There is nothing so willfully telling as facial hair in movies. "Hey, look at me!" says the character with a mustache that makes him look tight-lipped, "I will betray Hunky McHero in the second act!" As with scars, placement counts. Is your beard connected to your mustache? Is either attached to the sideburns?
Can you guess which of these Cracked editors will betray the team once the Omega Device is safely aboard the cargo plane?
If you're a guy and you grow facial hair, the cut and trim will label you clearly to the world. The reason for this is a combination of our society's preconceptions:
1. It's an internal barometer. The amount of work a character puts into maintaining his facial hair says a lot about his ability to manage a schedule. How many times has a movie used a beard to let you know that time has passed for a guy? Why do you think House M.D. and Elementary feature scruff-muffins? It's not because switching from an English accent to an American one tricks your internal clock into thinking you only have a noon o'clock shadow. It's because they're frazzled geniuses too busy decoding the world to slow down and do basic upkeep, but also because these are, in concept, antisocial nerds, so they need a bit of grizzle to sell their authority. Without it, they're just know-it-alls. Speaking of which ...
2. Hairiness = Manliness = Toughness. It takes manly chemicals like testosterone and fuzztrogen to produce a beard. You're shoving keratin through your face like it's no big deal, as if you've got protein to spare, when we both know that's a big waste of resources for your body. So this tells the audience that a character is naturally tough, booming with androgens and eating steaks for breakfast, because you can't tell him what to do, Mom.
3. The cut itself is the complement to point No. 2's natural forces. This is where we see what a character does with the plumage allotted to him. If No. 1 is the character's accountability to himself, this is the statement he chooses to make to the world. Here's John Turturro as a clean-shaven, twerpy black ops director in Transformers:
Paramount Pictures is a bit of a misnomer
And here's Bumblebee, doing to him what this movie did to the franchise.
Now here's John Turturro as a creepy late-night bowler and pederast in The Big Lebowski:
Never trust a man in a leisure suit.
Obviously there's a whole lot of acting and wardrobe going on here to distinguish these characters, and in The Big Lebowski's case, even some directing. But no government agent would rise to the top of his sector with Jesus' chin beard and fadeaway 'stache (just as comedies prefer their perverts to have them). His facial hair makes him a clownish freak who we can laugh at rather than fear, because we can recognize and avoid him.
The loose guide to how Hollywood sees your beard is something like this:
Flourishing: You are a juggernaut. Whether erratic or dependable, manic or mute, a guy with a full beard is a force to be reckoned with. Or there may be snow in your beard, indicating that you have just returned from exile in the frozen North -- the only environment befitting of your loss.
Neatly manicured: People will try to guess which class of sex offender you are. Also popular among sleazy bosses and the villainous underling Bruce Willis kills 40 minutes into the movie.
Neatly manicured, but Tony Stark: Special exception for Iron Man, who is nevertheless a sleazy boss who doesn't take "no" for an answer.
"Oh -- if you'll excuse me, I've been summoned to another sexual harassment hearing."
Unkempt: Unemployed and not worried about it.
Unkempt and uneven: You goddamn hipster, what are you, too indie for hormones?
Cultivated 19th century mustache: Hipster again, but owns the coffee shop or has a great job in graphic design.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Either way, you're probably reading this article on one of these.
Sparse fuzz: Awww, that's adorable! You're harmless!
Scruffy: Too much man for any multi-ethnic middle-aged gang to defeat.
Stubbly, accenting your jaw: Tough guy.
Stubbly, emphasizing your neck: You have given up on life.
"I'm a week away from converting my entire wardrobe to 'day sweats' and 'evening sweats.'"
Clean shaven: Damn right you're a straight shooter. Maybe you're a creep, but at least people know exactly what kind of creep they're getting.
Too cleanly shaven: As a child, you were beaten for not finishing your chores.
Hairless: There is a pile of human torsos in your basement.
If you're a lady with facial hair, you will teach the audience a Very Special Lesson about not judging people by appearances. Or people will laugh at you. That's the great thing about humanity: You never know how they'll disappoint you next!
When they're not being used to solve murder mysteries, tattoos are how movies tell us that someone is either living hard on the streets or a suburbanite making bad drunken mistakes. Still, some characters sport them so we know who they are the second we see them.
