Fooling with faces

Russell Baker

December 05, 1990|By Russell Baker

I WENT to a television station intending to sell something. It was a book, if you must know. "Take him to makeup," commanded a young woman. Her manner made it clear she wanted nothing to do with me, or my book, until I had been taken to makeup.

It was another young woman who took me there. This one seemed to be an apprentice, one of those poor young college graduates who, having left their parents bankrupted by tuition, must start at the bottom by taking people like me to makeup.

We arrived at makeup without incident. There a third woman, not quite so young, seated me in a barber chair, studied my face, sighed the sigh of a woman who has to put up with a lot, and started burying my face under powders and creams. By and by I realized what she was up to.

"Why are you robbing my face of all its character?" I asked. Of course I knew the answer. She was doing it to make me look younger. I had asked the question only to let a little irritation seep into the air. This, I thought, might stop her before she took my face back to age 22.

I have been 22 and have no wish to revisit the territory, especially when I am expected to go on television, boast about the excellence of my book and urge millions to buy it. This is an act of ego requiring unlimited supplies of gall, which I now have in reserve. At 22, however, I was so shy that a herd of wild press agents couldn't have dragged me before a television camera.

What's more, my 22-year-old face was intensely uninteresting. Adolescent pimples had finally cleared, leaving unlined cheeks and unwrinkled eyes, thus creating the look of bland empty-headedness popularized by Los Angeles boys who grow up to be television actors.

Since that age, my face has become far more interesting. I am rather proud of this. No, it is not one of the great faces, but it is a face that has a history written pretty clearly in it. It is a face that has been around, a face that has seen a few things. "Haggard" and "ravaged," some critics have called it. "Like well-aged leather," said another.

This is not a boast. The country has millions of faces that are just as interesting, each in its own way. Not many of them, however, are 22 years old. Yet during my book-selling rounds of TV studios I was constantly taken to makeup where cosmeticians toiled to make me a new face that was as young and uninteresting as the cosmetic art can create.

The reasons for this have been written to death: American youth fantasies, popular fear of aging, television's preference for the unreal, sponsors' financial need to pander to audiences, and so forth. Most of these explanations originated in a time when the big baby-boomer population was youthful and television giddy with eagerness to exploit our darling young.

Demographics are now intervening. The Ages of Baby Boomers have been many. Once they were America's lovely and beloved postwar-boom kids, and then they were hippies or peaceniks or druggies or warriors, and then they aged and became yuppies or fogies, and then they were parents . . .

Now they are in middle life and growing interesting faces, faces you have to search carefully for the remains of their 22-year-old faces. How much longer will this vast portion of the population tolerate the bland, uninteresting faces with which television seeks to enchant them?

Over the next 10 years they will be coming to grips with the reality of aging -- the thickened waist, blurring vision, aching joints, surly innards, loosening teeth -- all those challenges of real life that television still tries to make them look upon with dread and contempt.

No wonder the networks are steadily losing their audience to the more varied views of life offered by cable and videocassette hTC movies. Sad or not, the boomers have been moving on toward wrinkles and stiff joints, while the networks continue sending everybody to makeup for the face of youth.

While having my face falsified for book selling one morning, I suggested to the makeup artist that as the boomers started to get creaky in the 1990s she would probably have to master a brand new skill. Instead of making interesting, lived-in faces look bland, dull and 22, she may soon confront revoltingly young book hustlers who have been sent to makeup for the addition of wrinkles, crow's feet, neck wattles and dark circles under the eyes.

She listened to this politely and then got me as close as possible to 22, which was not a near thing, fortunately.

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