Friday, August 31, 2012


Reading the other day the simultaneous obituaries of Phyllis Diller and Tony Scott has been revelatory. They turned out to be complementary articles serving as bookends for the taste of America or, if you prefer, its psyche.

Note some emerging deductions. Phyllis Diller’s success was based on self-mockery, whereas film director Scott’s was founded on male heroics that, against all odds, led to triumph. Two almost ironclad formulas, both based on lies.

Let’s start with Diller, i.e., ladies first, although her public image was that of a beleaguered average woman, not exactly a lady. As the New York Times obituary made clear, she underwent numerous surgeries to make herself look younger and better, but then exerted almost as much effort, e.g., her explosive Slovenly Peter hair, to make herself look ridiculous, which was the title of the parodic song (Eartha Kitt’s “Monotonous”) that more or less launched her career.

The idea was not to look better than the typical housewife, but, if anything, worse. That way female drudges viewing her would not be envious, as of the sexy Hollywood starlets, but pleasurably patronizing. “I look better than she does, and if only I bothered, which thank God I don’t, I could have the same career.” I firmly believe that looking worse than average helped also the success, among others, of Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli.

Sure, a Hedy Lamarr or Rita Hayworth made it on the sexy allure that secured the male vote. But the probably even more numerous female vote was grabbed by “I don’t envy anyone less attractive than me,” and so becoming reconciled to remaining a cook and child-bearer in prosaic households from coast to coast. Not longing or striving for cinematic stardom—or any other kind—becomes a virtue to be cherished.

But all the polymorphous surgery that Diller underwent does not negate my theory. Underneath the mask of less than ordinariness, it pays to be as desirable as possible so as to please a husband or lover. It is what really allows you to make a clown of yourself: the secret knowledge of being actually much superior to your image. It is rather like the principle by which an actor playing King Lear needs to be younger and stronger than the seeming dotard he portrays. Diller’s obit calls attention to, among other things, her good figure and cosmetically embellished nose.

So much for female fantasy; now what about the male counterpart? Well, that’s where the lone good man, who may or may not be also handsome, wins out against all odds, archetypically in a film such as “High Noon,” where Gary Cooper triumphs not only over assorted villains, but even over the total respectable citizenry that cravenly refuses to lend him a hand.

Yes, you say, but Cooper was also handsome. True, but not in the glamour-guy manner of a Robert Taylor or Tyrone Power, or even a sexy Clark Gable, humanized by his Obama ears. It was Cooper’s rugged virility and moral courage that clearly mattered more than sex appeal. Consider that even such an unsightly actor as Ernest Borgnine could find a not unpresentable female mate. You might even be as underprivileged as a Sammy Davis Jr. or an Anthony Quinn (remember his Mexican mother) and overcome being black or Hispanic.

Consider now Tony Scott’s favorite action hero, Tom Cruise. True, he looks good, but all you need is a picture of him and his wife, Katie Holmes, to see how much shorter he is. Besides, his real family name was Mapother, which could make anyone feel inferior. Anyway, more power to shorties.

But what about the glamorous Tony Curtis? Enough people knew that his real name was Bernard Schwartz, so more power to Jewish men. For that matter, no one could look more Jewish than Dustin Hoffman, who, on top of that, tends to come off as a smartass, and still ends up on top—even in female drag.

So here are keys to success for underachieving exteriors, male and female. Granted that they are not the only ones, and that they are not infallible. Ambition is also needed, and sticktoitiveness, some luck, and, most likely, impudence. But not everyone can claim those, and so for many people, perhaps most, the formula doesn’t work—proves a lie.

Do not, however, for all that, disregard it. It also thrives on mediocrity, which is the unfortunate downside of democracy. Just look at our successful politicians.


  1. Great piece but you left out talent which is probably the most important factor in the success of the underachieving exterior. I remember taking my young eight year old son and his best friend Lucca to see "Funny Girl" in the movies many years ago. Lucca, even then the female admiring Italian male
    came out of the movie and told me that he thought Barbara Streisand was the most beautiful woman he ever saw. Her great youthful talent transcended her unconventional looks - and that was a child who viewed her with his own eyes.

  2. As John has pointed out in previous articles, there are a number of British actresses who are not conventional beauties but seem to have the knack of making themselves look beautiful - think Rita Tushingham, Lynn Redgrave, Joan Plowright and several others. And why do attractive European actresses have no qualms about allowing themselves to look plain and frumpy, if a role requires it? Very few American actresses seem willing to do this (OK Liz Taylor in "Virginia Woolf" but that's another story). As for Miss Streisand's alleged "beauty," I've never understood it abd probably never will. To each his own.....