saw "Let's Face It: Women Explore Their Aging Faces" by Wendy Oser, Joan Levinson and Beverly Spencer at last month's Women's Film Festival. The women in the film are old friends who allow themselves to be filmed talking about their looks. The close-ups show their wrinkles, wattles, age spots, lines, bags, chin hairs - the camera is a lot colder than any of their friends might be.
Yes, it's shocking when age lines first appear. Yes, we all think about plastic surgery at times. Yes, most of us are insecure about our looks. Yes, the culture worships youth.
But when you think of it, how kind is the culture to youth? I'm thinking of the tragic South Florida story from a few weeks ago, the one about the cheerleader who died after a botched breast augmentation.
For reasons that have more to do with commerce than aesthetics, this is a culture that worships and rewards transformation and reinvention. Breast implants (for men as well as women) are the least of it.
We have television shows that make stars of people who change their looks. Young women who publicly endure a lot of plastic surgery appear regularly on the covers of magazines. Often, when a young actor or an actress has a first success, they will invest in nose reduction, chin implants, or cheek implants. Joan Rivers has made a career of joking about her years under the knife. Barbara Walters doesn't wrinkle, but she also hasn't expressed an emotion with her face in years. For the sheer fun (and horror) of stars and their surgeries, check out www.awfulplasticsurgery.com. Or compare Jennifer Aniston during the first and third year of "Friends."
The vainest woman in the film talks about how happy she is that she had a face lift. She says the saddest thing, "It's a paradox that you have to cut a piece of yourself to like yourself."
The truth is that when these women smiled - and sooner or later, they all did - they became very, very beautiful.
On the way home from seeing the film, the jazz show on Vermont Public Radio played Big Joe Turner singing "Roll 'Em Pete." It made me smile: "You so beautiful, but you got to die some day."
Which brings me, oddly enough, to Cary Grant - the epitome of transformation and reinvention.
I was flicking through the channels the other night when I happened upon a Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman film from 1958 called "Indiscreet."
Grant often said it was his favorite of the 72 movies he made. It's a romantic comedy about two attractive and successful adults who meet and have an affair. Bergman plays an actress on the London stage, and Grant is a financier courted for a high-ranking position by NATO.
There's a silly plot which doesn't matter much, and the picture is just an easy romp with pretty people wearing pretty clothing until Bergman reaches over to affectionately tousle Grant's hair. She pulls her hand away as if it has been sliced open. It is a remarkably real moment in a stylized motion picture.
It made me question the whole idea of Cary Grant. Suddenly he looked like a cartoon cutout - a tanned, urbane, sophisticated and mobile cartoon cutout, but a cutout none the less.
Up to that moment, I hadn't given Grant much thought. He was one of those pieces of the culture - like the Empire State Building - that have always been there. He starred in three of my favorite movies, and each was made in a different decade - "The Philadelphia Story" in 1940, "To Catch A Thief" in 1955, and "Charade" in 1963. That's quite a feat.
He was the avatar of cultured, charming, desirable manhood. There's an old story that he once said, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." And by the end of his life, he had become Cary Grant so thoroughly that he not only refuted the remark, but said, "I don't even understand what it means."
In "Charade," Audrey Hepburn comes up close to him and says, "You know what's wrong with you? Nothing."
Now I was looking at him in a different way. Through hard work and a great deal of style, Grant turned himself into an icon, made a fortune from it, and grew more beautiful and distinguished as he aged. He died in 1986 at the age of 82. But you couldn't tousle his hair because it was as solid and cold as a rock. You could look, and admire, but you couldn't touch.
The culture teaches us, if we're willing to listen and learn, that beauty is only skin deep. And that it's in the eye of the beholder.
Life is short, and life - if you're not Cary Grant - is hard. Why waste more than a moment or two on worrying how you look? When we smile, we're all beautiful.
And isn't all we want a little lovin' just 'fore we pass away?
A delightful collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.