The pencil-thin mustache: reading between the lines A few hairs in a line above the lip carry suggestions of the effete, the smarmy, the cultural fringe. No wonder John Waters finds it all so delicious.

September 20, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

"I wish I had a pencil-thin

mustache

"The 'Boston Blackie' kind ..."

- Jimmy Buffett

You could say it's nothing more than a cluster of hair about the length of a pinky. A line apparently drawn with a blunt felt-tip. But as they say in real estate: location, location, location.

Above the eyes it's an eyebrow, a thing occurring in nature. Between the nose and the upper lip, however, it's something else. A statement, a cartoon commentary, an amused conspiracy of cosmetology and graffiti.

A pencil-thin mustache.

One skinny line, that's the whole production. But such content, such expression. Think of dadaist Marcel Duchamp scrawling a curlicue mustache on the "Mona Lisa." Think of John Waters putting a mustache on himself, making himself an ironic object of art.

Waters' new movie, "Pecker," is out this week, and so Waters' particular vision once again graces the local screens. His face peers from newspapers, magazines and televisions. America's most famous pencil-thin mustache rides again, a retro trip into a cultural gallery of dandies and rogues. From the silent pictures to "There's Something About Mary," there's always been something about a pencil-thin mustache.

"David Letterman would always try to touch it," John Waters says of his mustache. "It would freak him out. 'Is it real?' " he would ask.

Yes, Waters would reply. It's real.

But Letterman was onto something. Indeed, it's hard to know what to make of a pencil-thin mustache. Such a fussy little thing. It teeters on brinks: masculine, yet effeminate; mark of the sleaze and the fop; three-dimensional reality and two-dimensional abstract symbol; a facial punctuation mark. What an odd bit of mischief it is: a spontaneous prank requiring the rigorous maintenance of English topiary.

Waters is a little fuzzy on the dates. Says he grew his mustache in either 1969 or 1970, when he was a young movie maker of 23 or 24. He is more certain about why he did it.

"I wanted to be Little Richard, really," says Waters, now 52. "Other people wanted to be Mickey Mantle. I wanted to be Little Richard."

Why?

"I just thought he was so alarming."

Anything else?

"He scared my parents."

Little Richard is a black rhythm-and-blues shouter of unconventional sexual persuasion. He's been known to wear eye makeup, an extravagant pompadour and a pencil-thin mustache.

Waters is a white filmmaker of unconventional sexual persuasion who is famously at ease on society's fringes. He grew up in an upper-middle-class home in Baltimore where he cultivated a rebellious streak and an eye for critique. The mustache itself is both a critique and a sort of cultural Maginot Line. Waters stands behind it and makes remarks.

The first time his parents saw it they were suitably impressed.

"They were horrified," says

Waters. But what to make of it? They weren't sure.

"It wasn't a gay thing, it wasn't a hippie thing," says Waters. "It was a pimp thing, and they knew I wasn't that."

So, the statement would be?

"It's defacing something, and it's at the same time smart-ass," says Waters. "I wanted to be effete and low-class at the same time."

To play sundry nuanced notes one needs a special instrument, one with a range enriched by time, one impossible to mute. Having signified so many things over the years, the pencil-thin mustache can never signify nothing at all.

With a little nudging, film historians will think it over, offer insights. Lemme get this right, they say: You're writing about the pencil-thin mustache?

"I thought immediately of the 1940s," says David A. Cook, author of "A History of Narrative Film." "In the 1930s and 1940s there was a style for this sort of mustache."

Errol Flynn, Ronald Colman, William Powell and David Niven all wore versions in slightly varying thicknesses. Before them, John Gilbert wore one on the silent screen opposite Greta Garbo. The pencil-thin mustache could be dashing when it didn't connote vanity bordering on prissiness.

The Jimmy Buffett song of 1974 longs for the good old days, when a man in a pencil-thin mustache might solve mysteries with panache, as Chester Morris did in the "Boston Blackie" movies of the 1940s, as William Powell did in "The Thin Man." Somewhere along the line, though, the pencil-thin mustache fell from grace. The spare fringe of a 'stache came to connote the cultural fringe - outlaws, men of uncertain sexuality, hustlers, poseurs.

Hence, it suits Waters' ironic intent, says David Slocum, a professor of cinema studies at New York University.

"There's probably a trio of discourses, as we call them, of concerns I think the pencil-thin mustaches raises: Edwardian priggishness, effeteness and unctuousness," says Slocum. "Part of what makes the mustache work for John Waters and his persona seems to signify the degradedness of this American version of this Edwardian style. I think of a used-car salesman or an aluminum-siding salesman. He pretends to a social station to which he's not entitled."

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