Friday, January 22, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Beards in History

Alexander the Great's Big Shave.
by Liz Smith

Beards in History — You'd be Surprised! Also — "Bitter Rice" gets sticky with Silvana Mangano ... Celebrating the GREAT Jack Cole ... 5 Seconds of Summer. (Please, Guys, Keep Your Clothes On!)

"THE IDEA that facial hair is a matter of personal choice remains popular despite abundant evidence to the contrary, choosing to wear a beard in modern America, for example, can still get you drummed out of the military, fired from a job, disqualified in a boxing match, eliminated from political contention, or even labeled a terrorist. This reality relates to the second principle of beard history: facial hair is political."

Click to order "Of Beards and Men — The Revealing History of Facial Hair."
This is from the introduction to "Of Beards and Men — The Revealing History of Facial Hair" by Christopher Oldstone-Moore.

I have a passion for history and have found some of the most fascinating, intricate and literate tellings of history in books such as Mr. Oldstone-Moore's. Recently I was swept away, astonished and deeply moved by Susan Cheever's "Drinking in America: Our Secret History" an eye-opening glimpse into just how much — and why — America has guzzled so relentlessly over several hundred years.

Now, you wouldn't think a subject such as facial hair would be terribly interesting, or teach us very much. Wrong! The author begins with the Sumerians and Egyptians — the female pharaoh Hatshepsut stuck on a false beard and simply proclaimed herself a man — and travels its bristly way to Alexander the Great's Big Shave.

(Alex wanted to appear the way the Gods were represented — and persuaded his men to do the same. Beards were kaput for centuries after.) The Roman emperor Hadrian brought 'em back ... England's King Henry VIII and Francis I of France grew their famous beards on a dare. We find out how Jesus got his beard — I mean, that's the title of one amazing chapter.
Hatshepsut proclaimed herself a man.
King Henry VIII and Francis I grew their beards on a dare.
The ups, downs, trims and luxurious or matted facial decorations, including mustaches of every style, take us through era after era, political upheaval, sexual likes or dislikes (sometimes it was manly to have facial hair, other times, not.) Multitudes fought over beards — to keep or not to keep. Peter the Great forcibly removed the beards of his enemies; the clean shaven face was the face of modern Russia, he declared.

Beards could connote power, spiritualism, decadence, good and evil, good health or filthy habits. The book even brings us to the relentlessly stubbled look so many men favor today as well as the horrifying face mops featured by the "Duck Dynasty" guys. (Clark Gable, Lenin, Lawrence of Arabia, Prince Albert, Abraham Lincoln, Kaiser Wilhelm, David Beckham and many more are discussed.)
William Wellman's daughter Cissy marvels at Clark Gable's beard, 1951.
But while you learn, in amusing, lively style, which way the winds blow a fearsomely waxy mustache or a stupendous beard, author Oldstone-Moore provides one of the most astute, accurate and learned general history lessons I've ever read. It is an epic work and runs only, with notes, about 340 pages.

No matter how you feel about facial hair (clean shaven or neat stubble is my preference, for myself and others) you will likely come away from "Of Beards and Men" with a sturdy handle on how we got to where we are, civilization-wise.
There's even a Charlemagne Beard Oil Company thanks to Charlemagne's awesome beard!
I don't know that I'll ever look at a beard quite the same way again. I'll be musing over Greek myths, Charlemagne or The French Revolution. Or I won't be able to get the song, "Hair" out of my head!

Oh, the handsome author includes two photos of himself on the back jacket of the book. One shaved, one bearded. I go for shaved.
YEARS BEFORE Sophia Loren hoisted herself out of the water, onto a rickety fishing boat, wearing a soaking wet, transparent blouse, becoming an instant sex-icon, an equally luscious Italian actress, Silvana Mangano, achieved similar results. Mangano was the star of director Giuseppe De Santis' 1949 drama, "Bitter Rice." It concerns the lives of impoverished rice-field workers in Northern Italy. The movie — a dazzling example of Italy's neorealism — is partly a matter-of-fact condemnation of the conditions of that country's post-war populace, and another part, steamy melodrama, provided by Miss Mangano and her bad-boy, boyfriend, Vittorio Gassman.
Silvana Mangano doing her stuff in "Bitter Rice."
Mangano with her bad-boy, boyfriend, Vittorio Gassman.
There is unforgettable imagery and power to the story, but to be honest, the bitter rice congeals every time the leading lady does her stuff, and that's almost all the time. In short-shorts and a skin-tight sweater, Mangano is epic to look at and a mercurial volcano of emotions.

She is, what we might call today a "hot mess." Try to look away.

Now our friends at Criterion DVD are offering a beautifully re-mastered high-definition edition of "Bitter Rice." It includes new English subtitles, an interview with screenwriter Carlo Lizzani, a documentary on director De Santis and an essay by critic Pasquale Iannone.
The original and Criterion's new DVD. Click to order.
In America, Mangano never quite reached the heights of Loren, although film fans recall Silvana in such varied fare as "Ulysses" (luring Kirk Douglas) ... "5 Branded Women" "Barabbas" ... "Death In Venice" and "Dune."

But if you want see what post-war Americans and Italians were reacting powerfully to, when it came to sexy, raw emotionalism, check out "Bitter Rice."
BEFORE I forget! Run, don't walk to NYC's MoMA, where they are celebrating the genius of choreographer Jack Cole, screening eighteen of his films. The tribute runs until February 4th Darn!, I want to write about this sooner. Listen, Jack Cole was the man who gave miraculous movement and style to icons such as Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Gwen Verdon, Mitzi Gaynor and but of course, Marilyn Monroe.
All That Jack (Cole) at MoMA.
(MM couldn't really dance, but Cole used what she could do brilliantly, and he would also give her little bits of speaking business to do, opening up her musical numbers, as in "Heat Wave" when Monroe coos, "Pablo, Chico, Megilto!" before launching into her almost-censorable bump-and-grind. Even today, that Monroe/Cole collaboration is eyebrow-raising.)

Cole was one of the most talented and influential movie and Broadway choreographers ever. Don't miss this MoMA tribute!
ENDQUOTE: "I'm happy with myself, warts and all ... I'm not trying to be perfect anymore. The people around me like me enough for who I am. You can read as many self-help books as you want, but you are who you are. You just gotta star to accept that."

So says musician Dan Auerbach — quite wisely, I think — in Rolling Stone magazine. It's the one with the cover of four naked guys covered in all sorts of graffiti. You have to look twice to see that they are actually naked. They are the band 5 Seconds of Summer — according to RS, "The World's Hottest Band." I do myself no favors by admitting I have never heard of them.

My only comment is that none of them should really be naked on a magazine cover. The Red Hot Chili Peppers they are not.
ATTENTION READERS: Our fearless leader, Liz Smith, has had a slight mishap. She is fine, but will be hors de combat for a brief interval. Denis Ferrara will be pinch hitting for Liz.
Contact Liz Smith here.