Face to Face

Women characters in films undergo plastic surgery as part of a passionate quest to achieve their ideal of beauty, while men do it to change their identities. The new film `Vanilla Sky' is exceptional in its focus on male narcissism and on how the change in a man's outward appearance transforms his inner character as well

The character played by Tom Cruise is badly injured in a car accident; his face is mangled beyond recognition. That is the event that foments "Vanilla Sky," a film that centers around an actor's greatest worry - a direct hit to the very center of his narcissism. But all is not lost. A plastic surgeon from Germany has developed a revolutionary technique (in American cinema, medical innovations, whether promising or threatening, always originate in Central Europe). The operation will remove the scars from the injured man's face, following which he will again look exactly like Tom Cruise. This gesture is made mainly for the benefit of the viewers, because Penelope Cruz, the alluring dancer whom the protagonist met before the accident, is ready to love him even with his ruined face.

"Vanilla Sky," directed by Cameron Crowe and based on a 1997 Spanish film, "Open Your Eyes," directed by Alejandro Amenobar, is more interesting than this synopsis suggests. It contains not a few surprises and is not easily categorized in terms of genre - which is rare in the case of a film with a budget of $68 million. Still, in the scenes surrounding the plastic surgery, it is like all the films that preceded it: "Vanilla Sky" adopts the iconography of classic horror movies - a distorted creature living in the dark and hiding from the intrusive gaze of the camera, face totally wrapped in bandages, in the style of horror movies such as "The Mummy" and "The Invisible Man." In "Vanilla Sky," though, the bandages have been replaced by a mask that evokes "The Phantom of the Opera."

Some of the films on the same theme, such as "Ash Wednesday" (1973), in which the aging Elizabeth Taylor undergoes a face-lift to regain her youth, include horrifying scenes of the surgery. In some cases, the surgeon is portrayed as a dark and threatening figure (a foreign accent enhances the impression) - as with the surgeons in Delmer Daves' "Dark Passage" (1947), in which Humphrey Bogart plays an escaped convict; in Billy Wilder's "Fedora" (1978), about an actress who will do anything to retain her youth; and, in particular, in the case of the dwarf physician known as the "Acid Man" in Terry Gilliam's futuristic nightmare "Brazil" (1985), who is the offspring of the spastic servants in horror films such as "Dracula" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau."

Magic of change

Beauty magazines, including "Longevity: A Practical Guide to the Art and Science of Staying Young," which is published in the United States, recommends to women readers that they disappear for the period of surgery and the convalescence, in order to suppress as much as possible the painful transition between "before" and "after," and admit only to the magic of the change. Such secrecy was the dramatic stratagem in films such as "Fedora" and "Ash Wednesday," which situate the stage of the physical transformation in remote, isolated castles, rather than in modern hospitals, which would make more sense.

The potential for horror exists as early as the 1880s, from the first documented experiments in the realm of plastic surgery in France - involving injections of wax that caused infections and excretion of fluids from all parts of the body; about skin being peeled away by means of sharp spoons, which sounds more like some appalling method of torture; and about former beauties, such as Lady Diana Cooper, who underwent so many face-lifts that she had to sleep with her eyes open. Some of the first clients, or victims, of plastic surgeons were stars of the silent-film era, including Mary Pickford, whose face was turned into a frozen mask.

This subject has always fascinated Hollywood. Indeed, every Oscar awards ceremony has the de rigueur joke about the quantity of silicon in the hall. In light of this accumulated anxiety, we should be expecting a horror film in the full sense of the word that will exhaust the potential of the terror that is inherent in plastic surgery.

"Les Yeux sans Visage" ("Eyes Without a Face"), a French film directed by Georges Franju (1959), tells about a physician-scientist who develops a new skin-grafting technique involving the transfer of skin from one individual to another. The face of the doctor's daughter is destroyed in a car crash and he sends his servant to find beautiful women and lure them to his castle in the forest. There he peels off the skin from their faces and tries to graft it onto his daughter's disfigured face. The operations, which, contrary to any medical logic, are carried out in the dark of night, constantly fail. Finally, the surgeon is torn apart by the dogs he has been using in his experiments and his daughter vanishes like a ghost in the forest.

"Vanilla Sky" spares us the surgery itself, but does not neglect the essential scene of the gradual revelation of the face after the transformation, along with the obligatory tension: What will be revealed under the bandages?

