In A Sea of Beautiful People

If Hollywood is populated by attractive people, how does a movie telegraph that a character is more attractive in its universe relative to the rest of the cast?

I’m not talking about style (yet) – many stories have tried to delineate beauty based on the clothes a character wears, or how cool their demeanor is. This discounts the fact that some people can be stylish without being attractive.

Think of Angelina Jolie. Does anyone need to tell you that Angelina Jolie is beautiful? No. But in the world of The Tourist (2010) (NO, you should NOT bother to watch it) her beauty is remarked upon – verbally or visually – in literally every scene.

(To be fair, this may be important because it is also a movie that pretends Johnny Depp is not an attractive person.)

Check out the scene below – a room full of beautiful people are turning to look at her entering a party. Useful information to impart to us, but also a bit baffling.

Think of Mean Girls (2004), when Regina talks about the Spring Fling Queen’s attributes: “[Gretchen]’s not pretty,” she tells Cady. “…The Spring Fling Queen is always pretty. I mean, the crazy thing is is that it should be Karen, but people forget about her ’cause she’s such a slut.”

Did you know that Amanda Seyfried is prettier than Lacey Chabert, or Rachel Helen-of-Troy McAdams? I certainly didn’t. Thanks, movie, for giving me context!

Speaking of Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) does a very good job of establishing that her character is a “6/7 in New York” but in a war zone she’s a “9, borderline 10.” For reference, that makes Margot Robbie’s character a 15. Again, helpful pointers from the script.

WARNING: EXPLICIT/PROFANE CLIP

Here’s where it gets dicey: Renée Zellweger famously gained 30 pounds in order to play Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). Ergo, Bridget Jones must not be as attractive as Renée Zellweger. BUT! The plot of Bridget Jones’s Diary makes absolutely no bloody sense UNLESS Bridget Jones is drop dead gorgeous in its universe. She has both peak Hugh Grant and (always peak) Colin Firth falling over their faces to win her heart; she gets a job on camera with no qualifications; and Natasha (evil Miss Honey) is incredibly threatened by her associating with Mark Darcy, despite the fact that Natasha herself is incredibly accomplished and svelte. None of this makes sense unless Bridget is very, very attractive.

Is this a fault of the movie, or a fault of my assumptions?

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What I find interesting about the question of movie-level attractiveness is that the makeover cliché does not necessarily apply.

Makeovers have nothing to do with the objective attractiveness of their subjects: on the contrary, makeovers are entirely about societal norms.

They’re about status, not looks.

Anne Hathaway doesn’t need to be prettier in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), she needs to respect fashion and incorporate it into her life. Tai doesn’t become prettier in Clueless (1995), she becomes more stylish so that Cher won’t be embarrassed by her. Back to Mean Girls, Cady is already pretty – “a regulation hottie” – and the purpose of her Plastics makeover is to make her fit in better.

Romantically, the makeover also allows the guy to overcome the superficial aesthetics of the girl – or to get over his insecurities of liking a girl he isn’t supposed to like – by making her look like what he conventionally recognizes as attractive, thereby allowing him to see her beauty that was there all along.

It’s what allows the athlete to fall for the basket case in The Breakfast Club (1985), and the prom king to fall for the nerdy freak in She’s All That (1999). (Poor Steve Rendazo in Juno (2007), who never fulfills his destiny.)

Obviously, more realistic casting would tell more realistic stories – no one argues that, other than shows on The CW. But part of the fun of Hollywood is making the world seem a little better by using idealized dialogue, gigantic budgets, and beautiful people. Nonetheless, I find myself doing legwork to put the story into context. In terms of attractiveness, yes, but I’m also doing that for the way a super smart person would be treated in the real world, or how a friendship would be affected when one of them dresses like she’s Anna Wintour every day.

These things can be glossed over in romantic comedies or stories full of archetypes, but if you’re telling a serious story, these are lived-in parts of people that you can’t ignore. They’re the parts of a character that inform how they interact with the world and how they move in it. I need more storytelling to reflect that.