Skin Deep: Seven Films About Plastic Surgery
Call me nuts, but I’m obsessed with phsyiognomy, especially when it comes to plastic surgery. So news of the Cleveland Clinic’s first successful full-face transplant, in which 77 square inches of a woman’s visage were replaced, eyelids to chin, with skin grafts from a corpse, got me thinking about (what else?) the way Hollywood has grappled with this subject over the years, in dramas, thrillers, and war films.
As Slate’s William Saletan explained in a piece today on the ethics of transplantation procedures, the face is a badge of social identity, the primary means through which we communicate with other people and express emotion. It is, in effect, what makes us recognize each other as human. These days, medical ethicists are increasingly using the logic of social necessity as opposed to physical function to justify the great risks they’re taking with the lives and well-being of patients who request transplants after disfiguring trauma. Since faces, in particular, are understood to be unique and wholly individual, the idea of missing a face—or replacing one—troubles the question of identity as much as it (at least superficially) resolves it. This is a theme that has persisted in the movies.
Below, for your viewing pleasure, are seven films that deal in some way with facial reconstruction and the question of human identity.
1. Dark Passage, 1947
Based on a pulp novel by David Goodis (Shoot the Piano Player), Delmer Daves’s crime drama stars Humphrey Bogart as Vincent Parry, a wrongly convicted man who escapes from San Quentin intending to find his wife’s real murderer. On the lam in San Francisco where an heiress familiar with his case (Lauren Bacall) offers him shelter, Vincent meets an in-the-know cabbie who ferries him to an underworld plastic surgeon who completely alters his face so he can elude authorities and pursue the killer. Daves’s innovation was to shoot the film’s first half as a POV from Bogie’s perspective, rendering him only as a disembodied voice. After the bandages come off, it’s standard Bogart-Bacall fireworks.
2. Seconds, 1966
John Frankenheimer’s woozy sci-fi thriller introduces John Randolph as a New York businessman unhappy with his flabby looks and quality of life in middle age. On a tip, he’s shuttled to a clandestine organization led by an Old Man (Will Geer) that specializes in giving clients a “second” lease on life; in this case, that means a new face, body conditioning, relocation, and a faked death of the “old” self for loved ones. Ho-hum Randolph becomes hunky Rock Hudson and is deposited on a California seashore with a swank bachelor’s pad, a swingin’ girlfriend, a butler, and a bunch of bibulous neighbors who, it turns out, are also “seconds.” Talk about not being comfortable in one’s skin …
3. The Face of Another, 1966
Set partially at a prosthetics factory and partly at a low-rent boarding house, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s haunting, psychologically complex drama concerns Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), a self-loathing man horribly disfigured after an industrial accident he believes he was responsible for. Socially rejected and spurned by his timid wife, Machiko Kyo, he agrees to an experimental procedure in which he is fitted with a prosthetic mask modeled after a donor. Though Okuyama feels liberated by the anonymity of his new countenance, he becomes increasingly paranoid, and begins to test the limits of his new “invisibility.” Parallel to his story is another about a tragically isolated Nagasaki victim and psych nurse whose own faceless existence leads her into a disturbing affair. Nightmarishly great.
4. Johnny Got His Gun, 1971
Celebrated screenwriter Dalton Trumbo adapted his own fact-based novel for this grim anti-war drama, which he also directed. Left limbless and faceless by a mortar shell on the last day of World War I, American veteran Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) struggles to reconcile his inner life—a fevered landscape of dreams, memories, and vivid fantasies—with the outer reality of his pitifully vegetative state. Eventually, he finds a way to communicate with a kindly nurse (Diane Varsi), but his most ardent wish—to be exhibited as a sideshow freak in the name of pacifism, or to be killed—is the sentimental coup de grace.
5. Face/Off, 1997
John Woo, the Hong Kong auteur and unabashed lover of good cop/bad cop underworld epics, gained a big U.S. fan club for this ridiculously campy cult classic about a detective (John Travolta) who swaps mugs with a baaaad maaan (Nicholas Cage) and then loses his marbles. Look online and you’ll find at least a dozen tributes, mash-ups, and re-edits. Expect to be confused, just like the Travolta/Cage character, but in the best possible way.
6. Vanilla Sky, 2001
Reality is warped beyond recognition in Cameron Crowe’s remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s postmodern psychohorror drama, Abre los ojos. Tom Cruise is the criminally handsome playboy-publisher and ladies’ man whose world is turned inside-out after a grotesquely disfiguring car accident. Is he a murderer, too? What’s the difference between dreams and reality, doctor? Yes, life can be reinvented.
7. Time, 2006
Loathed by some, championed by others, Korean writer-director Kim Ki-duk never tires of needling his audience, who keep returning for more (at least on the festival circuit). This disturbing film, which opens with actual footage of an almost unwatchable, Learning Channel–grade plastic-surgery operation, tracks the twisted romance of a young couple who resort to drastic facelifts in order to seduce each other. Seh-hee, a beautiful young woman who believes she’s not beautiful enough for her boyfriend, disappears for six months and then re-emerges with a new face, a (slightly) new name, and a plan to get her man back. When he discovers the truth, he’s horrified—but revenge is sweet. Call it a poetic meditation on our obsession with physical perfection, or a manipulative mindfuck by a bitter provocateur. One thing is certain: Cut-up-photo masks are creepy.