Even if he's not yakuza or a Russian mobster wearing his personal Wikipedia entry on his arm, a character tells a story with his tattoos. And why not? That's what people do in real life, and as with facial hair, Hollywood hones that to the point where you can't miss it. If they bother showing it to you, they want you to appraise what the characters have chosen to say about themselves. Wedding Crashers brought the term "tramp stamp" to the mainstream.
Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty
And sadly brought a career extension to Vince Vaughn.
Characters in movies have the same tattoos as the rest of us: a weeping swan cutting his wrist (OK, characters in movies have the same tattoos as the rest of you) -- except theirs tell us a lot about their past. A name on the arm is a sure sign that someone died (or, at least, was taken away by social services).
Ink on the knuckles? You don't need to even read 'em to know it's someone with a murderous right hook, although they probably mimic Night of the Hunter's "LOVE/HATE." Never mind that in reality plenty of thoughtful people are tattooed with varied designs. Like the ones on our knuckles that say "MORE/TACOS." (We have an eleventh finger. It's an uncomfortable subject, but suffice it to say that our mom drank a lot of radium back in the day.)
Night of the Hunter makes the point that hands take action for us, and a word inked on a hand marks all its movements as agents of its concept -- like the Latin for "truth" and "justice" on the Boondock Saints' trigger fingers. Just don't pick a word that's really long and gets jammed up at the end when you run out of space.
He's been playing "The Gambler" for 11 years now.
In Hollywood, there are no tattoos that people get for their private satisfaction. They're all meant to be seen, because they're all meant to be read by us. These statements can work against characters, like when they outgrow the concepts they wear for the world to see -- Brad Pitt's character, Rusty, in the Ocean's Ever Increasingly Dreary Number series wears stylish cuffs that hide his tribal tattoo (we'd be ashamed of our past too if we used to be the kind of guy who got tribal tattoos). Oh, and the crime thing.
But what about internal defects? Are we to assume that every bad guy has hepatitis C? Absolutely not! The hep is a bottom-rung henchman's affliction. And can you imagine a villain whose internal corruption was hemorrhoids? Would you want to final battle a guy with a bleeding sphincter as he gingerly circles around you?
The worst part is when he starts tossing this at you like he's Oddjob.
No, for a top-of-the-line bad guy, only a respiratory ailment will do. Partially this is because it's an affliction we can hear. Partially it's because it usually requires a breathing apparatus that again obscures their faces and dehumanizes them. And partially it's because nobody thinks differently of you for having a spleen disease, unless it's to laugh when you try to Force-choke them.
But the main reason is that there's symbolism in breath. If you've got air in your lungs, you're alive! You have animus -- a soul. And when a character has audible lung problems, he's inevitably a villain, because his lungs -- where his soul lives -- are a corrupt environment. It's a great image, which is why Hollywood saves it for the big names like Darth Vader, Cobra Commander, General Grievous, Bane, and ... uh ... Le Chiffre.
Eon loves scarfaced villains
Although he got closer to a clean getaway than most on that list.
Even the platinum inhaler that sustains little Frenchie DuCowardice has a purpose. See, breathing problems also plague another class of film character: frail little kids. Want to show an overprotective parent? Justify their woes by giving the kid asthma. And then show that all the kid needed was the courage to face the world and he'll grow out of it. Or maybe grow superpowers and murder a man, same thing.
Now consider a guy like Le Chiffre, who's designed by a team of screenwriting engineers to be the most punchable twerp in Western civilization -- he's just begging Bond to take his lunch money as he does complex math in his head, weeps blood onto his pouty little lip, and refuses to fill his lungs with a noble gulp of air like any real man would do. Obviously, the problem is that he's a wimp who refuses to will his terrifying disease out of existence.
"Ugh, I can barely look at you."
Final note: The world's asthmatics want you to know that nobody ever uses an inhaler correctly in films. That said, you ever watch somebody hold their breath for 10 seconds? That's a lot of movie. In that amount of time, Michael Bay can stage 17 different set pieces featuring no fewer than three offensive stereotypes. Two of them explode.
For stories that are more insane than any action movie, check out 6 Insane True Stories More Badass Than Any Action Movie and 6 Real Acts of Self Defense Too Awesome for an Action Movie. It's Cracked ... with a vengeance!
Brendan made fun of this kind of laziness before with Coming Soon to a Theater Near You (Unfortunately) and 6 Tips for Turning Awful Fan Fiction into a Best-Seller.