Hannibal Lecter had a severe case of alopecia. The Wicked Witch of the West, to say nothing of her coloring, had that jarring wart on her right chin. And the head-spinning Regan MacNeil in “The Exorcist” had scars and lacerations across her face.
It’s a wonder that Nurse Ratched had such lovely skin.
Hollywood seems to have made a habit of dreaming up dermatological conditions for its worst villains at a far higher rate than its heroes. But facial imperfections and baldness have been used to denote character flaws, researchers argue in a study released Wednesday, and that “may foster a tendency toward prejudice in our society directed at those with skin disease.”
Along with her colleagues, Dr. Julie A. Croley of the University of Texas plucked the names of the “top 10” Hollywood film heroes and villains from a bigger list of the same description from the American Film Institute. The researchers then paid a retrospective house call to Norman Bates and conducted an exam that MacNeil’s parents may not have thought to schedule: a skin consult.
The latter was not encouraging. In addition to the lacerations and scars, MacNeil showed “periorbital hyperpigmentation,” also known as dark circles around her eyes.
The researchers also had diagnoses for Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life” (male-pattern baldness) and the Queen from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (among other issues, rhinophyma, an enlarged nose associated with rosacea).
Not all villains had such issues. Some, including Alex Forrest of “Fatal Attraction,” may have been rotten to the core but were also facially unflawed.
Compared to the evildoers, Hollywood’s heroes have been almost blessed with good skin. Just look at Atticus Finch, James Bond, George Bailey (“It’s a Wonderful Life”), Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine (“Casablanca”), Will Kane (“High Noon”), T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Clarice Starling (“Silence of the Lambs”), and “Alien” slayer Ellen Ripley.
Rocky had his face blown up in the ring, but that’s what he gets for not listening to Mick.
Taken together — and putting aside the statistically wispy sample size — the villains exhibit facial issues at 60 percent higher rate than their foils, according to the study, which was published in JAMA Dermatology.
Jules Lipoff, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania who also dabbles in screenwriting, and who did not participate in the study, said the article underscores the point that “we need to appreciate and not stigmatize things that are common.”
Whether Hollywood directors should change their evil ways, though, is a trickier question. “It’s a lot for us to ask us, as a culture, not to rely on these stereotypes, but there’s a really good point here about how we consider skin diseases in popular culture,” Lipoff said.
Croley, in an interview with STAT, said she does not believe Hollywood directors are “intentionally stigmatizing people with certain skin conditions. But if they were aware of how certain people feel targeted, they might have a more mindful consideration when they create these villains from scratch.”
She said that the villains-with-bad-skin phenomenon may have its roots in silent movies, because filmmakers relied more heavily on visual cues to animate the good and the evil in their characters.
But the issue may go back even further. Fans of classical theater would point Croley and her colleagues to unsympathetic characters like Bardolph, who appeared in several Shakespeare plays and, based on the Bard’s characterization, probably suffered from rhinophyma.
“Shakespeare? I don’t know,” Croley said. “That could be a different paper.”