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Are beards back? Testosterone front and centre on Oscar night

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This year's Oscars were all about the beard, from the silver screen to the red carpet.

When Ben Affleck accepted an Academy Award for Best Picture last Sunday, he had left the young upstart of Good Will Hunting and the looks-good-in-tights guy from Daredevil far behind.

He was the mature actor-turned-director who helmed Argo to Oscar gold, the man who knows that filmmaking is difficult and marriage is hard work. (Cut to wife Jennifer Garner looking proud/confused/possibly ticked off.)

For the last few years, Affleck has been going for gravitas. And in Hollywood, where style tends to trump substance, the fastest route to gravitas involves growing a beard.

A recent chart on the New York Magazine website tracks Affleck's career by correlating his Rotten Tomatoes movie scores to whatever facial hair he had going on at the time. (Clean-shaven for Jersey Girl and Gigli. Scruffy for Gone Baby Gone. All-out mountain man for Argo. See where this is headed?)


Affleck's latest beard even has its own parody Twitter account. Live tweeting from the Oscars, Ben Affleck's Beard checked out the other beards, wondered how Jack Nicholson would look with a beard, and meditated on its own mortality. (The beard predicted -- correctly, it turns out -- that it would be hacked post-Oscar.)

Many of the nominated movies were heavily bearded, from the revolutionary beard of Les Miz's Hugh Jackman to the presidential beard of Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis to the jaunty Mitteleuropa beard of Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained.

And then there were all those crazy, crazy dwarf beards in The Hobbit.

Sometimes a beard neatly signified theme, as with Zero Dark Thirty's Jason Clarke, who was heavily bearded when he was practising "enhanced interrogation techniques" in a distant desert, but clean-shaven when he was a desk-riding bureaucrat back in D.C. Here, facial grooming signified an emotional and moral disconnect.

Usually the beard was an itchy-scratchy, soup-straining badge of authenticity, which might be why the notoriously Method-y Day-Lewis got tetchy when asked about "wearing" a beard for Lincoln: "What do you mean 'wearing it'? Do you wear your own hair?... It was mine. It was my very own beard."

This year's spate of unusually hairy movies translated into a lot of beardage at the awards show itself. Chris Pine was working the "couldn't be bothered to shave" look, while Paul Rudd puckishly combined an untamed beard with long hair for a '70s Jesus vibe. Jason Schwartzman, sporting a mere moustache, looked like he was doing a comic impersonation of a riverboat gambler.

The fashion police were divided on whether these hirsute leading men looked more like Dapper Dan or Grizzly Adams in a tux. GQ wasn't happy. "That much facial hair rarely makes a man look distinguished -- it makes him look homeless," sniffed the men's style mag. Affleck's look just screamed "bus shelter hobo sassiness," according to one blogger.

Esquire, on the other hand, considered Affleck's face fuzz to be "meticulously crafted" as his movie and proclaimed George Clooney's salt-and-pepper look "pretty damn heroic."

These polarized responses aren't surprising. The semiotics of beards are hard to pin down. Beards can be worn by saints or scoundrels, by the wise or the completely deranged. They can denote authenticity or irony. They can look solid and grown up or edgy and avant-garde.

A picture of the Argo guys holding their gold statues shows Ben Affleck and producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov with some very serious beards, all falling comfortably into the "burly" range. The men seem to be going for a concerted display of old-school moral authority and retrosexual manliness. Clooney, in particular, is wearing his defiantly grey beard like a flag. (Since Clooney was clean-shaven at January's Golden Globes, he is clearly the winner of Hollywood's unofficial beard-growing-contest.)

In hindsight, this concentrated display of beard also served as a handy reminder that the Academy is still a bastion of middle-aged white guys. It's easy to read too much into the Oscar beard trend -- surely some of these rugs are just good-luck rally beards or "can't be bothered to shave" beards. But maybe it's significant that the upswing in manly facial hair coincided with a fairly poor evening for women. Kicking off with host Seth MacFarlane's misogynist musical number We Saw Your Boobs, the show often felt sour. One New Yorker commentator called it a "hostile, ugly, sexist night."

So, next year, maybe fewer beards and more Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 E1

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