How cosmetic surgery is freezing careers and hurting movies. Directors, writers and producers comment on the growing trend of looking younger for the camera

By Allison Hope Weiner
Updated December 10, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Lips Illustration by Joe Zeff

There’s something a little off about Annette Bening’s face these days. Watching her in Being Julia, it takes a minute or two to figure out exactly what. At first glance, she looks as movie-star stunning as ever. Her eyebrows are perfectly arched, her pearly white smile radiant, her eyes a bewitching blue. And then it hits you. She has wrinkles.

Nothing overwhelming — a few around the mouth, a couple across the forehead, some crow’s — feet around her eyes. But it’s a startling thing to see on the screen: a 46-year-old movie star who actually looks 46. No freakishly inflated lips, no frozen facial muscles or unnaturally smooth forehead, no Cabbage Patch cheeks. Just a beautiful actress who’s allowed herself to age naturally.

How bizarre.

Of course, Hollywood actresses (and not a few leading men) have been battling Mother Nature since Marlene Dietrich used to sew back the skin on her face before live performances. Mercifully, plastic surgery procedures are more sophisticated these days, but they’re also infinitely more common. So common, in fact, it’s become something of a tabloid standard, the who’s-had-it headline screeching from the supermarket checkout rack.

But we’ll leave that sort of rumormongering to them (although we hear a certain thirtysomething glamour queen has…). What hasn’t been explored is the effect excessive nipping and tucking is having on the entertainment industry, as well as on the careers of the actresses (and actors) who feel compelled to do it, sometimes to shocking extremes.

”When Cher did Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, she was terrific,” says one casting director (who prefers, like many quoted here, to speak off the record). ”But what would you cast her in now? [Her plastic surgery] is distracting. It’s very hard for her to overcome what she’s done to herself.”

Hollywood’s new addiction

With increasing numbers of stars ducking into doctors’ offices — for injections (like Botox), face-lifts and tummy tucks, liposuction and Thermage (face tightening through heat) — finding actresses over 40 who haven’t had work done is akin to locating Prada shoes at Payless. ”When Tim Burton asked me to find someone to play Albert Finney’s fiftysomething wife in Big Fish, I went down the list going no, no, no,” says casting director Denise Chamian (who ultimately went with Jessica Lange). ”You look through magazines and watch television and you see that a lot of these women don’t even look like themselves anymore.”

And it’s getting worse. Film and TV actors are so spooked at the idea of growing older, they’re having cosmetic procedures done in their 20s and 30s. ”Doing this in your 20s — that’s like saying to an athlete, Let’s smash your hands,” says As Good as It Gets director James L. Brooks. ”It’s crazy, because they’re messing with the instrument. You have people going away from the deepest, noblest part of their gift for the most surface thing.” On one hit TV show, the stars are so over-Botoxed ”they have it on the craft-services table,” jokes another casting director. ”It’s an epidemic. Botox is now the drug of choice in Hollywood.”