Bearded cinema

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The thick and tangled history of beards on film

Kyle Leitch
Contributor

Let’s face it, ladies and gentlemen: beards are awesome. They keep your face warm, give you something to stroke ponderously, and as far as Hollywood is concerned, the simple addition of a magical mane of face fuzz can turn anyone into the biggest badass walking. In honour of Movember, allow us to take you through the modern history of beards in cinema.

The year was 1956. Elvis Presley’s gyrating on The Milton Berle Show was doing little to soothe the fears of a vulnerable nation fresh off of having fought the Second World War. One man understood this better than any other, and on Oct, 5th of that year his beard came to save us all.

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses, became one of the most financially successful films ever made. However, there is still debate over the content of the plot today. Since 1956, audiences worldwide have been far too distracted by the magnificence of Charlton Heston’s beard. I mean, holy hell, look at that thing! Heston’s beard would go on to make notable appearances in The Agony & the Ecstasy and Planet of the Apes, but it would never recapture the Biblical majesty it had in 1956.

All went quiet on the bearded front in Hollywood, save for the occasional blip on the radar. There were notable exceptions, such as Orson Welles’ Karl Marx-esq tuft in 1972’s F for Fake, and George Carlin’s beard in everything George Carlin did in the ’70s, but it would be a small, independent filmmaking movement that would bring the beard back. Blaxploitation cinema came roaring onto the scene in 1971, spearheaded by Gordon Parks’ Shaft. Blaxploitation offered viewers an alternative to the regular Hollywood fare. However, the beard offerings in blaxploitation were minimal at best. Once again, a lone man and his beard stepped up to save the day.

Bill Cosby co-starred in the 1974 blaxploitation feature Uptown Saturday Night. Cosby’s beard would establish the craziness that he would be known for later on in his career. The film suffered the unfortunate downfall of trying to focus on its already flimsy plot, and thus was not well-received despite Cosby’s incredible showing of facial hair fortitude. Though it went largely ignored by cinemagoers, Uptown Saturday Night still has a resonating impact throughout bearded culture, as this was the first film to prove the beard was no longer a Caucasian monopolized device.

The rest of the 1970s was dominated by Dan Haggerty’s beard, which starred in the Grizzly Adams adventures beginning in 1977. As prodigious as Haggerty’s beard was, audiences had long ago become desensitized to the North American beard in a plot-driven film. Audiences were craving something much, much more. And with a mighty cry of, “GORDON’S ALIVE!” they got it.

Brian Blessed’s billowing beard bellowed its way into our collective memories in 1980’s Flash Gordon. Here, finally, was the radical difference audiences had so been craving: a film that had no discernible plot, starred a British comedian with a beard of Homeric proportions, and had a soundtrack composed almost entirely by the rock band Queen. Flash Gordon was a brilliant film in its doltishness, and Brian Blessed’s beard would satiate the collective appetites of the movie-going public single-handedly for the next two years. But since 1981, something had been growing in the subzero cold found on the border of British Columbia and Alaska, and in 1982 it was ready to unleash itself on the unsuspecting public.

The year 1982 saw the theatrical release of The Thing, the film that marked John Carpenter’s first foray into studio filmmaking. The Thing starred Kurt Russell, and good Lord, look at that beard! Holy jumping fucking Jesus; it has attained a perfection not seen since Charlton Heston’s beard in The Ten Commandments. It has literally rendered me at a loss for words effective … now.

The later part of the 20th century saw very subpar beard offerings. Of course, there were beards of note, but nothing could touch Kurt Russell. It seemed the magic of the beard was largely spent.

In 2009, Todd Phillips released a small comedy that became the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time. The Hangover co-starred Zach Galifianakis and, lo and behold, the beard re-emerged with renewed cultural significance. The problem, though, is that Galifianakis single-handedly caused the shift from analogizing the beard as a thing of manliness, to a thing of man-childishness. The beard is no longer a thing of badassery, but a comedic prop, not unlike a joy buzzer or a rubber chicken.

Perhaps this is the trend that the beard will follow. Perhaps the pendulum will once again swing towards the hyper-masculine feature that the beard used to symbolize in cinema. But one thing’s for sure: the beard isn’t going anywhere. My beard and I are itching to find out what happens next.

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