No-Shave November is in full swing, which means beards are on the face and on the brain. When crafting a character’s demeanor, intentions, and mental state, subtleties like posture, dress, haircut, and gait all play a huge role—allowing the audience to determine the personality of a well-defined character before a word is spoken onscreen. With this in mind, we took a look at movie characters throughout time and analyzed what their beards (or lack thereof) says about them and how the same ideas apply to facial hair in real life.
Superhero films like Spider-Man and Superman often use the clean-shaven look to depict the character’s alter ego as a wholesome, potentially underestimated character with hidden powers. Characters like James Bond, Patrick Bateman, or Michael Corleone are always the consummate professional, thorough and to the point, and they demand respect. Although each these characters cares deeply about their appearance, they are the quintessential candidates for the phrase “looks can be deceiving.”
Quite the contrary to the clean-shaven category, these guys aren’t caught up in their appearances. A five o’clock shadow never hurt anyone, and it can give insight to the character’s priorities and lifestyle. Maximus of Gladiator, John McClane from Die Hard, and Tom Hanks as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan are more or less regular family men up against extraordinary situations, and the last thing they’re worried about is a buttery smooth shave. Characters with stubble (think every film with Jason Statham) depict rough and tumble leads who take charge, but are still the type of guy you’d want to grab a beer with.
Smart films will depict a character by showing his personality in action rather than exposing it through forced dialogue. Upon first sight, King Leonidas, Michael from The Deer Hunter and “the man with no name” from For a Fistful of Dollars are masculine guys who you expect to play the hero, and you’re exactly right. After all, what is more masculine than muscles and beards? Sure they’d shave, but first they have to save the day, which is always easier said than done. Just ask “The Man” from The Road.
Whether it’s genius turned insane or a broken heart, these characters are slowly coming apart at the seams. The unkept beard is a surefire sign of things going south. It’s hard enough to keep it together without involving vanity and sharp razors. These men perpetually walk the line of lunacy, and are a hair away from joining the somber ranks of Howard Hughes and Jack Torrance. To quote the great Ron Burgundy, milk was a bad choice.
There is no good excuse for mutton chops—unless you have supernatural powers or are able to solve mysteries while under the influence of multiple psychedelics. Okay, and maybe you can get away with them if you’re a Civil War general. As for the rest of us, you’d need to either be more animal than human or too high to care to rock mutton chops.
Fuller and Unkempt-er
Nothing visualizes the passage of time like hair growth. Let’s say decades or even centuries have passed since the last scene. Sure, you can put up a title card that reads “__ Years Later…,” but it doesn’t make for a terribly exciting or convincing visual if the main character remains unchanged. Whether the character in question has no access to shaving materials whilst stranded on an island (a la Chuck Noland in Castaway), is too busy running across the country like Forrest Gump, or has slept for 700 years like Ash in Army of Darkness, their beard had better be wildly unkempt and lengthy. This is not necessarily the case with Noah from The Notebook, but his neat and considerably full beard still marks the passing time. Knowing that the average growth rate of hair is six inches per year, there’s no question that a time hope has occurred when we see these characters.
At the end of the day, beards are generally admired for their aesthetic value. The look of certain beards also have close ties to cultural influences. Beards also happen to be versatile, and cinema has graced us with many examples of unique whiskers. In the The Hunger Games movies, gamemaker Seneca Crane’s carefully sculpted facial hair denotse his status in the Capitol. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, sports more of a close-cropped goatee rather than a full beard, but is equally stylish and exactly what you’d expect from a billionaire playboy/philanthropist with a rugged edge. Mugatu from Zoolander, an over-the-top fashion mogul, sports a wispy, white goatee that is sillier than it is intimidating or fashionable, but still invokes a commanding presence.
Generally, people are apt to trust clean-shaven men over those sporting a sinister goatee. When looking at villains such as Hans Gruber from Die Hard, Calvin Candie from Django Unchained or Jafar from Aladdin, it’s not hard to see why. Not that the narrowed-eyed expressions presented here help, but all three men share almost identical beard styles: thin sideburns that reach the jawline and meet at the chin, a moustache that connects to the goatee below, and a bit of soul patch in the case of Gruber and Candie. On some men, it looks stylish, but in these cases the beard only adds to the evil persona of these dudes—and gives us all the more reason to root for the good guys.
Arguably the most popular way to characterize facial hair in cinema, donning a length of beard indicates a certain amount of worldly wisdom. Characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi is one perfect example. King Triton from The Little Mermaid, the monarch of Atlantica, is a wise leader in most things, if perhaps misguided in others (see: raising a teenage mermaid daughter who’s infatuated with humans). In most depictions of the story of Exodus, like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Moses sports a beard of varying lengths depending on the adaptation—which makes sense for plenty of reasons, not the least of which is because he spent forty years leading the Israelites through the desert without so much as a sharp rock to chisel off some facial hair. That aside, it serves as a mark of his wisdom that comes from being the one chosen to deliver not just the Israelites from Pharaoh’s land, but also the Commandments from the mountaintop. After all these guys have been through, they’ve earned their top beard status.
In the same vein, wizards are the ultimate wizened characters—extending across cinema, literature, art, and television. No simple beard will do; they must be splendidly long and fullness, as if to mirror long lives rich in experience. In modern cinema, the first wizards that come to mind are Albus Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series and Gandalf the Grey/White in Lord of the Rings. Both serve as an aid to the protagonist on their respective journeys. In contrast to the antagonist beards, you can’t help but trust them. Wizards in storytelling also tend to wax philosophical, so a likeness of bearded sorcerers in fiction to famed philosophers like Aristotle and Ptolemy is natural.
Here are some stock beards with a story to tell.
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