Friday, April 10, 2020

"Unorthodox": Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Today I suspect most of us—isolating ourselves at home to escape the Corona virus—have discovered a desperate longing to visit our barbers and hairdressers, Wouldn’t it be nice to settle back in that comfy chair for a wash and a trim? Naturally, I can’t help thinking about movies in which haircuts play a key role.

As a social setting, a hair salon can be an important gathering spot, both in real life and at the movies. The urban black community, in particular, seems to love its barbershops, as seen in a series of comic Barbershop movies, as well as in Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. The notion of small-town white Southern women looking to the local beauty parlor as the locus of their lives finds dramatic expression in Steel Magnolias, where everyone knows and sympathizes with everyone else’s woes.

Right now, though, we don’t have the luxury of congregating in a world of swivel chairs, mirrors, hot towels, and clippers. Some guys tired of looking Neanderthal might be tempted to explore getting rid of the problem entirely by shaving their heads. As Yul Brynner and Woody Strode once showed us, bald can be sexy—at least if we’re talking about those of the male persuasion.

Bald women, though, not so much. It occurs to me that there are many dramatic films which use the cutting of a woman’s long tresses as a climactic moment. There’s something almost unspeakably poignant about watching a woman be transformed by the loss of her locks. Usually such scenes suggest the degradation of a hapless female by those who hold power over her body and her soul. Like, for instance, Nazis. The 1980 TV film Playing for Time is based on the memoir of French-born Fania Fénelon, a Jewish concert pianist who saved her life by performing for her captors in a female orchestra. Vanessa Redgrave was widely considered brave for allowing her hair to be shaved off in order to authentically represent an Auschwitz inmate. More recently, Anne Hathaway, portraying a fallen woman in pre-Revolutionary France, had her dark locks hacked off on camera in 2012’s Les Misérables. Submitting to the brutal shearing helped win her an Oscar for best supporting actress. 
Rosemary’s Baby contains a haircut of a different kind. At the beginning of Roman Polanski’s 1968 theological chiller, Mia Farrow’s Rosemary wears her hair longish. But as her difficult pregnancy advances, she gets the bright idea of updating her personal style. When she leaves the beautician’s chair, we see a gaunt young woman with a huge belly and a chic but severe crop of hair (design by Vidal Sassoon) that hugs her face, accentuating her delicate features. More than anything, she looks like a sacrificial lamb ready to be led to the slaughter. (And yes, she also resembles the great Falconetti, whose 1929 silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, puts front and center a young woman with a cropped head and a haunted look. Said filmmaker Jean Renoir in admiration, “That shaven head was and remains the abstraction of the whole epic of Joan of Arc.”)

Recently I watched a four-part Netflix miniseries called Unorthodox, drawn from the memoir of a young woman who broke away from a strict Hassidic community in Brooklyn to start a new life. Just before her wedding day, nineteen-year-old Esty submits to the shaving off of all her long hair. Henceforth, as a married woman, she’ll only be seen in a wig . The  on-camera shaving of her head, though done to celebrate a marriage, seems as brutal as a rape.

 Dedicated to the memory of Woody Strode Jr. (aka Kalai Strode). All former guides at the U.S. Pavilion, Expo ’70, will understand why.


  1. Oh yes! And what about Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn?

    1. Absolutely -- I wrote about Roman Holiday not long ago. Of course, for her the hair-cut is not degradation but liberation!

  2. I keep meaning to rewatch Shampoo, but it's hard to find. Great suggestion, though.