For the past hour Peter Owen, a very tall, thin man with an aquiline nose, long nails (all the better to knot wigs with) and a long strawberry-blond ponytail, has been pacing up and down his Bristol workshop, explaining why good wig and make-up designers are some of the most important people in film and theatre.
Unlike the rest of the world, which blithely ignores annual exhortations from designers and magazines to invest in fake bits of hair, actors and opera singers spend most of their working lives in them. The Sheltering Sky, The Russia House, Alien 3 , The Seagull, Burn This, Madhouse In Goa . . . practically every strand of hair in them came courtesy of Owen and his partners Peter King and Caroline Turner. Currently their work is on show in House of the Dead in Frankfurt, Turandot in Cardiff, Orlando and A Midsummer Night's Dream in Paris and Un ballo in Maschera in Munich . . . as well as nine of the 10 top box-office grossers listed in last month's Empire magazine. These days directors even prefer to use wigs for contemporary films because it's safer than dyeing an actor's own hair or waiting for it to grow. One director spends pounds 30,000 a year ordering wigs and eyebrows from Owen, King and Turner for his personal rather than professional use.
Obviously, these are not the kind of wigs you see in the local department store. To mention shop-bought wigs in the same breath as the pull-ons you see dangling atop Bette Midler, Cher, Joan Collins or Ru Paul is like comparing Oribe with the pounds 3 wash 'n' set crimper down the road. Owen, King and Turner wigs are generally made of real hair (a lot of wig hair comes from St Petersburg; Russian tresses are more likely to be long, and less likely to be adulterated with tints and perms). Each strand of hair is individually hand-knotted on to the wig in different directions - the process takes about a week - so that the hair falls the way it did when it was attached to the scalp. The wig bases are made of ultra-fine mesh: 20-denier for film, 30 for stage. The wig they made for Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons was 12- denier, which meant it could be drawn back into a sleek chignon without anyone spotting the fake hairline. Even Cher and Joanie can't do that with theirs.
Owen has two partners, but he is the front-man, and the one who invented the techniques that make their wigs the standard by which all others are judged. He is funny and bright and, while at pains to point out that he is not a bully - a diva, maybe, but not a bully - it is clear that he does not suffer fools. And opera, it seems equally clear, has rather a lot of them. So does the Hollywood business community, which is stuffed with producers who hire him for his period work and then ask if he can make it look a bit more like Dynasty. One even asked him to make Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons look like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.
Then there was the singer who was supposed to be playing a pale blonde waif and insisted - insisted - on going on in her own orange perm. 'Normally I'm very patient, but after two weeks of this I lost it,' says Owen. 'I told her she was overweight, had no taste and if she didn't want to be a laughing stock she'd wear the bloody wig.'
If he is sometimes brusque, it's because he knows the degree to which the right wig and make-up can help define a character. In the closing scenes of Dangerous Liaisons, for example, when John Malkovich's urbane and treacherous character, Valmont, breaks off his relationship with Michelle Pfeiffer, and then goes to report to Glenn Close, Owen switched the two wigs he'd designed for Malkovich. Throughout the rest of the film Valmont wears the artificial wig when with Close, the natural one when with Pfeiffer. By swapping them, Owen made Valmont seem unexpectedly confused and vulnerable. 'It's not something audiences consciously think about, but subliminally a person's hair can make extremely revealing statements about them.'
Given their commitment and the technical brilliance of Owen, King and Turner's wigs, it's not surprising that a number of actors and directors - among them Pfeiffer, Malkovich, Vanessa Redgrave, Jonathan Demme and Stephen Frears - habitually work with them.
Frears first worked with Owen on Prick Up Your Ears, then commissioned him for Liaisons - every wig-maker's dream - and is currently collaborating with him on a film provisionally titled Mary Riley. 'The thing about Peter,' he says, 'is that he's a really clever bugger. He's got a great eye and he understands things. In a way his wigs gave John the outline of Valmont.'
Initially Frears had reservations about giving Malkovich such theatrical wigs, 'but when I saw what they'd come up with I thought, 'yes'. They were so elegant, you could understand why these people wore them'.
Owen likes working with Frears, who takes risks, and with any actor who wants to be taken seriously enough to go with whatever seems appropriate for the character. Tom Hanks was so accommodating when advised that the wigs for his role as an Aids sufferer in Philadelphia would sit more closely on his head if he shaved it that Owen couldn't sleep for three nights. 'It's such a radical thing to do to someone's personality and you can hardly say woops if it doesn't work.'
The effect, though, is so realistic that most people think they're watching Hanks's real hair indulging in some convincing method acting. Hanks was so pleased that when filming was over he wore one of his wigs for interviews while his own hair was growing back.
