Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Quote of the Day (Leo Tolstoy, on Smiles and Beauty)

“It seems to me that what we call beauty in a face lies in the smile: if the smile heightens the charm of the face, the face is a beautiful one; if it does not alter it, the face is ordinary, and if it is spoilt by a smile, it is ugly.” ― Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1856)

I had a really hard time coming up with an image associated with Leo Tolstoy that would epitomize what he was talking about in this quote.

The problem was this: no Tolstoy character, I believe, embodies beauty quite like the title character of Anna Karenina, and especially in the early pages of that novel, which gives a sense of her vivacity with this: “Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light all around her.”

When she has her fateful meeting with the man who becomes her lover, Count Vronsky, the animation in that smile comes to the fore, even as it is at war with the social and moral restraints that eventually doom her:

“In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile.”

But I came up blank in my online search for an image that would capture the startling illumination of Anna. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the images I saw of the actresses who have played her (including Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Jacqueline Bisset, and Keira Knightley) emphasized pensiveness and depression—not a surprise, when you consider the guilt, ostracism and suicide that Anna ultimately endured because of her affair with Vronsky.

So I had to venture far afield to find someone who shows how a smile “heightens the charm of a face”: 1930s Hollywood—or, to be exact, in the case of the photo accompanying this post, the actress Irene Dunne.

This weekend, in reading reviews about the new documentary about the personal and creative partnership of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, it struck me that Ethan Hawke was partly motivated in creating this tribute because younger viewers already had little sense of what this couple meant.

I’m afraid that’s even more the case with Dunne, whose heyday occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, before the use of color became commonplace in film. Consequently, at least a couple of generations of movie fans will not even bother to sample the classic films in which she appeared.

What a pity. As I discussed in this prior post, Dunne was a versatile actress as adept in musicals as in dark dramas.

But she glowed especially in the screwball comedy genre, in films like The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife and Theodora Goes Wild, where her smile could be marvelously adaptable: loving, understanding, or just radiant with unbounded joy. She was well worth the winning in these films for the likes of onscreen partners Cary Grant and Melvyn Douglas.

Particularly in his later years, when he became increasingly consumed with his spiritual quest and his own marriage deteriorated, Tolstoy himself was given very little to smiling.

But, in his youth and early middle age, he understood concretely that a smile made all the difference in beauty—marring a face when twisted by forces of destruction and evil, but heightening it if filled with inner grace.

Irene Dunne epitomized grace. If you ever meet someone with a similar life force, don’t take for granted how much your life has been enriched by that encounter. The memory of a smile can linger a lifetime.

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