Once upon a time, not too long ago in cinematic history, there was an easy way to make a Hollywood star instantly less attractive: put them in glasses.
Think Cary Grant as the palaeontologist in Bringing Up Baby; Donna Reed as the librarian in It’s a Wonderful Life; Bette Davis as a repressed spinster in Now, Voyager. Even Clark Kent, who can only become Superman once he’s taken his specs off.
A new exhibition in Manchester explores the history of spectacles on screen, charting the journey of the humble ophthalmic aid from geek prop to shorthand for sophistication.
The show, at Home, is the brainchild of the Society of the Spectacles, a creative research club formed by Robert Hamilton and Susan Platt, artists who lecture at Manchester School of Art.
Both proud specs wearers, the pair want to challenge the idea that people are better looking without their glasses. “We’re trying to argue the opposite,” said Hamilton, who has four different pairs that he wears according to his mood and outfit.
Hamilton founded the society in 2012 after watching The War of the Worlds, which features Gene Barry “wearing a really great pair of glasses”.
“I thought, oh, I wonder if anyone has done anything about glasses in cinema,” said Hamilton. “The glasses played a part in the narrative. Barry arrives at the meteor site and there’s a young woman who doesn’t recognise him because he’s wearing glasses. He asks her: ‘So, what does Dr So-and-So look like?’, and she goes: ‘Oh, I’ve got his photograph here.’ And Barry goes: ‘Does he look like [whips off his glasses to illustrate] this?’ They fall instantly in love and then get attacked by aliens.”
Hamilton made a list of all the films he could remember in which glasses had played a part, such as Battleship Potemkin, where the woman on the Odessa steps is shot through her spectacles, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, where a murder is reflected in the victim’s lenses. He decided to find a way to celebrate them in art.
The Home show, called Strelnikov’s Glasses and Other Stories, takes its title from the character played by Tom Courtenay in Dr Zhivago – a Russian soldier who wears small, round, wire-rimmed specs. Hamilton’s own contribution to the exhibition includes a letter he wrote to Courtenay asking for his recollections on wearing those glasses for the role.
The show presents the work of 24 artists, designers and filmmakers based in Sheffield, Manchester, Chicago, Panama and California. All were tasked with producing a work that responds to a pair of glasses (or its wearer) in a film of their choice, in the format of the 27 x 40in film poster.
Platt, who curated the exhibition, has contributed her own piece, called Never Make Passes? With the help of General Eyewear – a London-based firm that makes bespoke spectacles for films, including works by Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton – she transforms herself into the most famous glasses-wearing female characters in cinema over the past 75 years.
The artist pays homage to Miranda Priestly, the fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada, as well as Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire – a watershed moment for specs on screen, Platt believes. “It was Marilyn Monroe who first sexualised glasses, because she gets the man without taking her glasses off.”
Another work, by Libby Scarlett, examines intimacy on screen: when a specs-wearing character takes off their glasses and puts them on the bedside table, you know a steamy bit is coming up.
Platt, who rocks a cartoonish thick black frame, is delighted that glasses in movies are now more often used to signal a character’s cool urbanity. “Take the Tom Ford film Nocturnal Animals. Amy Adams is in that as an LA gallery owner, and she’s successful and glamorous and she’s got the biggest-framed glasses on in the world.”
- Strelnikov’s Glasses and Other Stories is at Home, Manchester, from 1 September until 29 October
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