Moustaches: There's no bushiness like movie bushiness

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From Chaplin to Selleck, film stars have been festooned with fuzz. Not now. Daniel Bettridge mourns the demise of the mo

Venice, Sundance, Cannes; to the list of the world's great movie fiestas we can now add another, after it was announced earlier this month that the first ever moustache film festival was set to twirl its way onto the cinema circuit. The event, which will take place in New England this March, is part of Stache Pag – the eastern seaboard's annual celebration of facial fuzz. Organised by a group called No Umbrella Media, the festival aims to raise money for charity and offer new ways to "better celebrate moustaches and to maximise the moustache man's moment of expression".

It might sound like a joke, and with a $100 prize on offer it probably is; but isn't it about time we started celebrating the role that bristly upper lips have played in the story of film? After all, moustaches have played an important role in movies down the years – in fact, it's possible to trace a long, furry, line throughout the entirety of cinema history.

Think back to the earliest days of cinema, and a string of moustachioed movie stars spring immediately to mind: Charlie Chaplin's trademark toothbrush 'tache, Clark Gable's shapely chevron, Douglas Fairbanks's neatly coiffured caterpillar, and Errol Flynn's impossibly manicured mo. There's even Groucho Marx's greasepaint smear, an affected attempt at a movie-star moustache which he later covered up with real facial fuzz.

All of these men are icons of the silver screen who are as well-remembered for what graced their upper lips as the movies they starred in. They were also amongst the first real film stars; familiar faces whose antics became synonymous with their moustaches to audiences across the globe, helping to cement the place of soup-strainers in cinema. During these early exchanges of big-screen entertainment, facial furniture even began to invade the language of film itself. Today, the moustache-twirling villain is a cinematic convention that's instantly recognised by audiences all over the globe.

But while the stereotypical moustachioed meanie can trace its roots back to Victorian era stage plays, it wasn't until a particular character made his bow in the 1913 flick Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life that it became a cultural convention, and one that's still employed by all manner of media almost a century later.

While for silent-era funny men like Chaplin and Marx the moustache was a part of the comic persona, in years to come follicular self-expression would become an unquestionable mark of masculinity in movies. In 1958, for example, Charlton Heston donned some facial furniture to add extra edge to his crooked cop in the brilliant film noir Touch of Evil; while 'taches had also become as much a part of the picture as six-shooters, saddles and saloons when the Western genre blazed a trail at the box office in the preceding decade.

The trend continued into the late Sixties and early Seventies, a heyday for hairy upper lips. where the moustache was synonymous with manhood. It was a time when moustaches were smart, suave and manly; a facial adornment donned by men of power from politicians to top sports stars, a macho man trend that inevitably found its way onto the screen. You need only look at Robert Redford's Marlboro-Man-like effort in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Charles Bronson's facial furniture in Death Wish for proof of its prowess. Indeed, by the end of the decade moustaches were even making their mark on galaxies far, far away, thanks to Billy Dee Williams's turn as Lando Calrissian in the smash hit Star Wars franchise.

Sadly, during the 1980s, the movie moustache went into steep decline. Whether it was by association with Ron Jeremy and the fake plumbing specialists of America's porn-movie industry, or simply a shift in the fashions of the day, but facial fuzz began to fade from our screens. Sure there were cinematic 'taches; but it's fair to say that neither Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona nor Anthony Edwards's camp co-pilot Goose in Top Gun were helping matters much. However, cinema did not go completely clean-shaven, thanks in no small part to the sterling efforts of Burt Reynolds, Chuck Norris, and Tom Selleck, whose five o'clock shadow still looms large over Hollywood's hairy-faced inhabitants.

In recent times, the bristly baton has been passed to those who star in period pieces, such as Daniel Day-Lewis's bushy oil baron in There Will be Blood or, more recently, Jean Dujardin's silent star in The Artist. It has also seen a return to comic tomfoolery, thanks to the over-the-top bushiness of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat and Matt Damon's titular tittle-tattler in 2009's The Informant! But, save for Brad Pitt's bristles in Inglourious Basterds, Robert Downey Jr's neat little number in Iron Man and the occasional Sam Elliot cameo, the moustache is no longer synonymous with manliness in movies. In fact as Will Ferrell proved in the brilliantly offbeat Anchorman, it has actually become something of an in-joke that is increasingly used to poke fun in the direction of a bygone age of machismo.

Part of this downfall can be laid at the feet of our changing view of masculinity. What it means to be a man has evolved over recent years, and, in turn, this has filtered down into film. "Metrosexuality" has been the buzz-word for a generation, and so a new breed of sensitive, introspective and emotional men has taken up residence in movies. As a result there is no longer a place for moustachioed macho men, bristly brutes who let their fists do the talking. Instead audiences expect their heroes to think as well as fight, clearing the way for the likes of Daniel Craig's brooding Bond or Tom Cruise's impossibly manicured secret agent to become the male icons of contemporary silver screens.

But, along the way, we've lost something. From a villainous curl to an unkempt handlebar, the movie moustache can tell us something about a character that even the best script and most adept actor can fail to commit to film. It's an unashamed mark of manliness, something that's sorely lacking in the cabal of clean-shaven heroes that populate blockbuster proceedings today. As Stache Pag proves, the upper lip embers are still very much alive; so lets hope that March's festival can once again fan the flames of facial hair in films and return the movie moustache to its rightful place in cinema history.

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