But we do notice. No matter how understated or “good” the cosmetic work, no matter how deftly it re-creates the state of seeming “rested” or “refreshed,” the observing brain is tough to fool. Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s off—a lopsided lip? A sag to one side?—but your brain keeps trying to correct for it. That’s because we’re hardwired to sense even minor facial asymmetry, the sort of slack or droop that can result from Botox migrating to inappropriate places. Research has shown that even babies will stare longer at an attractive face, and our inborn concepts of beauty rest on simple rules of proportion. “Symmetry is the hidden persuader, correlated with attractive scents, nectars, and faces,” writes Nancy Etcoff in Survival of the Prettiest. “Symmetry is tied to beauty because it acts as a measure of overall fitness.”
Watching gorgeous actors in workaday roles, we’ve always had to endure a measure of cognitive dissonance (Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl), but the ubiquity of surgery and Botox have introduced new verisimilitude issues. As Simkin puts it: “If someone has obviously had plastic surgery, you have to ask, ‘Would this character have done that?’ And if the answer to that is no—because they’re a mine worker, maybe—then it’s a problem.”
It’s surely no coincidence that the flowering of cosmetic surgery has accompanied the transition to unforgiving high-definition video. “I was super against [Botox], saying I’ll never do it, then you see yourself on HD and you want to kill yourself,” says Rosanna Arquette, whose documentary Searching for Debra Winger explores the pressures faced by women in Hollywood. (She has yet to succumb.) Indeed, HD has presented such aesthetic challenges that the Make-up Artists & Hair Stylists guild has offered seminars on how to apply cosmetics appropriately. “If an inanimate object could be sexist, that’s what high-definition video is,” says Nora Ephron. “People don’t want to look at the flaws in women’s faces in the way they will look at them in men’s faces. That’s one of the injustices of the world.” (Male actors, however, are not immune to their flaws: George Clooney told the Daily Mirror, “I was watching Up in the Air and I thought ‘Jesus, who’s the old, gray-haired guy?’ And it was me.”)
Perhaps what bothers us most acutely about excessive cosmetic work is that it makes the artifice of the entertainment industry all too obvious. Producers cling to performers who are themselves clinging desperately to youth, or at least to their peak-earning-years images. But when someone like Nicole Kidman tells Marie Claire, “To be honest, I am completely natural. I have nothing in my face or anything,” we can’t help but furrow our own brows.
Such suspicion is behind our mass exasperation with the moving wax museum that is Hollywood today. Of course, it’s no revelation that Botox, like makeup, hair dye, or any beauty treatment, is, at root, deceptive. But to further deceive about what is false already may require one suspension of disbelief too many. By abandoning realism, naturalism, and all possibility for dramatic mimesis, performers are damaging the very medium that has given them careers. They have forgotten that there’s a measure of narcissism in the act of viewing, not just in the craving to be viewed. If we can’t see ourselves onscreen—or our more ideal selves—movies and TV shows lose much of their allure. The fantasy is no longer real.