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Cutting Hair for a Character

Changing their style for a part creates more ridicule than praise for male stars like Kevin Costner and Sean Connery

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There are at this moment young men marching into barbershops all around the country requesting Keanus — by which they mean short Marine-style buzz cuts they hope will make their heads look like sleek seal fur and (by association) endow them with the kind of streamlined, high-definition, low-maintenance energy Keanu Reeves brings to his job as a bomb-dismantling cop in Speed. Reeves’ hair made headlines when the movie first opened — he’s best known for his dark, sensually lank, excellent dude look — and reports followed on how nervous director Jan De Bont was when he first got a look at his star cropped to the scalp. But now the young man’s hairstyle is a surprise hit.

It’s also a rare success in the recent history of movie actors who have dared to mess with their tresses in pursuit of character. I think of poor Kevin Costner, ridiculed for his Roman cap cut in The Bodyguard; Harrison Ford, chastised for his tiny bangs in Presumed Innocent; Sean Connery, falling for a Spartacus-type toupee in Rising Sun. These guys’ hairdos were critically dissected — and busted — far beyond what we viewers do when we weigh in on the new short cuts of, say, Julia Roberts, Diane Sawyer, or Kathie Lee Gifford. And I think know why: It’s a Samson thing.

Women change their hair all the time — we dye it and curl it and hack it off at the end of bad love affairs or when we’ve achieved our Weight Watchers goals. But a man’s hair, as the biblical story demonstrates, is intimately tied to a man’s self-image of sexual potency. It’s why bald men wear wigs (Telly Savalas and shaved sports stars notwithstanding), and why Hair Club for Men is a household name.

Actors, however, are in a particular bind. So conscious must they be at all times of the need to maintain their sex appeal (as carefully as any woman) that sometimes a guy just wants to go, ”Hell with it. Lose it. I gotta be me (or a bodyguard, or an LAPD cop).” In this scenario, short hair is their form of strength, to show that they’re man enough to look stupid and still bring in box office receipts. I dare you to still love me, Tom Hanks seems to say in Forrest Gump, displaying the nerdy, razored, ’50s-style cut of a Southern fellow with an IQ of 75. (We still do love Hanks, partly because we admire him for playing a Southern fellow with an IQ of 75, and thus we accept a haircut I suspect no young man is asking for at barbershops around the country.)

There is, of course, one other way for actors to show their mighty follicular power: going long. Joe Pesci went for a silly, matted shag wig in With Honors, justifying the mop as the look of a homeless man; he might be forgiven the length, but not the style, which would appear to owe its inspiration to Adam Arkin’s eccentric mountain man character on TV’s Northern Exposure. Ted Danson, however, has no such justification for the phony ponytail he wears in Getting Even With Dad — a distracting, misbegotten ‘do that has absolutely nothing to do with his character. In fact, the wig is particularly jarring on a man whose easygoing sense of humor about his own thinning thatch is part of his charm. The sexiest display of strength Danson ever brought to the screen was in one of the last episodes of Cheers, when he lifted his hairpiece and showed Carla — and millions of viewers — the bald spot beneath the coif. Now, that was power, movie-star style.

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