Ugh, what did she do to herself?

A television critic on why Hollywood actresses' excessive plastic surgery is complicating her job.

By Thomas Rogers

Published April 18, 2008 6:15PM (EDT)

The last time I saw a Nicole Kidman movie -- "Margot at the Wedding" -- I had a vague and unsettling feeling that something wasn't quite right. It's not that Nicole looked any different from the way that she'd always looked (in fact, the opposite was true) but her face seemed to have, by some unfortunate series of events, lost the capacity to move. For most of the movie she looked like a hernia patient walking off the effects of heavy sedation, and there was one word -- "Botox" -- that immediately popped to mind.

It's a problem that seems to be popping up more and more frequently lately and it's starting to irk L.A. Times TV Critic Mary McNamara. (Maybe she should read a children's book to help explain things.) Recently she wrote a lengthy opinion piece about the effect plastic surgery is having on the faces of American television actresses -- and how it's impinging on her ability to do her job. As an example, she cites the "Desperate Housewives" ("I live in fear of the day Felicity Huffman succumbs to whatever package paralysis deal they've got going on over there"), Carrie Fisher and Barbara Walters.

"If cosmetic surgery and other age-battling or appearance-altering procedures are part of the zeitgeist," she writes, "then we need to figure out a way to discuss it critically without seeming like we are engaging in some form of gotcha." To some extent, McNamara has a point: Critics should be able to write about anything that negatively affects an actress' performance, and if, as McNamara seems to suggest, plastic surgery is ruining television, then something has to be done. But Hollywood is not a forgiving place when it comes to women's physical appearance, and the trouble lies in deciding when it's appropriate to focus on a woman's surgical history, and when it becomes a gratuitous personal dig.

Web sites like Awful Plastic Surgery take great Schadenfreude in detailing the effects of actresses' cosmetic work, in what often amounts to a kind of gleeful dehumanization, and, given the rigid aesthetic demands of the entertainment industry, at a certain point, pointing out a person's surgeries seems both petty and invasive. What does writing about Priscilla Presley's face on "Dancing With the Stars" bring to a discussion about the show's merits? If a woman's acting performance is weak, she should be criticized on her qualities as an actress -- not the quality of her surgeon.

On the other hand, exposing the truth may help younger actresses avoid going under the knife and reassure the rest of us that sagging jowls and smile lines are perfectly normal -- and attractive -- traits. Maybe the solution lies in pointing out those women, like Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, whose faces remain mercifully recognizable. But, as this recent article suggests, one of the unexpected boons of the lagging economy may be that it's keeping women from getting cosmetic surgery. Hopefully the new generation of struggling actresses, when deciding between a rent payment and a round of Botox, will go for the former.

Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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