Case 038: The Wigs That Wore Their Actorsfiled August 18, 2022
Bad wigs have often secured a star’s legacy: Faye Dunaway changed the style of the ’70s with her Bonnie and Clyde bob; Liza Minnelli clinched the Oscar with her sharp Cabaret cut; Audrey Tautou eternalized twee for the ages with her sweet Amelie wisps. These natural evolutions of beauty continue to reverberate throughout our cultural consciousness. But when Angelina Jolie strapped on a highly-flammable blonde rag for Salt, she embarked on a different journey, a dramatic stab at iconography whose tragic overreach would ensure camp immortality.
This form of wigwork, in which an actress is absorbed by a lifeless helmet, has a long history in the gay cinematic canon. This is hair as choice, as statement: an investment of money and publicity to announce a starlet’s shocking transformation. What role, and what stakes, could drive a person to look so artificial? In the sharpest stab of an otherwise toothless showbiz satire, HBO’s Irma Vep honored this legacy, strapping Alicia Vikander in a white bodysuit and hardcore bob, for the sci-fi-schlock hit Doomsday. The movie-within-a-show evoked the tawdriness, desperation, and ultimately queer legacy of Scarlett Johannson in Ghost in the Shell and Milla Jovovich in UltraViolet.
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures preserves Dorothy’s fossilized slippers and The Godfather’s dessicated cannoli—trinkets for the straight masses. Here at the headquarters of The InQueery, America’s leading gay research organization, our archivists work tirelessly on a more immediate mission of cultural dignity: Enter The InQueery’s Wig Preservation Chamber, where Sub-Zero refrigeration houses the great mops of the screen, honoring the women who bore them. Nicole Kidman has her own private wing, adjacent to the John Travolta executive suite!
As The InQueery catalogs our collection of hair pieces, we invite you to celebrate the performances which immortalized them. This is not a rundown of good or successful hair. This is an archive of major actresses, beloved by gay audiences, making strange and desperate choices. Though wigs often play a part within movies, à la Girls Trip’s spectacular dance-off, our list celebrates the hair that wore their wearers. May their craniums be forever deified.
Wig as Personality: Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, Ghost in the Shell, and the Avengers franchise
Posterity will judge if Johansson, often dead-eyed through truly explosive action set-pieces, is the most subtle sphinx in film history, or just bad at her job. To liven up the proceedings, producers have forced Johansson into all manner of batshit wardrobes, as if announcing that even if the star won’t show up, her wig will sing for its supper. And to Johansson’s credit, she let the wigmasters of Lucy and Ghost in the Shell go to town. Unfortunately, the neutered corporate feminism of the Avengers franchise calls for a “badass” superspy, whose dreadful array of hairstyles never spark joy. How are Chris Hemsworth’s strands having a better time than hers?
High concept, bad movie: Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux; Milla Jovovich in Ultraviolet; Amanda Seyfriend in In Time
Sci-fi has always been fertile ground for hair futurity: Sigourney Weaver goes from androgynous mullet to buzz-cut warrior in the Alien trilogy; Milla Jovovich tears it in tangerine bangs in The Fifth Element; and Carrie-Ann Moss redefines sleek for a new century with her Eckhaus-ready pixie cut in The Matrix. But what becomes of hair in bad sci-fi, in those movies which range more Cleopatra 2525 than Terminator 2? Before serving a buzz in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron (and, let’s not forget, Frances McDormand) went wild as a dark web superspy in Aeon Flux; Milla Jovovich, on a rare break from the Resident Evil salami factory, strapped on big bangs and a sword for Ultraviolet; and, most unforgivably, Amanda Seyfried traded her Venusian Mamma Mia locks for an imprisoning red bob in the failed Justin Timberlake vehicle In Time. The future of humanity may spell doom, but at least its saviors look runway-ready.
The bob-liberates: Natalie Portman in Léon, The Professional and Closer, Constance Wu in Hustlers
Before her Bat Mitzvah, Portman broke out as a pre-pubescent assassin in Léon, the Professional, combining an old-fashioned bob with semi-automatic weaponry, and in the process enshrined a new vision of battle-femme. This was the mercenary Lolita of a new millennium: witness her power. Nearly a decade later, after the manic spin cycle of Star Wars and Garden State, Portman would pick up the wig to redeclare her dangerous sexuality as an American stripper in…England? That Closer sucks is a certainty; for a more enjoyable suburbs-to-stripper-pole metamorphosis, enjoy Constance Wu’s neon weaves in Hustlers. Who could believe she was ever a passive ABC sitcom star after seeing that cut?
She can pull it off: Cate Blanchett in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Hanna
Scarlett Johannson needs her wigs to prove that she’s the least bit committed, or even conscious. But nobody would ever doubt that Cate Blanchett is game, whether she’s playing an orally-fixated CIA operative in Hanna, or a fetishistic KGB operative in Indiana Jones. She always comes with an accent, bodily ticks, and a volcano of repressed fury: the wig is just the cherry on top.
As she gains respect, so does her bob: Halle Berry’s X-Men evolution
In comic book mythology, Storm reigns supreme, an elemental disco goddess from the kingdom of Grace Jones. In cinema, however, she’s been given short shrift. Anyone who has seen Cloud Atlas knows that Halle Berry is down for anything. A white wig with bangs? Throw it on! The first X-Men makes Berry into a silent supporting player, but her stiff follicles, invoking TLC’s Lisa Lopes, seem to cry out for attention. By X2, the series’ pinnacle, Berry was an Oscar winner, and the white Diana Ross mop had to go. Negotiations went down before the third franchise installment—Berry wanted more lines, more action, more impact. Though X3 will largely be remembered as a failure, Storm shows up, and this time, she soars through the air with a beautiful fringe of gray and white. With 2014’s Days of Future Past, she was established as a respected player, rocking an Iris Apfel crop. The hair, and the woman who wears it, demands respect!
The bob of evil: Laura Dern on Twin Peaks: The Return
There isn’t space here to break down the plot mechanics of Twin Peaks: The Return, but suffice it to say: an evil pandimensional entity called Bob hijacks and replicates the bodies of Kyle McLachlan and Laura Dern, and bizarre high-jinks ensue. The dark version of Dern’s Diane can be identified by her frequent use of profanity, ever-present plume of cigarette smoke, and propensity for neon bobs. To find Bob, you must locate the bob. After her achingly humanistic performance on Enlightened, Dern embraces her bachelorette party wigs as instruments of vengeance. Who knew that synthetic hair could unleash real gravitas?
Wig MVP: Jennifer Garner on Alias
None of us watched Alias for the plot. Debuting at the descent of the ’90s, when the Spice Girls and Xena were endangered species, Alias would uphold the lost traditions of Girl Power in stealth. Garner, endowed with sublime cheekbones and an excellent high kick, would wear multiple wigs per episode, effortlessly channeling Jovovich’s Euro-babe while sneaking through bank vaults in Brussels and nightclubs in Zurich. Don’t let her Obama-era Christian movies fool you; this girl could handle polyurethane pink locks.
Big Wig, Little Lies: Nicole Kidman in every role
Count on the workhorse wig witch to deliver high camp every time. Whether she’s playing a redhead who can’t be tamed (Practical Magic, Moulin Rouge) a predatory older blonde (To Die For, Paddington, The Northman) or a Cancerian mamma bear with a wig as armor (Lion, Aquaman, Big Little Lies, The Undoing), count on Kidman to not only maintain a consistent wig oeuvre, but to work in perfect symbiosis with her hair. For her and her alone, gay men sat through Boy Erased. We come to this place…for wigs.
The Bottom Line: Where there’s a wig, there’s a way.
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