"Now I will reveal my Galatea, or my Frankenstein," says the plastic surgeon in George Cukor's classic film "A Woman's Face" (1941), as he sets about removing the bandages from the face of Joan Crawford. In that sentence, the physician evokes the two cultural archetypes that underlie all the films about plastic surgery.

In the 1981 thriller "Looker," directed by Michael Crichton, about models who undergo surgery in order to make them resemble computer-generated perfect images, the surgeon explains to the heroine that the subjects of the operations tend to fall in love with the physician who makes them beautiful. Indeed, in many of these films, such as "A Woman's Face," "Looker" and Terence Fisher's "A Stolen Face" (1952), about a plastic surgeon who tries to turn a female convict into the image of a beloved but unattainable woman, the surgeon and his Galatea become a romantic couple. Yet the possibility always exists that a monster will be revealed beneath the bandages.

"You cannot dupe nature without paying the price," says the surgeon in "Fedora," thus articulating the moral argument that underlies classic horror movies such as "Frankenstein" and "The Fly," which attack the hubris of the scientist who challenges God. The difference is that in horror movies, it is the physician-scientist who pays the price, being punished for his ambition to improve the world, while in the films about plastic surgery, the patients are punished for their narcissism. In "Fedora," the actress becomes an invalid with a disfigured face; in "Brazil" the female victim of the Acid Man turns into a mixture of bones and jelly; and in "Looker," the faces of the murdered models are disfigured and they are replaced by computerized images. The perfect image, according to the film, is lifeless.

Frozen images

It is precisely in this regard that the films dealing with plastic surgery performed on males differed, until now, from those dealing with such surgery performed on women. Whereas the female characters were always driven by narcissism, in their desire to shape the changing human body in the frozen image the ideal of beauty, films about men usually dealt with individuals who were fleeing the law and who opted for a face-lift in order to change their identity, not to improve their looks. That is the story of Humphrey Bogart in the 1947 movie "Dark Passage" (the surgeon assures him that he will look older but still good; Raymond Massey in Frank Capra's "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944); Rutger Hauer in "Nighthawks" (1981, directed by Bruce Malmuth); and Bruce Payne in the 1992 film "Passenger 57," directed by Kevin Hooks.

The conventional fiction shared by all of these films is that only after the surgery to restore his identity does the actor actually look like himself. In "Dark Passage," after his face has been hidden from the viewer for the first half-hour of the film, the bandages come off and beneath them, Bogart's real face is revealed. The visual alteration in men has absolutely no effect on their character; underneath their "new" face, they remain exactly as they were. In "Dark Passage," for example, Lauren Bacall falls in love with Bogart even before he gets to look like Bogart. This is especially striking in John Woo's 1997 "Face/Off," in which the faces of two characters - the criminal played by Nicolas Cage and the policeman played by John Travolta - are switched with each other in a futuristic surgical technique. Underneath their skin, however, they remain just as they were.

Women, on the other hand, always undergo a deep and substantive character change together with the exterior change in their appearance. In "A Woman's Face," the 12 face-lifts that turn Joan Crawford from an ugly woman into a beauty, also transform her from a wicked criminal into a good-hearted woman. In "Ash Wednesday," Elizabeth Taylor declares that she is a "completely different person" after her surgery and sets out to prove it. The very decision to have the surgery was the first independent decision she had made in her life, contrary to her husband's opinion, and the change in her character began there.

An exception that proves the rule is "A King in New York" (1957), perhaps the most personal film made by Charlie Chaplin. The aging comic actor, who left the U.S. after being harassed for his communist sympathies, plays a deposed European king who hopes that a face-lift will make him look younger and restore his lost popularity. Here, too, the operation does not stem from pure narcissism, but is intended to advance a career. However, the operation turns the king's face into a frozen mask and he decides to undergo a second operation in order to restore his face to its previous - aged - appearance.

Against the background of all these films, "Vanilla Sky" is an exception as it deals outspokenly with male narcissism and with the way a change in a man's external appearance transforms his character. The fact that Cruise also produced the film attests to his personal opinion on this theme. But, as in "A King in New York," in the end, he gets the opportunity, which is never offered to women, of either retaining his beautiful exterior or of replacing the disfigured face he had before the operation.