Wednesday, June 8, 2011


When I was a teenager I was furious that a number of characters on HAPPY DAYS wore seventies haircuts even though the show was supposed to take place in the late fifties. (I guess I was a rather righteous kid back then. Perhaps I still am today.) I figured that if Ron Howard, the star of the show, could wear his hair short, what the hell was Donny Most’s problem? Why was Ralph Malph’s hair so long and fluffy and hanging over his ears? Donny Most was what, sixth or seventh bill? My guess is that he wanted to look cool and wore his hair like he did offstage, thus thumbing his nose at the show’s period setting. Sadly, the show let him get away with it. Today, Hollywood is still cheating period pieces left and right. And to me, it’s still just as infuriating.
Scott Baio, Anson Williams, Ron Howard, Henry Winkler and Donny Most in HAPPY DAYS.
As a general rule, Hollywood producers and studio execs tend to loathe “period pieces.” They’ll tell you that they cost too much. They’ll gripe about the expense of reproducing all those old clothes and antique d├ęcor. And they’ll go on and on about those damned kids in the audience who find history to be one big turn-off. Maybe that explains the glaring period errors in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. I saw it this past weekend and really enjoyed it but boy does it fudge 1962. Take a look at the picture of the youthful cast below and you’ll see grooming styles that are hardly exemplary of the sixties. 
Nick Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Jennifer Lawrence, Lucas Till  and Edi Gathegi in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
For starters, no male, and I mean not one fella back then, wore a long shaggy mop. Nor did they wear their hair over their ears. And certainly none of them had that product-heavy "Team Edward" hair. You’ll remember that the Beatles caused an outrage in 1964 when they came over to this country because they wore bangs. Bangs, people. These X-Men wouldn’t have been ostracized because of their mutant powers. They’d be shunned for having such contemptible hairdos. 

Unfortunately, the X-girls are no more accurate. The women of the early sixties wore their hair up, or short, or styled in that Toni home perm sort of way. No locks were that free flowing, not until the hippies started influencing fashion in the latter part of the decade. These girls from X-MEN could be starring in GOSSIP GIRL, but then, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Their look is designed to make them more relatable, more today. But it’s grossly inaccurate as you can see from these more authentic sixties hairstyle photographs.
A typical female hairstyle from the sixties.
The studio exec would qualify the more contemporary hairstyles on Jennifer Lawrence and Zoe Kravitz as a concession to attract more of the teen audience. One can readily imagine how hard it was for him to buy into the whole reboot taking place fifty years in the past to begin with. (“The Cuban missile crisis? Really? And Magneto’s hunting Nazis? Dammit, this is X-Men, not The Boys From Brazil!”) So the exec agrees to make the film, but only with certain concessions. The filmmakers will get their Cold War backdrop while the studio ensures its young cast is groomed to look like today’s teens. 

And somewhere Donny Most is smiling.

Hollywood really should know better. MAD MEN approaches the same sixties period with utter conviction, no pulled punches. And it's a great success. But for Hollywood, they still go on fearing the time machine. And they want their concessions if they're going to do films set in yesteryear. Look at what happened with SHERLOCK HOLMES (2008). Jude Law played a very period Dr. Watson in look and feel, but the Holmes of Robert Downey, Jr. was groomed with contemporary morays and an entire jar of Bed Head. On Showtime’s THE TUDORS, which ran for four seasons starting in 2007, the sets and costumes were beautifully loyal to the sixteenth century. However, their hunky male cast members had short, spiky hair, shaved chests and three-day stubble. They looked more like models from a Calvin Klein trunk show! 
But there are some productions that get it spectacularly right. TV tends to do the job best at it. The HBO miniseries MILDRED PIERCE looked lush and was spot-on in its period accuracy. The BOARDWALK EMPIRE series didn’t shirk from the dandified collars and puffy bodices of the roaring twenties. And throughout the run of THAT 70’s SHOW the haircuts were thick and shaggy, the pants were tight and bell-bottomed, and the interiors were dressed with avocado green paint and ornate, gilded wallpaper. 
Kelly Macdonald and Steve Buscemi in BOARDWALK EMPIRE.
Some movies really nail it as well. One of the best examples of such a feat in recent years was ATONEMENT (2007). The production values in that film were spectacularly appropriate right down to Keira Knightley's costuming in a swimming scene. Another costumer might have opted to maximize more of Knightley's beauty, but Jacqueline Durran put her in a shapeless white one-piece and matching bathing cap. It was a bit frumpy, but ultimately accurate. (Nonetheless Knightley still looked stunning!) 
Keira Knightley in ATONEMENT.
But how many times do you see films that don't get it right? How many Hollywood westerns have you seen where the actors all have perfect Crest White Strip smiles? How many sword and sandal epics have spray-tanned characters groomed and waxed like they’re from the pages of Playboy? And how many times is Disney going to make a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie with grizzled, salty men done up very period while the women look as modern as a Revlon ad. (Oh, that’s right. Penelope Cruz is a Revlon model.) Maybe I expect too much. After all, Hollywood thinks they can shoot in Vancouver and convince me it’s New York. How wrong they are! I’d just like them to try a little harder. Commit to the script, commit to the period.
Barry Pepper in TRUE GRIT.
Thank God for the Coen Brothers. They’re always sticklers for period detail. Rent their 2010 remake of TRUE GRIT and you’ll marvel at the thoroughness of their roughhewn western world. The buildings are ramshackle. The clothing is filthy. And the dingy cowpoke teeth would make Austin Powers cry. The rest of Hollywood could learn a lot from their willingness to embrace period pieces so wholeheartedly. 

At the end of the day, what makes any movie relatable to its audience is a good story. Even if the characters have mutton chops or powdered wigs or crew cuts, that truth remains the same. And it shouldn't be lost on the powers that be who greenlight productions. The sooner they realize that the better. And then we'd have some really happy days.   


  1. My cringe moment? The way they greased up Clark Gable's hair in Mutiny on the Bounty.

  2. That's funny, Mike! There are quite a few cringe worthy moments throughout Hollywood history when it comes to period pieces. John Wayne as Genghis Khan, anyone?

  3. i thought I was alone! This has drove me crazy for years!