More than maybe any other activity we do on a nearly daily basis, shaving is a skill we have primarily learned from watching others—fathers and brothers, usually. But if the images we routinely see on television and in the movies are any indication, nobody really knows what they’re doing.
Shaving technique on television, particularly in television commercials, is so uniformly the same, I barely need describe it: no pre-shave prep, lather from a can, and a shaving stroke so exaggerated, you don’t know whether they’re reducing a beard or cutting sheet metal. It’s a routine millions of men follow every day—which probably explains why most men complain so bitterly of having sensitive faces.
The movies are less easily pigeonholed. There are literally hundreds of scenes centered on shaving, from the offhand to the pivotal, with the lessons they teach ranging from the appalling to the sublime.
Without question, the award for worst shaving technique ever displayed in a movie belongs to Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove where he evidently attempted to shave himself with a loaded .45 caliber pistol—don’t try this at home. Other ill-advised adventures in grooming include Steve Martin shaving his own tongue in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Elmer Fudd’s choice of Bugs Bunny as his barber in Rabbit of Seville.
And if Michael Madsen, Luis Buñuel or Sweeney Todd ever offer to shave you, all I can tell you is, run!
The worst technique I’ve ever seen in a movie that I have also seen grown men use of their own free will is probably Bill Duke’s in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action film, Predator. Using only the sweat of his brow for lubrication, Duke whips out a disposable razor and dry shaves himself—sight unseen, mind you—pressing down so hard that he snaps the razor’s handle in two. This approach—what our host once termed a do-it-yourself skin graft—can, of course, lead to any number of problems: ingrown hairs, bumps, irritated skin, and in Bill Duke’s case, a laser beam right through the chest.
But assuming self-annihilation is not on your morning menu, you can find some worthwhile shaving tips in the movies, provided you know where to look. In Kill Bill Vol. 2, Uma Thurman reminds us to keep our razor blades sharp. Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine) proves you can impress a pretty girl with a nicely-scented aftershave. And while George Harrison in A Hard Day’s Night commits at least two cardinal sins showing Shake (who comes from a long line of electricians) how to shave with a razor—he not only uses shaving cream from an aerosol can but he squirts it on the bathroom mirror instead of his face, which as anybody can tell you, isn’t going to get you anywhere—he does offer up one piece of advice I’d press upon anybody: “Put your tongue away, it looks disgusting hanging out all pink and naked. And one slip of the razor and—”
Oof! And you thought the Beatles were just about the music.
Of course, no screen depiction of shaving will ever entirely satisfy the purist, if only because the actors in a movie are rarely if ever really shaving. The razor’s blade is a dull-edged prop, the shaving itself a sound effect added later in post-production. And because shaving cream dries up quickly, especially under the hot arc lights of a studio set, any lather you see is almost certainly a prop master’s fabrication—mashed potatoes are a favorite. Still, everything you see in a movie is faked to one degree or another, and to accept spaceships, car chases and buxom blondes at face values, only to balk because an actor doesn’t draw a real razor across his $20 million throat strikes me as a bit unreasonable.
To me, the real test of a shaving scene in a movie is not whether it captures the how of shaving so much as the why of shaving.
Two fine examples of what I mean are Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) and Barbershop (2002). The former is the story of an unlikely friendship between a retired Cuban barber (Robert Duvall) and a drunken blowhard (Richard Harris) and features a shaving scene—with the always authentic Duvall putting on a clinic—that is so heartbreakingly tender, the entire movie winds up pivoting on the moment. The shave not only allows the blowhard to see the human being beneath the booze and beard, it also reminds the barber of the dignity of a job well done.
“Part of it is the idea of servicing somebody,” Duvall said later. “There are certain people who do that all their lives, who are good at that. There are certain immigrants who find a dignity in it. This character that I play is not afraid to say what he did for a living.”
Cedric the Entertainer makes the same point in Barbershop. In addition to preaching the virtues of a hot towel, good lather, a sharp blade, the proper cutting angle, and above all, patience, he teaches the younger barbers in the shop of the respect—and the self-respect—that comes from mastering a craft.
Both movies recognize that shaving is not merely a means whereby a man removes his whiskers, it’s an art, and whether practiced at home or at the barbershop, is a small, inexpensive way for him to treat himself with respect.