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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Toupee of the Day to ya'!

Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis both donned fancy wigs
 in Some Like It Hot but to calculated, comic effect.

In Hollywood, youth is everything. This goes beyond the need of an artist to stay young and attractive. It has even more to do with maintaining one's image so as not to disappoint the public. Change is death-- at least that is what so many celebrities have been led to believe. For every movie star at his peak, there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, waiting to take his place. To maintain their relationships with their fans, many celebs resort to plastic surgery, sadistic diets, and outrageous workout routines. The refusal to age becomes a bit of an obsession to some: such as Joan Crawford, who was so desperate to maintain her own illusion of youth that she created for herself a somewhat crazed looking mask of makeup, which included exaggerated eyebrows and ghastly lips. Women are most often pegged as paying overt attention to their appearance, but the guys are also suckered by Hollywood's ageism. While women pile on cosmetics and slip into their spanks, men tighten their girdles... and commission new hairpieces. Here are a few examples of male vanity rearing its ugly head and covering its baldness with a bald-faced lie: the toupee.

John Wayne (left) wasn't a self-absorbed or superficial man, but he knew how much his image meant. Therefore, he was willing to obey the rules by muting the true effects of his age as he matured before the screen. For one, he always went on a strict workout regime before each film so he could shave off a few pounds-- though known as the typical man's man, he was never too pressured to hide his paunch in the later years. One stipulation he could not avoid was camouflaging his thinning hair. After several years in the business, the thick head of curls that earned "oohs" and "ahhs" during The Big Trail started disappearing, but the studio saw to it that his handsome face remain bedecked with a full head of artificial hair. There was at least one instance on set when his hairpiece actually caught on fire during an action sequence! Duke always laughed it off, finding the whole thing absurd, and he didn't continue the facade at home, as his friends Walter Reed and Budd Boetticher would recall. One day, Water and Budd were visiting Duke at his house in Encino. When they left, the rain was pouring, and their car got stuck in the mud. A few police officers happened upon them and asked what they were doing. They replied, of course, that they had been visiting John and had gotten stuck on their way home. One particular cop didn't believe them, thinking that a star as big as the Duke would live in a much fancier part of town. So, to prove themselves, Budd and Walter took the officer up to the house. Duke answered the door, sans toupee, and the fellas explained the debate to him. He then drawled, "Well, I'm Duke." The cop replied, "You don't look like John Wayne." John followed up with the deadpan, "What the Hell do you want me to do? Go in and put my hairpiece on?" The group burst into laughter. Now starstruck, the cop and his fellow officers asked for autographs, which Duke whole-heartedly gave.

The string bean of swing, Fred Astaire (right), also had a toupee of his own, but he was much more insecure about it than Duke. Short and frail of build, Fred was never totally confident in his appearance, despite the fact that his fans found him adorable. He mostly hated his hands, which he considered too large, and he concocted special postures and ways of holding his fingers together to make them appear smaller. He too suffered from the curse of male age when he started losing his hair. Frequent partner Ginger Rogers would get to see first-hand the dark side of Fred's usually light mood when he was caught bare-headed. They were filming the last production day on Top Hat when director Mark Sandrich suddenly decided he wanted to add a final dance sequence-- ya' know, to put a fun period on the film. Since the dancing duo always liked to rehearse everything, this last minute decision cramped their style. Ginger was more inclined to just go with it, but Fred-- who was a professional and perfectionist-- was greatly put out and concerned about the improvisation. Nonetheless, Ginger coaxed him to just go ahead: she'd "follow his lead." So, the partners sauntered down the stairs of the set, adding dance steps as they descended. All seemed well until Fred's hat fell off. To Ginger's shock, Fred turned bright red and started howling, "No, no, no!" He then stormed over to a wall and kicked it with one of his famous feet, not once, but five times. Ginger and Mark later discovered the source of his ire: because he was wearing a hat in the scene and had not intended to show his head, he had not put on his toupee. The threat of his thinning head being on display was apparently more than he could handle. Eventually, Fred cooled down, and the scene came together with the audience none the wiser as to what was (or rather wasn't) hiding beneath that infamous Top Hat.