Generally, Owen, King and Turner succeed in persuading performers to wear most of the hair-dos and make-up they design. (The recent run-in with a famous Hollywood actor who told Owen he wasn't going to wear any 'wiggy shit' and then went off to play golf, leaving the dollars 200,000 a day studio empty and the rest of the cast frantically shooting around his scenes, was a rare failure.) Yet, although they set standards for the rest of the industry, none of them formally trained as a wig-maker. At the start of the Eighties, Turner was a hairdresser with the Welsh National Opera, King was a hairdresser doing 30 perms a day in Bristol salons and Owen was a Bristol University languages graduate turned costume designer. The dire wigs he was working with led him to conduct some of his own experiments. 'Fortunately, I couldn't find a single how-to-make-your-own-wigs book,' he says, 'so I had to teach myself by watching real heads of hair.'
This made him both obsessed - he can spot highlights at 50 yards - and ingenious. All his techniques go against received wisdom, but they are utterly logical.
By 1987 he had set up business with King and Turner and was teaching them his methods. At first they worked together on productions. Now they tackle projects separately, although they constantly bounce ideas off one another. Where Owen intimidates, Turner and King coax (King recently persuaded Jerry Hall not to wear false eyelashes for her role in the forthcoming film Princess Karabou, which is set in the 18th century, and soothed another actress into a period grey wig by promising she wouldn't have to wear a centre parting). 'Sometimes you meet half-way,' reasons Turner. 'After all, they're the ones who have to appear on a 20ft screen wearing the thing.'
Experts can tell their wigs apart, but the common trait is that they are either dizzily, wittily theatrical (such as those made for The Draughtsman's Contract), or so naturalistic that no one, not even Hollywood insiders, believes it is not the actor's real hair. This is pretty irritating when it comes to Oscar nominations. 'But,' reflects Owen philosophically, 'at least we know we're doing our job properly when people don't come out talking about the wigs.'
Even without public recognition, they have Hollywood and the opera and theatre worlds beating their way to Bristol for wigs that cost about pounds 900 each (the average wig bill for a Hollywood film is about pounds 85,000). To colour the hair, they use upholstery dyes - it's healthier for the hair. When they want to perm the wigs they set them in rollers and boil them. 'It's what the ancient Egyptians did,' says King. 'It makes for a much longer lasting perm and it doesn't damage the hair. It would be great in salons if it weren't for the fact that you'd kill your clients in the process.'
'Everyone thought we'd got the colour right in Draughtsman's Contract, but outrageously exaggerated their size,' says Owen. 'In fact the height was exactly right. It was the whiteness that was all wrong. Most 18th-century wigs were grey or natural-coloured. It was Hollywood in the Thirties that made them white.'
This is why accuracy matters (their bibles are the National Portrait Gallery and Richard Corson's History of Hair) but, equally, isn't the be-all-and-end-all. 'In the 19th century, sailors stopped wearing ponytails literally overnight,' says King, 'so if you're doing sailors post that date it would be a real faux pas to show them in long wigs.' Too much historical pedantry can alienate an audience, however. And, with the best will in the world, historical productions inevitably reflect the beauty ideals of the time in which they are made rather than those of the era they portray.
More important is capturing the spirit of a period and helping an actor find the key to a character. If Owen were being strictly faithful to the book, for instance, he would have given Michelle Pfeiffer a dark wig in Age of Innocence and Winona Ryder a fair one. 'But Michelle only works as a brunette when she's wearing lots of make-up, which would look all wrong for the late 19th century, and Winona doesn't look good as a blonde.'
By the same token, when he was working on Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, he followed his own impressionistic notion of what would happen to an Aids sufferer's hair. 'I thought that my ideas would be similar to that of the audience. There was no point in basing the wigs on what really happened to one particular sufferer's hair. Aids affects everyone in a different way.'
The result is hair and make-up that make the film surprisingly harrowing for such a big- budget Hollywood product. Inevitably, not all directors and actors are prepared to take such risks. Peter King regrets that the green hair in Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits was expunged from the screen version, which stars Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. 'They were scared it would look too weird. I think we could have made it look marvellous.'
They will not make wigs for productions that they are not personally supervising because, as King says, 'a wig is only as good as the last person who handled it'. That means constant travelling and endless dealings with performers' fragile egos. Of course, they adore it really - not just the creativity, but the opportunity to become a reference point for future historians. Already Owen has seen styles he invented for period films reinterpreted in other productions. 'When you're working in har-
mony with the director and actor to make every aspect of a character ring true, it's bliss,' says King, 'but, God, it's painstaking. I swear if you were working on Noddy you'd have month-long conversations about how, metaphysically speaking, Big Ears should be auburn.'
Lisa Armstrong is associate editor of 'Vogue'
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