For a variety of reasons, it’s been a busy end of the summer, and an even busier start to the semester. Some of the explanation for my recent silence involved sojourns to both D.C. and Ohio to view films (more about that in a later post), part of it is work-related, but there’s also the fact that little things can get in the way. Among those things was a trip to get my eyes checked, something I haven’t done for many years. While my prescription hasn’t changed from the last time, the experience of being at the optometrist’s (followed, in close succession, by a viewing of The House Bunny) got me thinking about our cultural attitude towards glasses.
Generally speaking, there is one thing we all know from childhood about glasses. They are worn by weak, precociously smart, nerds. All-American athletes do not wear glasses. Homecoming queens do not wear glasses. Members of the chess club wear glasses.
This connection of glasses and “nerdness” is ingrained as a modern trope, but it also has deep roots in American film. This is made abundantly clear in a nearly one hundred year old Norma Talmadge vehicle (from 1916) called The Social Secretary. The plot involves an attractive young woman who has repeatedly been forced to leave jobs where she was groped and manhandled by her male employers. Instead, she takes a position as the social secretary for a wealthy family (which is gun-shy about pretty secretaries bolting for greener pastures, or trying to make time with the hard-partying eldest son). She goes to her interview looking like this:
Of course, in her private moments, she is the very flower of femininity, looking like this:
This transformation raises any number of interesting issues, not the least of which is one which would reach it’s fullest expression several decades later. I refer to it as the “Superman question.” Stated bluntly, “How can everyone not get that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person?” (the applicable corollary is, “How can everyone miss how attractive that person is simply because they’re wearing glasses?”). In a visual sense, no one defined the problem more clearly that Dave Fleischer in the opening to his Superman cartoons (later copied in the 1950’s television show):
By placing Superman and Clark Kent in precisely the same pose, it’s made even more obvious that those glasses shouldn’t fool anybody…and yet they do.
But it’s not as simple as everyone being blind/gullible/just plain not that sharp. There are two things going on here worth mentioning. First of all, the audience is certainly not fooled in any of these cases. It’s part of how the narrative works that we clearly understand something that the entire cast doesn’t. It’s a simple convention, but an effective one that keeps us engaged. When and how will everyone else finally understand? What will the ramifications of that be? How will the characters themselves respond to that moment when the glasses come off?
And that leads to the second interesting part, which is seeing how an individual actor deals with their eventual “transformation.” Because deep down, here’s the thing: it’s never about the glasses. The glasses are a simple way to signify an “undesirable” state and to clearly demarcate a change in character, but that change almost always involves a million other performance decisions made by the actor and/or their director.
Look at those pictures of Norma Talmadge again. Everything about her has changed. Her hair, her clothes, her makeup, her expression, her posture – the glasses pale in significance compared to everything else. But what we seem to fixate on is the spectacles.
Let’s take another example. Christopher Reeve was a brilliant Superman in the 1978 film, but a big part of that is how he managed to give two completely different performances in the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent. This guy:
Cannot possibly be this guy:
Clark is nice, but he’s a little bit sniveling, and his clothes don’t quite fit right, and he’s nervous and awkward about everything. In short, he’s a glasses-wearing nerd. But that Superman is something else. He leaves people (literally) slack-jawed at his debonair good looks, his genial charm, his overwhelming competence, and his dazzling smile. There’s a scene where we actually see the transformation happen, and it’s a testament to Reeve that he could pull it off:
On one side of the street, he’s good old, bumbling Clark Kent, but by the time he gets to the camera position he’s well on his way to being Superman (There’s a remarkable moment in Superman II when Clark reveals his secret identity, which Reeve accomplishes not only by removing the glasses, but through a complete change in his physical demeanor which we see from the back.)
If you watch enough examples of this, it becomes clear that the most important thing that makes a “glasses transformation” work is an actor finding the right level of calibration between the two performances. In simplest terms, the audience needs to not think of everyone in the movie as some sort of idiot who can’t see that one character has two different personas. Reeve and Talmadge make things just believable enough by modulating their behavior along with their costumes. But there are plenty examples of this not working. In Pin-Up Girl (from 1944), Betty Grable utterly fails to convince us that she could possibly be mistaken for anyone other than Betty Grable. Yes, she changes clothes with her dowdier friend (and borrows her glasses), but the chief change in her performance is to cross her eyes when anyone questions her dual identity. So she goes from this:
Subtle it ain’t.
In the 1999 teen comedy, She’s All That, the filmmakers make the same mistake with poor Rachel Leigh Cook (again, not one of our greatest actresses), but they do it with costume overkill. The low-point (or high point, depending on what you’re looking for) is her appearance at work at a falafal stand, which definitely contrasts strongly with her “sexily transformed for the prom and not wearing glasses” iteration:
In either of these cases, the performance can’t quite cut it, and the filmmakers try to lean on something else to make it work. Essentially, though, the audience just has to run with a silly situation.
My final example (if you’ve gotten this far you won’t mind) is The House Bunny from 2008. This is a film that has two characters using glasses for diametrically opposed ends. “Hot” Anna Faris is trying to ingratiate herself with nice guy, Colin Hanks, while nerdy Emma Stone hopes to become more popular. The “before” versions:
contrast markedly with the “after” versions (Anna’s glasses strikingly emulate Betty Grable’s crossed-eyes in the first picture, while Emma is the second from the right in the second picture):
Interestingly, both of these instances involve the kind of excessive alterations which keep a “glasses transformation” from being effective, but that’s actually a function of the narrative. By the end of the film, both characters realize that they’re trying to be something that they aren’t, so they just return to their “natural” (and happier) states.
Now, I know this may be a bit much to spring from a visit to the optometrist, but I’m o.k. with that. I know lots of people who wear glasses, and lots of people who are afraid they’ll be stigmatized by spectacles – partly because of a trope of popular culture which is accepted without much actual thought. So just remember, even in the movies, it’s about how a character acts, not about their glasses. And you can trust me to see that clearly. I just had my eyes checked.