Hand me those contacts!
After reading about how blue eyes are becoming increasingly rare in the United States, I started wondering about the ubiquity of blue eyes in the cinema today. The Ulmer Scale, probably the most quantifiable cross-section of the A-list, reflects this tendency: Of the top 10 bankable stars of 2009/2010 (defined by Ulmer as “the degree to which an actor’s name alone can trigger full financing for a movie”), 60% have blue eyes (Russell Crowe, Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Nicolas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio) and 30% brown eyes (Will Smith, Johnny Depp, George Clooney), with a light green-eyed Tom Hanks rounding the curve. (Comparably, the United States population is currently 16% blue-eyed.) On Ulmer’s list of female stars, the difference is less striking but still there: Of the 10 women on the list, only 4 have brown eyes (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Keira Knightley, and Penelope Cruz), plus green-eyed Scarlet Johansen and Kate Winslet, rendering female A-list Hollywood 30% blue-eyed – still significantly more than the current U.S. blue-eyed,population.
What’s going on here? Are we still seeing racism at play, both in current Hollywood reticence to cast non-white actors in bankable movies and in replaying the very pre-melting-pot template of past archetypal goddesses like Veronica Lake and Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow? Or is there something else about how the silver screen loves blue eyes? Pupil dilation is a subconscious emotional indicator – our pupils dilate not only in low light but when we see something we like – which is why the Megan Fox on the right seems to be a little more into you than the one on the left. Blue eyes show dilation more, and thus blue- eyed actors “speak” to us more clearly about how much they enjoy our gaze.
Brown and blue eyes have a spiritual quality that transcends the face that wears them. Brown eyes are warm and humanizing – but paradoxically, their opacity prevents the viewer from entering the character’s soul, keeping them instead at mysterious arm’s length. Conversely, blue eyes signify innocence, openness, youthfulness, and candor. Perhaps that’s why they work so well in the movies – staring into a pair of guileless blue eyes helps us bridge the gap between flat projected image and human intimacy. Paul Newman reflects this, his famously blue eyes providing an entryway into the heart of the most macho and taciturn of characters. Of blue eyes on the screen today, none are as startlingly sapphire as Cillian Murphy’s. However, Murphy’s a master at exploiting blue eyes’ coolness to chilling, villainous effect (ever see Red Eye? *shiver*), a variation on the icy skill that was Grace Kelly’s forte as well.
Consciously or unconsciously, casting directors have exploited the secret signifiers carried by eye color. Cynics, iconoclasts, and ne’er-do-wells have brown eyes, unless they’re allowed to show a bit of humanity. Consider Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. in Zodiac. Who plays the Boy Scout naïf? The blue-eyed Gyllenhaal. Who plays the mercurial, hard-drinking, bitter newspaper man? Brown-eyed Downey Jr. Switch the casting in your mind. Even given their difference in age, it’d never fly. Picture Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh with blue eyes. Not quite the same dead-eyed shark of a killing machine, huh? (Conversely, Anthony Hopkins’ blue eyes give Hannibal Lecter a veneer of humanity that’s absent from Chigurh). In Brokeback Mountain, who’s the open, loving partner (blue-eyed Gyllenhaal again), and who’s the repressed and closeted one (brown-eyed Heath Ledger)? When blue-eyed Charlize Theron needed to become a psychotic serial killer for Monster, never mind that the real Aileen Wuornos had brown eyes – the blank impenetrable stare provided by dark contact lenses helped Theron on to an Oscar win.
Put conversely, does an actor born with brown eyes struggle against an innate handicap when it comes to making an audience like him, lust after him, want to be him? Must an actor of color not only jump the hurdle of Hollywood’s institutional racism to succeed, but find a way to use craft and presence to overcome the limitations of her less communicative, less permeable, less – dare we say it – cinematic eyes? Why have Good Will Hunting alums Ben Affleck (brown-eyed) and Matt Damon (blue-eyed) wildly diverged in terms of box-office draw? Why has the light green-eyed Gael Garcia Bernal done OK after Y Tu Mama Tambien but his dark-eyed co-star Diego Luna has limped along? How can James Franco look enough like James Dean to play him in a 2001 TV movie of the same name and yet not even come close to Dean’s allure? Was it Dean’s big blue eyes that allowed us to look into Jim Stark’s soul in a way Franco can’t begin to duplicate? Brown eyes aren’t an impossible obstacle for a movie actor – Bogart, Monroe, Judy Garland, even Julia Roberts have done OK by brown eyes – but if you’ve got dreams of present-day stardom in a paradoxically multicultural world, better pray for blue eyes.