One difference between actors and other people may be the degree to which they obsess about hair. A decade ago, Colin Farrell speculated that the blond mane visited on him in Oliver Stone's Alexander torpedoed the whole movie. Farrell's dark, wavy locks in the current Saving Mr. Banks struck me as off, too, though forgettably so. The do people remember from that one would be the tight perm worn by Emma Thompson.
"People would bleat in the streets as I went by!," the actress has said. "I didn't have sex for six months." At least audiences were spared the sight of her Mrs. P. L. Travers in curlers—an embarrassment Bradley Cooper, in American Hustle, managed to mine for comic gold.
A page in Helen Mirren's autobiography In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures mourns the memory of "a terrific wig, made at great expense out of hair that is extremely difficult to get hold of: pure, unbleached, very long, fine white-blonde hair." Mirren wore it as Titania in Elijah Moshinsky's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the BBC. "A work of art," she calls it. "It made my performance." That it was later cut and dyed dark brown for another production—"a terrible act of vandalism"—fills Mirren with outrage to this day. Did the Franz Liszt pageboy John Malkovich sported on Broadway in Lanford Wilson's Burn This meet the same fate?
Hair rears its head in the current Vanity Fair cover story on Amy Adams, "Hollywood's Red-Hot Winter Wondergirl."(On the cover of Vogue last month, it was Jessica Chastain who was "RED HOT," "burn[ing] up Hollywood. But I digress.) The VF contributing editor Nell Scovell has just been parsing the semiotics of Adams's breasts in American Hustle ("sort of laissez-faire") and Her ("buried deep inside a pastel-peach sweater over a white shirt buttoned to the top") when she turns north.
As for Adams's hair [in Her], Russell wanted long, loose curls and the natural color darkened. Jonze called for tighter curls and a blondish hue to contrast with Rooney Mara.
Last spring, Laura Linney gave a speech at the Women in Film awards dinner and mused on the ceaseless discussions concerning her hair. "Producers, all male, would shake their heads in dismay and send me back to the colorist … with their very specific and helpful straight-man vocabulary of 'more' blond or 'less' blond," she said.
Adams considers this and agrees: "I don't think I've had a discussion of hair color with a female producer." Then she remembers one exception—Julie & Julia. "[Director] Nora [Ephron] had some ideas. I basically had her hair in Julie & Julia, let's be honest."
Pausing at the feminist critique, I wondered: Are men (or just straight men?) really so clueless about the shades of women's hair? And are women—whether performers or their confidantes—in the main really so blasé?
By way of reply, my mind went back to the American diva Beverly Sills, whose artistry as an actress and virtuosity as a musician were faces of a single coin. In 1997, for the bicentennial of the bel canto master Gaetano Donizetti, the French magazine Opéra International sent me to speak with Sills, supreme among the pioneers of the Donizetti revival of recent decades. She had just been telling me her childhood impressions of Lily Pons, the reigning Lucia di Lammermoor of a previous generation. Pons looked the part, Sills admitted, and she weighed just 90 pounds. But Pons was uninvolved. Quoth Sills: "There was no blood in her white satin nightie."
When I suggested that Pons could not have been much of a role model for her, Sills replied: "No. I started with a clean slate. I worked a great deal with Gigi Capobianco, the wife of Tito Capobianco, who was my director. The first thing Gigi asked me was, How old is Lucia? What does she look like?' Did you ever see women with hair that's a kind of halo? Hair that's curly, that goes its own way? You can't tame it, and it doesn't have symmetry? My hair was like that then, and I thought it was right for Lucia, almost a reflection of her character. So the first thing I said was I wanted to play Lucia with my own hair."