FILM / Now you see them Now you don't: Bette Davis removed them. Woody Allen needs them. Marilyn Monroe steamed them up. On the nose or in the hand, glasses are the ultimate movie symbol. John Lyttle investigates

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Cinema has always been the medium of spectacle. And spectacles. Glasses, face furniture, bi-focals - the movies love them. They are divine prop, handy disguise and all-purpose symbol, the one item certain to transform heart-throbs into highbrows (Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Ryan O'Neal in What's Up Doc), sexpots into schoolmarms (Jennifer Jones in Good Morning Miss Dove, Susan Sarandon in The Witches of Eastwick) and Superman into a mere mortal.

Let's start with the transparently obvious: 'Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.' Marilyn Monroe quotes Dorothy Parker's dictum in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) - when she's not bumping into walls. Monroe would rather be blind as a bat and suffer breakages than be a crude cultural stereotype: the repressed female barricaded behind her frames, staring out at a lustful world. Horny and horn-rims just don't mix.

If she isn't a buttoned-up secretary, burning with banked fires, aka the new Miss Moneypenny of The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989), she teaches, the classroom being a supposedly safe, pre-sexual place: witness Bernadette Peters in Pennies from Heaven (1981), her glassy owl-chick gaze simultaneously repelling and provoking male attention. Or she's the ulimate spinster aunt, like Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942), spectacles as blatant as a billboard emblazoned with the warning 'Hands off'.

There's a simple cure for such neurotic ills: remove the glasses. 'You don't need those,' psychiatrist Claude Rains tells Davis, who replies that she doesn't 'feel dressed without them'. Hey presto; frump is instantly transformed into a sleek fashion-plate, a change quite as extreme as Bernadette Peters' evolution from educator to whore.

This might seem laughable, except for the stereotype's amazing durability. It's one thing to laugh at National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), with its spoof-like gag about a plain girl taking off her glasses to become an entirely new woman (a busty, lynx-eyed blonde), and quite another to see Ellen Barkin, professional woman afraid of her own passions, run through the same routine seriously in The Big Easy (1986). Only Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) manages a woman character combining spectacles and overt sexuality - and she dies for her sins, her strangulation reflected in the lenses that have fallen from her come-hither face.

Indeed, movies rarely endorse women's specs appeal. A rare exception is Born Yesterday (1950). The dumb blonde Judy Holliday, striving for culture, dons the usually offending articles to read heavy weight tomes. Garson Kanin's liberal script murmurs approval: her glasses pair up perfectly with those of the hero, William Holden.

Not that it's much better for the male of the species. In Some Like it Hot (1959) glasses are the outward sign of Tony Curtis's (feigned) impotence. Dialogue explicitly links the two. 'Your spectacles are steaming up,' Monroe notes, midway through her assault on Curtis's supposedly slumbering senses. Born Yesterday, Bringing Up Baby and What's Up, Doc? also equate their male stars' weak eyesight with weak libido; the hidden price of overt intellectualism, cries the sub-text (Holliday, like Monroe, has to seduce Holden). If you want it blunter yet, consider The Girl Can't Help It (1956): Jayne Mansfield's jiggle and wriggle actually splinter some poor sucker's specs into a thousand pieces.

This will come as news to Woody Allen, whose glasses shine with an erotic gleam powerful enough to balance any bookishness; maybe he saw the classic porn flick, Mr Peepers, a story of magic glasses and naked ladies, at a formative age. Allen wears his glasses not as a symbol but, like Harold Lloyd, as a necessity, flaunting them as unashamedly off screen as he does on, a trick James Dean declined to master. Ditto Robert Redford and Warren Beatty. Set upon by wily paparazzi, they blink madly: hey, it's okay for Woody their sheepish eyes implore, he's supposed to be a comic, not a pin-up.

Perhaps, like the bullied Piggy in Lord of the Flies (1990), men are frightened of having their glasses taken and broken; a slur on their masculinity. Or possibly they require 'milk bottle' lenses, which would never do, as such disfigurement is a sure celluloid sign of sadistic villainy (the Gestapo chief in Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981) or exotic, alien 'otherness' (Peter Lorre in the Mr Moto B-movies).

They don't know what they're missing. If directors myopically use spectacles as character shorthand and writers use them as clues - the murderers of Swoon (1992) are trapped by glasses dropped at the scene of the crime - astute actors employ them to upstage. You can suck one arm thoughtfully (contemplation). You can take them off in a single swift, movement (decision), and rub the bridge of your nose (despair). You can tip them to the end of your nose and peer over the rims (adorable). You can even remove them and rub your tired eyes the way a baby does (love me).

Of course, there is a brand of glasswear all stars suscribe to. If the ordinary brands reveal, sunglasses are about mystery, concealment, camouflage, confusion. Annabella Sciorra's first appearance in Mr Wonderful (1993) is behind sunglasses - and she's indoors. Facing ex-husband Matt Dillon, she's given herself a bargaining advantage: the windows to her soul have the blinds drawn and the shutters up. She's unreadable. Cheating on eye contact, sunglasses are fundamentally aggressive. Cops wear them a lot, from the sinister motorcycle type who stops Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960) to Magnum Force (1973), where a row of renegade reflecting shades greet Clint Eastwood in the underground car park. They confer spurious authority.

And spurious appeal. Sunglasses are so hot they're cool. The poster for Undercover Blues (reviewed opposite) asserts its with-it ways by picturing its principals looking dark around the eyes - groovy Ray-Bans adorn Mom, Dad and Baby. The image is cocky, which is why six Tom Cruise hits have our hero lazing in the shades, though Cruise seems a rank amateur beside Manhattan Murder Mystery's Anjelica Huston, who not only wears sunglasses indoors, but wears them indoors while it's raining. No wonder Susan Sarandon uses them to signal her transfiguration from schoolmarm to temptress in The Witches of Eastwick (1987) - they go so well with a dry martini and a low-cut bikini.

And with a prison break. On the run, Kevin Costner stops to replace his old sunglasses with new sunglasses in A Perfect World (1993). 'How do these look?' he asks, sure of the answer. 'Good,' comes the preordained reply.

In fact, it's possible to organise an entire film around the trope: The Blues Brothers (1980) genuflects to sunglasses' glamour. Neither Dan Aykroyd nor John Belushi need actually bother with a performance, for the usual situation has been reversed. The actors are now props for the shades, mere vehicles for their dark power. The boys need their retina protection as surely as The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963). Or, like him, they might find themselves staring at life as it really is.

(Photographs omitted)