On Playing (And Dressing) Working-Class In Hollywood

In a Slate essay, Joe Keohane observes that playing ordinary is second only to disability in the Oscar-bait stakes. And...how come these blue-collar characters never wear the right costumes?

Anyone who's seen a star in person knows that they don't look ordinary, even the allegedly ordinary-looking ones. Indeed, sometimes it's their glowing skin or hair you notice before you recognize the face. Yes, they're always smaller and thinner in person, but they also have a gloss of such care, and such wealth, that they're immediately identifiable from the rest of the population.

Maybe this is why, when stars play regular people, they never look quite right. In his exposition of the phenomenon, Joe Keohane observes that in playing such roles,

to offset the dreariness of such an errand the lead character-a waitress, maid, or stripper with kid/husband problems-is usually played by a jaw-droppingly attractive star, who wins positive press for being willing to subvert her beauty in order to portray one of the great unwashed doing whatever it is they do out there in the dull diabetic landmass between Los Angeles and New York City.

But it's not just said jaw-dropping attractiveness or the fact that said maid is frequently suspiciously gym-toned. The costumes are often slightly "off," too. Take Erin Brokovitch. I remember reading that Julia Roberts (no stranger, of course, to playing wildly unrealistic working gals) wore a wardrobe of custom corsets. Why? Why couldn't she just, I don't know, shop where the actual character did and knock a few grand off the production budget? I wondered this even more when I worked in the wardrobe department of a TV drama; one of my jobs was distressing expensive new leather jackets and designer denim, all of which could, it seemed to me, have been found ready-distressed at any thrift shop. And as is the way of such things, it all looked Hollywood-real, not real-real. This is standard.The only thing less convincing than Jennifer Aniston's wardrobe in The Good Girl was Zooey Deschanel's wardrobe in The Good Girl. It's like costume designers have never been outside, and even those actors who came from humble backgrounds now, Eliza Doolittle-fashion, are unable to inhabit them naturally. (Slate observes that the sweater is a common fallback in such situations.) With the possible exception of Debra Barone, TV's alleged working-class moms haven't looked normal since Roseanne; never once have I seen a pair of cropped denim trousers in one of the kitchen sets. Sometimes it's the hair that's wrong: Natalie Portman, as a downtrodden military wife in Brothers, makes an attempt at low-budget hair, but the result is deeply unconvincing and clearly the labor of a skilled stylist attempting to replicate at-home hilights. It's like when opera singers do albums of lullabys: off and slightly embarrassing. It's really no wonder that this year's costume design nominees are all for lush period pieces; when it comes to present-day research, people really tend to fall down on the job.

Blue Collar, Oscar Gold [Slate]