The joy of specs: eyewear’s starring role in cinematic history | Art and design

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…

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