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All that’s ugly about beauty

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By AA Patawaran

BEYOND BEAUTY Clockwise from top left: Chona Kasten by Claudio Bravo; Portrait of Audrey Hepburn by Yousuf Karsh, 1956 (theredlist.com); Hilda Koronel (google images); Horst P. Horst, Portrait of Barbara Babe Cushing Mortimer Paley, Vogue, February 1946 (theredlist.com)

BEYOND BEAUTY Clockwise from top left: Chona Kasten by Claudio Bravo; Portrait of Audrey Hepburn by Yousuf Karsh, 1956 (theredlist.com); Hilda Koronel (google images); Horst P. Horst, Portrait of Barbara Babe Cushing Mortimer Paley, Vogue, February 1946 (theredlist.com)

Was that Faye Dunaway rising before dawn and dunking her face in a basin of ice after a thorough scrub in steaming hot water? Ah, the opening scene of 1981’s Mommie Dearest, in which she played Joan Crawford!

Then Sophia Loren, buxom beauty in 1977’s The Cassandra Crossing, the tale of a pneumonic strain of virus on board a train running from Geneva to Stockholm in which all nations, particularly the US, were fighting to keep it trapped, lest it unleashed itself unto the world.

I’d say Audrey Hepburn, but on the subject of beauty, her name might sound so cliché. She was not even Truman Capote’s first choice to play to play Holly Golightly in the film adaptation of his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

If Capote had his way, it would have been Marilyn Monroe and Monroe would have been perfect for the role, a true Depression-era orphan chasing New York dreams from a hicktown, who might have been subject to childhood molestations just like Holly, who alluded to the same fate when, asked about how many lovers she had had, she said, through Hepburn who played her in the 1961 film, that “anything that happened before I was 13” should not be counted.

But Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they’re the stuff of every fashion magazine-worthy dream. She is by now a cliché because her beauty or our acknowledgement of it is so universal.

Incidentally, I loved her more in 1953’s Roman Holiday, in which, opposite Gregory Peck, she played a princess who shed her royal shackles for a taste of ordinary life. On second thought, a prostitute dreaming of freedom is closer to reality than a princess doing the same, but hello Grace Kelly, hello Princess Diana, hello Marie Antoinette! At least Queen Victoria found love (in a hopeless place).

Hepburn’s was the face of beauty that could unlock even the most inescapable of prisons, even the Black Dolphin Prison in Russia, and hers, thanks to her humanitarian work, transcended Hollywood or beauty itself.

I’d say this was how I was introduced to beauty, with my parents’ eye on beauty captured on the pages of every Vogue magazine that they left scattered around in the house, and in every story my father shared with the great American dream gleaming in his eyes. All these famous people and the perfection of their celluloid romance. Clark Gable with Carole Lombard in his arms. Laurence Olivier with Vivien Leigh in his. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. (“Loren, Katherine, Lana, too. Bette Davis, we love you!”) The farther in time, the better, more romanticized, even all the way back to Charlie Chaplin’s scandalous affairs and his many Hollywood wives, from Mildred Harris to Paulette Goddard.

My father wrinkled his nose at Philippine showbiz and, sometimes in deference to him, my mother, too, but her sister and their sisters-in-law, about eight of them, who inhabited my childhood, didn’t. I wasn’t particularly impressed, but my father’s disdain could not have silenced the admiration of at least 10 women for many Filipino actresses, from Susan Roces and Amalia Fuentes, even Pilar Pilapil, to the likes of Amy Austria, Charo Santos, and Lorna Tolentino, not to mention Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos, who dominated pop culture when I was growing up in the ‘70s.

And then I overheard them gushing over how beautiful Hilda Koronel  was in an Inno Sotto when she went to the Urian in 1977, where she was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in the 1976 Lino Brocka film Insiang. That would have been a fashion moment if she went up the stage to pick up the award, which went to Nora Aunor’s winning performance in Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. I didn’t realize this, though, until Julia Roberts picked up her Best Actress Oscar in a red vintage Valentino in 2001 for her performance in the 2000 film Erin Brocovich. I mean Koronel could have predated that iconic moment in both fashion and the movies by about two decades.

But it wasn’t until 1982 that my interest in Filipino movies and the actors in them was ignited, as the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines premiered the film Oro, Plata, Mata. I was too young to watch and it was for that reason that my curiosity was piqued while all the adults around me, eyes wide, whispered about it like it was the forbidden fruit because Maya (now Mitch) Valdez bared her breasts, because of that scene between Cherie Gil and Ronnie Lazaro, because of what happened to Fides Cuyugan Asencio in the hands of Abbo de la Cruz, because of Lorli Villanueva, because it was such a gem of a movie!

Late last year, I read the book La Divina: The Life and Style of Chona Recto-Kasten by her daughter Techie Ysmael-Bilbao. I remember how tongues wagged about Chona Kasten’s style and her clothes and her charmed life (and some dirty little secrets), as well as those of Elvira Manahan, Mary Prieto, Conchita Sunico, and Chito Madrigal, all her friends who moved around in the same circle, attracting (almost) the same attention New York society lavished on the Cushing sisters Minnie (who married William Vincent Astor and later James Whitney Fosburgh), Betsey (who married American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s son James Roosevelt II), and Babe, my favorite Babe Paley (who first married oil heir Stanley Grafton Mortimer Jr. and then CBS founder William S. Paley), especially whenever they came together for their traditional afternoon tea at The Plaza.

Right now, I am halfway through my copy of The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin and what a hypnotic read, at once tantalizing and eye-opening! The novel is a reimagining of the friendship between Babe Paley and Truman Capote and what he wrote that broke them apart, that broke every tie he had made with New York society, particularly Babe’s tight circle, composed of Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill, whom he called “his swans,” and that later broke him enough that it was said, after his story “La Côte Basque 1965” was published in Esquire in 1975, “he was never happy again.”

Ah, beauty is not always beautiful and his friend Babe Paley’s, as Truman’s story implied, was a lifelong curse that, on some accounts, biographers take it for granted that her lifetime obsession with perfection—in 1941, she was second on Time magazine’s Best Dressed Women in the world, second only to Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor—was what eventually did her in, making her succumb to lung cancer in 1978, only three years after the publication of “La Côte Basque 1965.”

In my creative writing class at UP-Diliman, my teacher asked me why my characters were always perfect—long legs, luscious lips, luminous skin, smooth hair, sparkling eyes, sharp clothes, good manners.

I guess some of the people I’ve mentioned here were partly behind it, but I am now two decades away from college and two decades further into the school of life.

And I think, I hope, I pray that if nothing else, all I’ve really learned so far is summed up in a line from the song “Anthem” by Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen.

“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

 

The author is also on Twitter and Instagram as @aapatawaran and Facebook as Arnel Patawaran.

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