In the 1992 movie Death Becomes Her, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn play rivals Madeline and Helen, who join forces to achieve a shared goal: eternal youth and beauty. After meeting a woman named Lisle von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini) who offers all the secrets of beauty everlasting from a vial of purple serum, they hand over personal checks for every penny they have to receive it, but there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. Once they take the serum they’re told to take care of themselves because immortality is longer than anyone could ever imagine and even perfect bodies require maintenance. For these two, after a few nasty falls and some hard whacks with a shovel, that maintenance involves oil-based paint and lacquer. As they squabble with each other through the endless years their injuries cause their skin to peel off in sheets and their broken bones protrude from their unnatural-looking skin. The moral here, as I’m remembering it from 30 years ago when I first watched the movie at the smooth and rubbery age of 15, is that beauty comes from the inside and if your insides don’t match the outsides, then yadda yadda yadda. But what I remember most from that film is the end scene where the two ladies, forced to wear face coverings because their damage had gone past the point of repair, sit next to each other at the funeral of the man they were both married to at different times in their lives and laugh their asses off. Sure they risked it all and ended up faced with an eternity of looking like an extra in Fear the Walking Dead. But they’re having fun doing it. Because it’s not about what you look like, either inside, or out — it’s about how you feel.
This sixth episode of American Horror Stories, “Facelift,” comes off as some sort of moralistic cautionary tale about cosmetic surgery, and the sins of vanity, but what’s missing is the fact that people are allowed to do whatever the hell they want; and for many, cosmetic surgery makes them happy. And if something makes you feel happy, I say do it. But, with anything, be prepared for the consequences and weigh those against what you did to get yourself there.
In this episode a woman named Virginia (Judith Light) puts herself deeper into debt and tells her step-daughter to go F herself so she can get a very Death Becomes Her procedure done. The big reveal at the end is that, once the bandages are taken off, she’s been made into a sacrificial swine that the other “beautiful people” hunt and kill as a sacrifice to keep themselves young. As she runs through the wilderness, hunted by these people wielding spears, I found myself rooting for her, although her character wasn’t designed to be very likable. I wanted her to run faster, fight harder, because if you’ve already sold your soul to the devil to be something as subjective as “pretty,” being chased by weirdos at a small retreat in the Santa Monica Mountains shouldn’t feel like much of a hurdle, in comparison. Virginia didn’t have the same fight in her as Madeline and Helen I guess. Pity.
Vanity, and body modification, are themes that Ryan Murphy returns to often in his various projects. In the first season of his docudrama series Feud, AHS alum Jessica Lange fills the shoes of a woman who made a name for herself as being someone willing to fight like the devil to keep herself feeling like a queen, Joan Crawford. In an episode of that season, Lange as Crawford explains a Medieval-sounding procedure that many actresses of her day would put themselves through that makes Botox seem like eating a piece of candy. The procedure was called “the buccal” and involved the extraction of molars to cause the face to sink in and make the cheekbones more pronounced. There’s a lot of web-sleuthing on whether or not Crawford actually had this done or not, and that link back there will bring you to a Screen Actors Guild Medicare receipt for Crawford showing she did have five teeth extracted on July 18th, 1974, but, in her case, that could have just been the outcome of one too many Pepsis. Either way, it was a thing.
When we first meet Virginia in the opening scene of “Facelift” we see her wake up in the morning next to a nightstand cluttered with expensive looking beauty products. We get the immediate sense that these products aren’t cutting it for her anymore when she collects her morning pee in a mason jar and uses a wad of cotton to spread it onto her face. This is meant to be shocking and gross, but raise your hand if you know full well that your mom used to rub hemorrhoid cream under her eyes to tighten the skin. (Raises hand). A widow with no friends who even managed to run off her cleaning lady, she spends her days hanging out with her step-daughter Fay (Britt Lower from Severance) and having the hots for the neighbor, Bernie (Todd Waring). Doing some non-internet stalking, Virginia comes to find that Bernie goes to the local wine shop at a certain time every Friday to pick up a bottle for the weekend so she makes a plan to get dressed up and “run into him” there, but when he shows up he’s not alone. With him is a beautiful blonde woman named Cassie (Cornelia Guest) who Virginia went to college with but, much to her dismay, Cassie looks about 20 years younger than she does, and she wants to know how.
The secret to Cassie’s looks is Dr. Enid Perle (Rebecca Dayan), the episode’s Isabella Rossellini ringer, who claims to have developed a proprietary face augmentation and skin rejuvenation technique that she’s perfected after a lot of study and travel. A clue to her real deal is the massive artwork in her office depicting people spearing a huge pig. Most medical offices have paintings of sailboats and meadows, but you do you, Enid.
Initially Dr. Perle says that Virginia isn’t a good fit for what she does, but that only makes her want it more, which was likely her intent. Going against the better guidance of her business manager and step-daughter, Virginia moves some money around and goes for it. Once the procedure is done the healing process is a bitch. Her face is wrapped up in a very Goodnight Mommy kind of way, and so are her hands, which must make going to the bathroom difficult. Dr. Perle baits her into spending the rest of her recovery at her retreat in the Santa Monica Mountains, and it’s there that it’s revealed that she’s that year’s sacrifice to Étaín, the shining one who takes the form of the sun and the butterfly. After Virginia is speared to death in sacrifice to Étaín there’s a twist where we learn that the birth mother of her stepdaughter was a member of this weird clan. She joins their ranks and in the end scene we see her fulfilling her dream of going to law school, marked with the shopping center butterfly tattoo that the rest of the stabby beautiful ones are adorned with.
The messaging here really did feel like we were meant to walk away from the episode thinking that vanity is a killer of the soul, or some such thing, but I couldn’t help wishing that when Virginia’s bandages came off and her new pig snout and pig hands were there in the open for Étaín and the rest of the world to see she acted thrilled instead of broken. Picture a world where embracing flaws leads to a time where there’s no such thing as flaws at all. In the words of Party Monster James St. James, “It doesn’t matter what you look like! I mean if you have a hunchback, just throw a little glitter on it, honey, and go dancing.”