From asserting dominance through eyelashes to the demise of a marriage told through a chignon, Kubrick understood the nuances of hair and make-up as a narrative tool
As a new exhibition at the Design Museum in London chronicles the creative process of legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, we dip into the archives of some of Kubrick’s most memorable beauty looks. From asserting dominance through eyelashes to the demise of a marriage told through a chignon, Kubrick understood the nuances of hair and make-up as a narrative tool, a way to flesh out characters and communicate plot.
Here some of his defining beauty moments on film.
Alex DeLarge's menacing lashes, A Clockwork Orange
Perhaps what makes antihero Alex the most terrifying of Kubrick’s sociopaths, is the streak of irony in his evil. Alex flourishes in the role of the comedic psychopath, every crime he commits having a flair of theatricality. He rapes a woman to the tune of Singing in the Rain. He drinks tall glasses of milk laced with drugs. He listens to Beethoven in preparation for his kill.
To assert his dominance as leader of “the Droogs”, Alex takes their white boiler suit uniform a step further by rimming one menacing eye with fluttery eyelashes. The look is almost clown-like, but abhorrently pretty, making his twisted animalistic faces when killing even more disturbing. The lashes are a play on femininity, mocking the softness he preys upon by directly reflecting the people who fear him. Alex is innately evil until he undergoes behaviour modification. Behaviour modification strips him of his individualism, reflected in his overly plain appearance thereafter.
Bowie, Led Zeppelin, and Guns N Roses were a few of many bands capping the Alex aesthetic as their own, milking Alex’s “before” look as a way to warn against power and what it could induce. A single eye rimmed with liner and lashes became a dangerous wink to the frenzied crime reputation of the film, and a middle finger to the underlying theme of government interference.
Alice Hartford’s loose chignon, Eyes Wide Shut
Nicole Kidman at her finest starring alongside Tom Cruise in Kubrick’s avant-garde take on a marriage falling to bits.
Eyes Wide Shut hairstylist and Kubrick beauty consultant Kerry Warn reveals the decision behind Nicole Kidman’s iconic out-of-bed-chignon. “Stanley said to me: I want to see all those red curls, that’s what I love about her: those red curls and that fair skin.” But Warn had another idea. “I said, Stanley, can I just show you something?” Warn took Kidman’s hair, twisted it up and said: “You’re losing all the neck, that great neck, the skin, the jaw.” Stanley replied, “You’re absolutely right.”
Her delicate, part professional, part post-coital hair aids to visualize the tone of the film: distrust in a marriage, desire, losing control. The updo, with pieces falling down, is a representation for Kidman’s sexual frustration throughout the film - as she is caught between trying to maintain her marriage (her hair up signifying stability, devotion, and modesty), and on the brink of succumbing to adultery (hair down, erotic, wild, untamable).
Dolores Haze’s helmet hair, Lolita
Sue Lyon plays the role of disturbingly beautiful Lolita, a 14-year old girl falling prey to a (much) older man Humbert Humbert. The uncomfortable line between child and woman is enhanced and communicated by her coiffed, adult-ish hair, a stark opposite from her playful demeanour. Her hair doesn’t suit her and makes the audience aware of this little girl playing dress up. Lolita is pretending to be a woman, trying on different roles of femininity as every adolescent girl does, especially the summer before high school when there is nothing to do but try and transform yourself into someone prettier, older.
The ultimate femme enfant, her hair is at once alluring and repelling given her youthful context. Kubrick essentially tricks the viewer into almost justifying Humbert’s predatory actions.
Jack’s combover, The Shining
Jack Nicholson’s murderous meltdown in the Shining solidified his facial expressions as a cultural point of reference since the film’s debut in 1980. Jack stars as “Jack”, a man who moves his family to a remote hotel during the off-season, snowy winter to become its caretaker. The hotel brings out the worst in everyone, especially Jack, who begins to replicate the haunted tale of the previous caretaker who killed his family years ago.
Jack’s well-kept but shabby masculinity, in the beginning, convey a life of normality, subject to the whims of family life but maintaining composure through hardship. The evolution of his combover is a direct slope for Jack losing his mind. Upon his arrival, he is the picture of mediocracy, with only the slightest glint of crazy in his eye and certainly regular use of shampoo. As Jack continues to inhabit the hotel, his gaze deadens, his hair grows and manifests into a feather-light flop of oily hair. His body is a shell, an unkept tool to carry out the deeds he has planned for his family, his thinning hair symbolic for his declining state of mind and apathy towards himself and the wellbeing of his family. In the film’s climax, Jack is so far gone that he almost seems bald, symbolic of his total unravelling.
Varinia’s androgynous cut, Spartacus
During the time of Spartacus’ 1960 release, actresses were either cast as screen sirens or aged old crows. There was little in between, so Kubrick’s decision to render Hollywood bombshell Jean Simmons in her role as Varinia with an androgynous looking cut was a bold, subversive move - one that reinforced film’s homosexual undertones. When Spartacus and Varinia meet, her hair is cropped short, she is skinny and gaunt, made to look boyish. Homosexuality had not yet been accepted into mainstream cinema, especially not in a Roman war retelling such as Spartacus. The film was about the loyalty of men towards slave turned warrior Spartacus. However, the bisexuality of ancient Rome was so important for Kubrick to convey, he even added a scene where Crassus and Antoninus discuss liking “oysters and snails”, a metaphor for both sexes… you know. Here Jean’s boyish cut becomes a symbol for repressed homosexual desire.