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.
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).
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.