After Bing Crosby (left) passed through a half century of life, he began to panic. Fifty-years-old is too old for Tinsel Town, and as younger men arrived in Hollywood every day, the aging crooner felt his time in the spotlight coming to an end. His personal life was in shambles too. By 1954, he had lost his long-suffering wife Dixie, and his long-term love affair with alcohol was going full throttle. Feeling himself seep into a crack from which he may never be able to crawl, he knew he needed a big hit to get him back on track. While his voice remained in top form, he could not deny that he was getting older and that maybe his film characters should start aging with him. He had relied on his charm and voice to carry him through his other films, but if he was going to stay on top, he needed to act like a real actor. Enter George Seaton and his film adaptation of The Country Girl. Teaming up with William Holden-- another aging but still handsome leading man-- and Grace Kelly-- whom Bing originally opposed in favor of Jennifer Jones-- Bing got ready to tackle one of the most difficult and memorable performances of his career. The role hit close to home. For a former playboy to play a washed up, alcoholic, faithless has-been was... uncomfortable.  And though Bing trusted that the role could showcase his range, he feared that audiences would associate him with his character and that he would lose his prestige in the industry as a swoon-inducing Lothario. When filming began, it was clear to all that he had lost his swagger. He arrived two hours late the first day and was later found fretting and sulking in his dressing room. Most shockingly, he was wearing his favorite 20-year-old hairpiece, which made Seaton cringe. Bing refused to give up his ratty, old toupee, believing that it shaved decades off his appearance. As the director pressured him to get to set, Bing nearly broke into tears: he couldn't perform without his lucky hair! Finally, Seaton saw that the wig was more to Bing than a head of hair-- it was a physical symbol of his insecurity. Finally, Seaton got to his actor, saying that he understood how frightening this whole experience must be. He finished with, "Let's be frightened together." Bing perked up, left his dead hair behind, and churned out an Academy Award nominated performance.

Sextette is a best forgotten film. It remains notorious simply for its leading lady, Mae West, who was just as lustful and vibrant at 85 as she had been at 25. Mae was still her usual, sensual, optimistic self, and she felt as healthy as ever, but she could not deny that her film career seemed to be coming to an end. She was long past her hey-days of the '30s when She Done Him Wrong made her a superstar. She remained a very public figure, continuously discussed and lampooned, and age never cramped her style as she continued to be one of the hardest working women in showbiz-- though Vegas shows had become the order of the day over feature films. She always preferred the stage anyway, so it was a welcome change. It seemed time to bid farewell to the silver screen and to do so in grand fashion. This extended not just to her extravagant wardrobe, but to the film's casting. Boasting a plethora of attractive and unexpected supporting characters-- including Timothy Dalton, Tony Curtis, Ringo Starr, Alice Cooper, George Hamilton, and Keith Moon-- the greatest casting coup of all was winning old flame George Raft's participation. It was actually a "thank you," for George had given Mae her first screen credit in his film Night After Night. However, George was not too inclined to accept Mae's heartfelt favor. He was old, and unlike Mae, tired and ill. But, she coaxed him into it. Eager for the reunion, Mae was aghast when she spied George's toupee in his dressing room before filming began. "What's this?" she asked Marvin Paige, the casting director. When he revealed that it was George's hairpiece, Mae became distraught. "No, no, no," she insisted. She preferred him in the slicked-back style of their youths. "I like him greasy," she insisted. One problem: George had little hair left to grease. This left the production in a dilemma. George hated wearing a hairpiece in the first place, so losing it was no problem, but slicking back non-existent hair was also out. Finally, a solution was found-- he would wear a hat for his scenes. No hair, no worry. The film, sadly, was far from a hit, but it did form a perfect circle in the film careers of George and Mae. It turned out to be the last film either of them ever made. Both passed away in November of 1980 with Mae surprisingly beating George to the punch by two days. Always with gentlemen, "ladies first." (The two in younger days, right).


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