Today the cancer-comedy (yep) 50/50 hits theaters, and with it we get a fairly funny and scene of Joseph Gordon-Levitt shaving off his lustrous, full head of hair in anticipation of his chemotherapy doing the job for him. This got me thinking about the number of times that shaves, haircuts, and human grooming in general serve as moments of real meaning and purpose in film. Something that most of us do every day – or before job interviews – suddenly becomes something grand and meaningful.
So allow me to take you through a brief look at some of the best modern examples of haircutting and grooming in film. Feel free to comment below with your own ideas.
WARNING – Some spoilers below
The Royal Tenenbaums
For anyone unfamiliar, The Royal Tenenbaums is the tale of a viciously dysfunctional family consisting of grown, formerly potential-laden children, their uber-responsible mother, and their greedy cad of a father. When their father pretends to have cancer to get back into the graces of his family, most of the children act with disdain, save for Richie, the bearded, former tennis pro. Richie wants to believe the best in his father, and is also hopelessly in love with his adopted sister. But when the weight of the family drama becomes to much for him he decides to end his life. This is a comedy, by the by.
Ritchie goes into a bathroom and begins haphazardly hacking off his hair and beard, clipping with a pair of scissors before taking a razor to his stubble. All the while Elliott Smith’s perennially sad anthem ‘Needle in the Hay’ plays. Finally, without even finishing his shave and haircut, we see his wrists, streaked in a river of blood.
Richie spends the entire movie with a shaggy main and a thick beard, his face obscured and hidden by his hair. The more he cuts from his face during this scene the more he reveals himself, the more he exposes his long-gestating sadness and melancholy. Soon the rawness of his emotions is no longer held back. The entire act of cleansing and exposing is over, and all that’s left is to make on final cut.
V for Vendetta
Evey Hammond is a young woman who works for a government television station in an unbelievably fascist future Britain. After falling in with the notorious anarchist terrorist V, Evey begins to question the government’s iron-fisted rule on the frightened populace. She goes to see her friend from the station, a satirist who just got done eviscerating the prime minister on his latenight TV show, and is unfortunate enough to be with him when the jack-booted police break down the door.
Luckily, Evey slips out of the house. Unluckily, before she can get out of the yard she is grabbed, hooded, and brought to a dank prison. There, she is interrogated, tortured, and interrogated again. In her cell she reads the left-behind manifesto of a jailed homosexual woman and learns the moral necessity of standing up to a corrupt, violent, villainous government. And it all begins when her pretty, curly locks are buzzed off while she weeps as the loss.
Evey’s never really known discomfort on a large scale. She’s living in a terrible place, yes, but her own personal life isn’t too bad. So when she’s arrested, she is entering a whole new world which she is completely unprepared for. The shaving of her head acts as a baptism of sorts, the removal of her innocence and the first tangible thing the government has taken from her. Without that feminine, well coiffed mane she becomes something harder, tougher, and more ready to fight. Of course the whole meaning of this scene is blunted when you find out this is a damnable lie by the very person who is supposedly on her side, but whatever, it makes for good drama.
Adam has cancer. This, in spite of the fact that he doesn’t smoke and does recycle. Luckily, he has a supportive group of friends and family who have rallied around him and seek to make his life better. Hilariously inept though they are, they do have his best interests at heart.
Kyle, Adam’s best friend since childhood, strikes upon an idea that one proactive way to deal with this situation would be to shave Adam’s head. So they go to Kyle’s bathroom, and get a pair of clippers to take care of business. Of course, Kyle has a full head of curly hair and these are body clippers… but never mind. They begin to shave off Adam’s hair, taking turns sheering away row after row of hair.
Kyle and Adam are both struggling with Adam’s diagnosis. The suddenness and randomness of his diagnosis has left them both floored, shaken. They feel powerless in the face of the road ahead of them, all of their plans suddenly taken out of their hands. Control is lost. But the one thing they can control, it seems, is Adam’s hair. The chemotherapy may take it from him sooner or later, but if they take it first… that is their choice. That is their victory.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
Will lives in the woods. He has an unkempt head of hair, a woodsman’s beard, and seemingly one flannel shirt to last him the rest of his life. He lives out of his vehicle and takes off-the-books jobs for foresters and lumber companies. One day, though, he gets it in his head that he needs to see his brother, long abandoned in London, and takes the pilgrimage.
Once in the city, though, Will finds that his brother has killed himself. Something doesn’t smell right to Will, however, and the woodsman begins to inquire with some of his old friends over the circumstances of his brother’s last days. The more Will looks, however, the more his old life – that of a high profile gangster – begins to catch up with him. In time, though, he is ready to embrace his past and dole out some justice. That’s when the concierge barber appears to turn the scruffy frontiersman into a posh mobster.
The key here is in the way this scene is shot. Will – played by a startlingly unblinking Clive Owen – sit down before a mirror. He sees himself, a rustic looking fellow. The barber throws the smock over him, obscuring his view of himself, and immediately the scene cuts to the smock being pulled up, the view of Will still obscured. When the veil is lifted, though, like a magician’s trick, the change seems to be instantaneous. In a split second Will has gone from feral-looking woodsman to cultivated looking gentleman. However, it is only then that his true violent nature is unleashed. The change is instant, like flipping a switch, just like his call back to his former life.
(Special Mention – X-Files S2Ep7 – ‘3’)
So this isn’t a movie, but it is still worth mentioning because I saw it s a child and even then I knew this was a stab as “sexy” that just failed to work. Then again, this entire episode is something of a rare discordant note in the entirety of The X-Files‘ early run. Scully is out of the picture, abducted by aliens (or is she?), and in his quest to get over the loss of his partner, Agent Fox Mulder finds a case to disappear into. This one involves a trio of vampires who are stalking Los Angeles.
However, once in the City of Angels, Mulder actually runs into one of the vampires, a beautiful young woman, and becomes smitten with her. They spend an extended amount of time together having a very awkward and out-of-place-feeling romance, the pinnacle of which is when Mulder is shaving and the vampire comes to him. They have a strange, tortured interaction that strives for eroticism but fails on almost every level. And of course when the vampire offers to help Mulder she inadvertently nicks him and tastes his blood.
The whole thing seems out of place in an X-Files episode, and this whole episode feels out of place in The X-Files. While the rest of these scenes have something memorable to add to their respective films in a good way, this scene is actually one that I think most fans would wish then can forget. Still, despite my best efforts, I remember it… and that means it belongs here.