Film Review: Take My Nose... Please!

Though not groundbreaking, Joan Kron’s documentary on plastic surgery is enjoyable.
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Without offering any earth-shattering perspectives, Joan Kron’s documentary Take My Nose…Please is certainly engaging enough. Hey, you can’t go too wrong if the topic is plastic surgery, its history, evolving controversies and cultural context within the entertainment industry and by extension the world at large. The movie covers a lot of territory, short of the surgery’s cost.

Interweaving archival footage of and commentary by comedians Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields and Joan Rivers, along with Judy Gold, Julie Halston, Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin and Lisa Lampanelli—not to mention a host of plastic surgeons, psychologists and sociologists—the film primarily focuses its lens on headliner Jackie Hoffman and the lesser known comic Emily Askin, each of whom is toying with the idea of having some work done and struggling with it. Neither wants to be radically altered, thus stripped of authentic ethnic/personal identity, and both are afraid of losing their livelihoods if they become too conventionally pretty. Hoffman wavers: “Even if I have a pretty nose, that won’t make me pretty.”

The story follows the comics for several months as they talk to their doctors and significant others, and ultimately go through with the surgical procedures. The “offensive” bump on Askin’s nose is no more; Hoffman’s facial lines have been effectively removed and her nose slightly straightened. Her surgeon wanted to build up her chin, but she passed on that suggestion, though she may revisit it on a later date. Hoffman appreciates how addictive plastic surgery can become.

Unlike other films on the topic, Nose is devoid of special pleading and marks the moviemaking debut of 89-year-old Kron, who created the plastic surgery beat in women’s magazines. For 25 years she covered it regularly for Allure, in addition to contributing features on the subject to various publications.

According to the film, cosmetic surgery dates back to 1916, when Parisian feminist Suzanne Noel, one of the first French plastic surgeons, performed facelifts (or what passed for them at the time) on shopgirls pushing 30 who would be forced out of their jobs if they appeared to be aging. We learn that Fanny Bryce had a modified nose job and that Totie Fields ended up losing her leg thanks to a blood clot that formed during her procedure. The film does not mention best-selling novelist Olivia Goldsmith, who died on the table during plastic surgery in 2004. As one surgeon says in the movie, there’s no such thing as risk-free surgery.Today, it is a $16 billion industry.

Few dispute the notion that if your nose makes you unhappy, you should fix it, though it’s a very different story if you believe your straightened nose will solve all your problems or render you giddy with happiness. Still, the questions remain: Does the quest for physical improvement (involving painful and expensive surgery) suggest self-loathing or empowerment or both? Is it vanity run amok or an opportunity to level the playing field especially in the entertainment arena, where there continues to be a premium on youth and conventional good looks, obviously more so for women than for men? According to the film, in 2014 15 million cosmetic procedures were performed, 90% of these on women. Still, there is no shortage of men today going under the knife as well.   

The bigger issue, of course, is what constitutes beauty. According to the actresses interviewed, the golden WASP image is alive and well, at least in their experiences. Many of the women, for example, are still being told by drama teachers and agents that they’re talented, but their employment opportunities are seriously hampered by their “ethnic” appearance, usually meaning Jewish and to a lesser extent Italian. One Italian-American actress, who says she strongly resembles her parents, felt that by surgically altering her appearance she’d be saying “Screw you!” to Mom and Dad. She couldn’t do it.

At the same time, the line between “character” part and “lead” has become blurred. Pretty girls are now standup comics. You can be feminine and funny. That’s a double-edged sword for Hoffman, who points out that casting Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan in the Annie remake doesn’t bode well for comic “character” actresses such as herself.

A central theme in the film is the role women comedians have played in bringing the subject of plastic surgery out of the closet. Who talked about it more than Phyllis Diller or Joan Rivers? Indeed, Rivers’ remade face—and she knew it was an embalmed mask—was constant grist for her comedy mill. Still, until fairly recently the topic of “having some work done” was shrouded in secrecy. Even today, some high-profile women who’ve clearly been nipped and tucked avoid the topic or deny it altogether.

Cosmetic surgery is awash in ambivalence. Perhaps standup comic Margaret Cho sums it up best when she quips onstage, “Plastic surgery is supposed to make you feel good about yourself. To me, it’s just brainwashing, manipulation and mutilation of women.” Beat. “I’m still going to get it.”

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