The face of Cher

Pub date November 30, 2010
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm Features

(In the style of Roland Barthes’ The Face of Garbo.) Cher’s face belongs to our current moment in cinema when the female visage represents a kind of absolute non-state of the flesh, which can be reached through a variety of (as-yet-not-entirely-confirmed) nips, tucks, filler injections, makeup and post-production airbrushing.

Cher’s is indeed a formidable face-object. In Burlesque, her makeup is thicker than her costars’ because the paint has been applied atop an increasingly contoured plaster surface. What was once a Byzantine icon — heavy lidded eyes and elongated nose framed by an oval countenance — has become a Noh mask. Her famed mile-long cheekbones are no longer defined by their underlying hollowness, but by the gibbous moon-like protuberances of her cheeks. So too does the plumpness of her lips, the lower line always under-drawn, exhaust the descriptive powers of “bee-stung.” Amid the snow of her foundation, her eyes remain her most expressive feature, narrowing slightly whenever she offers a bemused smile and wetting at the edges (glycerin?) to indicate sadness. This face, with the dark vegetation of its eyes and totem-like countenance, comes to resemble Louise in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) or Dead or Alive singer Pete Burns.

Yet how many actresses have consented to let the crowd see the ominous maturing of their beauty? Not many, unless it’s Oscar season. Their essence is not to be degraded, their faces are not to have any reality except that of their perfection. The face of Cher — whose character Tess, also a showbiz vet, has probably been around the block as many times and could claim as many comebacks as the actress playing her — openly testifies to the existence of this unspoken entertainment industry mandate, “forever young,” and burlesques it into a form of extreme beauty.

Viewed as a transition the face of Cher reconciles two iconographic ages, it assures the passage from actual plasticity to a molded mask. As is well known, we are today at the other pole of this evolution: the face of Heidi Montag, for instance, is homogenized, not only because of its peculiar thematics (woman as child, “real girl” as reality star) but also because her face, which has nothing of an essence left in it, is constituted by an infinite complexity of cosmetic enhancements. Cher’s enhancements only further enhance her “Cher-ness,” whereas Montag’s sundry “improvements” ultimately render her (or say, Madonna) less distinguishable. The face of Cher is an Idea, that of Montag an Afterthought.