The Oscars are invariably remembered as much (if not more) for the speeches, snafus, and outlandish red carpet outfits as for the awards. Last year, Jennifer Lawrence’s charming tumble over her couture when accepting her Best Actress award generated maximum buzz (Anne Hathaway’s nipples came in close second). This year’s highlights included John Travolta butchering Idina Menzel’s name, Ellen Degeneres’ celebrity group selfie and 81-year-old actress Kim Novak’s face—nipped, tucked, and stiff with silicone.
The Internet gasped in horror—or was it amusement? —when the Vertigo star took the stage with Matthew McConaughey to present the award for Best Animated Feature to Disney’s Frozen (an unfortunate coincidence, generating countless rudimentary puns on social media). A sampling of tweets, including several from well-known figures in the entertainment and media industries: Comedian Nick Youssef joked that “Kim Novak was just safely transported back to the Hollywood Wax Museum”; Chelsea Lately writer Fortune Feimster quipped, “I’m assuming Kim Novak was representing the movie ‘Mask’”; Huffington Post editorial director Howard Fineman broadened the mockery: “#AcademyAward for worst plastic surgery: tie between Kim Novak and Goldie Hawn.”
And blowback against the comments was equally fierce. Newly minted MSNBC host Ronan Farrow shot back, “Half the people being cruel about Kim Novak are ten years away from being Kim Novak.” Actress Rose McGowan tweeted a picture of the actress in her heyday as a sex symbol, adding, “Self-obsessed and disrespectful, that sums up the Oscar audience.”
In a way, by tweeting a picture of Novak sprawled out on a bed in a scene from the 1958 film, Bell, Book and Candle, McGowan was unwittingly acknowledging that we should judge actresses by their looks—because beauty is indeed one of the most important attributes for a Hollywood actress, young or old. Had Novak not won the genetic lottery, she could have easily lost her breakout role in Hitchcock’s Vertigo to a prettier face (Novak was a good actress, but not a great one). So why are we surprised when, years after being out of the limelight, viewers continue obsessing over the face that once made her famous? And we should be no less surprised that Novak is obsessed with her face. Film critic Farran Nehme noted that Novak’s natural beauty wasn’t good enough for the silver screen when, at 20, she was scouted by Columbia Pictures’ Harry Cohn as the next Rita Hayworth. Fame came only after Cohn pressured her to diet, dye her hair, cap her teeth, and change her name.
Indeed, Hollywood is no more obsessed with youth than it was 50 years ago. But with the advent of plastic surgery, our most relentless scrutiny is reserved for actresses who are no longer in their kittenish prime yet who are unwilling to go gently into the good night of post-menopausal sexlessness. (Newspapers like The Daily Mail do big business on the “did you see what [formerly attractive actress] looks like now” stories.) And if an actress attempts to turn back the clock by going under the knife, they can expect every wrinkle and fold to be observed under the media microscope.
Still, Botox injections and facelifts are a double-edged sword. Done incorrectly, they can land an actress on the receiving end of hate-tweeting. But done right, they can extend her shelf-life in a hyper-competitive industry that revolves around youthfulness. Most members of the sniping press and snarking Twittersphere aren’t exercising moral or (even general aesthetic) objections to plastic surgery: they’re not saying that actresses shouldn’t go under the knife, but that they should know when to quit. Hence Donald Trump’s acid observation that Novak “should sue her plastic surgeon.” And most women in Hollywood seem to recognize that, for better or worse, some sort of plastic surgery (or vampire facials) is imperative to staying in the game, even if it is seen as cheating.
We can interpret criticism of Novak’s paralyzed face as indicative of our own shallowness, or we can see it as a general consensus that the imperative to go to extreme lengths to preserve youth is absurd—that women should be allowed to age normally and retain their dignity in doing so. Or we can cut out the politics and merely acknowledge that as time marches on, nothing can save us from the inevitable drooping, sagging, and shriveling. As British singer Linda Thompson told her Facebook fans, “Apropos of Oscars brouhaha. You have two choices in old age. Look creepy or crepey. Who cares which you choose? You'll still look old.”