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Happy Lipstick Day, Film Fans...

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 2 August 2017
If you’re going to celebrate National Lipstick Day, you may as well take inspiration from movie stars.

This is not an article about makeup—it’s an article about the visual frisson films elicit from depicting lipsticked lips.

When lipstick touches lips in the movies, something magical happens. Looking at or experiencing the alchemical juxtaposition of a shade of red, pink, coral, or brown (usually) and the color of skin is emotionally affecting (and more than merely arousing). It’s a drama in its own right.

Dolores Costello, 1927
Dolores Costello, 1927 | © Macfadden Publications

Film especially, and digital video only marginally less so, can emphasize that collusion (or collision) more explicitly than reality. The secret ingredient in lipstick isn’t wax or oil. It’s imagination.

Self-evidently, a degree of fetishization takes place when a director or a makeup artist requires an actor to apply lipstick for the rest of the world to contemplate in some way. If the eyes are the window of the soul, then the lips are its embrasure—the portal for the tongue and for words that can caress or sting—and the cushion for other people’s lips.

Is it any wonder that lips have loomed large in the cinema? They are not equal in importance with eyes, for looking is the cinema’s domain, but they are infinitely more important than genitals, which are very low down in the cinematic pecking order.

It has become acceptable for practically any adult to wear lipstick in movies, but for the purposes of celebrating National Lipstick Day, July 29, I’ve chosen not to celebrate Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell (and accidentally Kyle MacLachlan) in Blue Velvet; or Heath Ledger’s The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Instead, you can see here the likes of femme avenger Lena Olin (pictured at top in 1993’s Romeo Is Bleeding); the patrician silent star Dolores Costello (Drew Barrymore’s grandmother), whose grave I visited in the 1990s; Louise Brooks’s not-quite-penitent widow Lulu in Pandora’s Box; “It Girl” Clara Bow (below left), who was born in Brooklyn 112 years ago today, and she who is aptly named Scarlett in Under the Skin (2013).

Clara Bow in Rough House Rosie (1927)
Clara Bow in Rough House Rosie (1927) | © Paramount Pictures

That’s because I’ve needed to be honest with myself and choose the lipstick-wearers in film who have spoken most eloquently to me. To that end, I canonize as their patron saint Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) from 1947’s Black Narcissus.

Unable to suppress her lust for the brooding English agent (David Farrar), appointed to help her Anglican sisterhood settle in the Himalayas, Ruth defiantly asserts her femininity. She does it before Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the repressed Sister Superior, by painting her lips crimson. The gothic melodrama appeared during Britain’s post-war Age of Austerity, when it was necessary for Ruth to be regarded as crazy. She is, it’s true, but these days she seems much more of a feminist heroine than Clodagh, who took vows because she’s too scared to love again.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece, which opened in New York 70 years ago this August 13, screens at the Museum of Modern Art at 1pm on August 10 as part of Modern Matinees: The Impeccable Deborah Kerr.

Here, we salute (“anoint” is a better word) all of cinema’s lipstick heroines—for the arched bows of their beautiful mouths.

Louise Brooks as Lulu in the courtroom scene in Pandora’s Box (1929)
Louise Brooks as Lulu in the courtroom scene in Pandora’s Box (1929) | © Süd-Film
Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless (1995)
Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless (1995) | © Paramount Pictures
Sasha Lane as Star in American Honey (2016)
Sasha Lane as Star in American Honey (2016) | © A24
Susan Sarandon as Louise and Geena Davis as Thelma in Thelma & Louise (1991)
Susan Sarandon as Louise and Geena Davis as Thelma in Thelma & Louise (1991) | © MGM
Zhang Ziyi as Bai Ling in 2046 (2004)
Zhang Ziyi as Bai Ling in 2046 (2004) | © Sony Pictures Classics
Olive Thomas as Ginger in The Flapper (1920)
Olive Thomas as Ginger in The Flapper (1920) | © Select Pictures Corporation
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013) | © Fox Searchlight Pictures
Nastassja Kinski as Tess Durbeyfield in Tess (1979)
Nastassja Kinski as Tess Durbeyfield in Tess (1979) | © Columbia Pictures
Nicole Kidman as Satine in Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Nicole Kidman as Satine in Moulin Rouge! (2001) | © Twentieth-Century Fox Film Corporation
Samantha Robinson in The Love Witch (2016)
Samantha Robinson in The Love Witch (2016) | © Oscilloscope Laboratories
Louise Germaine as Sylvia Berry in Lipstick on Your Collar (1993)
Louise Germaine as Sylvia Berry in Lipstick on Your Collar (1993) | © BBC
Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh in The Big Heat (1953)
Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh in The Big Heat (1953) | © Columbia Pictures
Isabella Rossellini as Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet (1986)
Isabella Rossellini as Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet (1986) | © De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird in Carol (2015)
Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird in Carol (2015) | © The Weinstein Company
Publicity photograph of Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (1930)
Publicity photograph of Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (1930) | © UFA
Angelina Jolie in the title role of Maleficent (2014)
Angelina Jolie in the title role of Maleficent (2014) | © Walt Disney
Scarlett Johansson as The Female in Under the Skin (2013)
Scarlett Johansson as The Female in Under the Skin (2013) | © A24
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad (2016)
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad (2016) | © Warner Bros.
Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) | © Paramount Pictures