By Dinah Lenney

Jul 5, 2005
Los Angeles Times - Commentary

With a nudge from her mother, an actress considers making a few changes to her looks.

"Birthdays," my mother says, "they're boring. Useless. Who cares about birthdays anyway?"

I'm calling for good cheer, but I should know better by now. I'm calling to say I don't want to be older, I don't want to be in L.A., I don't want to be me! I'm hoping she'll say, "Darling, you're a gem. Don't be silly. You're beautiful and smart, and everything will be all right." Instead, she says, "Well, honey, I don't blame you. It's awful, isn't it?"

I'm a fool to call, an old dog to go in that direction for comfort. It was five years ago that my mother told me, regarding my looks, that I had about five good years left. It was just last summer that she mentioned, for the first time, that I should consider cosmetic surgery.

"I've noticed," she said, wiping her own eyes, all choked up, "I mean, I only want the best for you, and I'm so afraid you'll bite my head off if I tell you what I think, but I love you, dear, and I've noticed those bags under your eyes. If you were a teacher or a lawyer, I wouldn't say a word, dear, but after all, your work depends on your looks."

Since when? Since when did my work ever depend on my looks? I'm a character actress, understand, in television and film; I was never the pretty one. I'm the neighbor, the best friend, the warm, honest comic relief when I'm lucky; the rest of the time, I'm Nurse Shirley on the medical drama "ER," a kind of plot conveyer, a device to move the scene along, as in: "You have a phone call, Dr. Benton" (and he takes it) or "Here's your scalpel, Dr. Corday" (and she uses it) or "Act like a man, Dr. Carter" (and he does).

To my mother I mumbled something about how I don't really work all that much.

"But you want to," she asserted. "And if you want to, dear, you're going to have to get your eyes done." She blew her nose, put her hankie back in her big, black satchel, snapped it closed.

Be your own good parent, the shrink said years ago. Which means that instead of making an appointment with a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, I should look in the mirror and announce, "Hey, you look great! These are your salad days! Happy birthday to you!"

On Stage 11 at Warner Bros., we schmooze between takes; masked, gowned and blood-spattered, there's no point in taking it all off just to put it on again a few minutes later. It occurs to me just before the camera rolls to ask one of the series regulars, a beautiful woman several years younger than I, if she'd ever consider cosmetic surgery.

"I don't know," she answers. "Would you?"

"These bags," I admit, "I'm wondering about these bags under my eyes.... "

"Those?" she cries. "I had those removed ages ago. That's not the same thing at all! They're not supposed to be there!"

I know, I know, I should blow out the candles and make a wish and get on with it. Instead I phone an old friend, a television star, and ask her who did her eyes. Then I drive to the Westside and spend $300 to hear that my mother is right: My eyes are puffy. Fat deposits, that's all. A simple procedure and no one will ever know. I'll look rested, relaxed, rejuvenated, like my, oh, say, 35-year- old self. And hey, listen, while I'm at it, if I want they can suck a little fat from the top lids too. Minimal bruising. Instant gratification. What did I expect the surgeon to tell me?

Five grand per eye, and if I do it within the year my $300 for the consultation works as a deposit. The receptionist takes my check. She's preternaturally thin, a Gumby-like gazelle with huge, unblinking blue eyes, practically lidless, perfectly polished nails and 40-plus-year-old knuckles.

I cry all the way home. Talk about puffy eyes.

When I was 11, I cut off all my hair like Twiggy and found that my ears stuck straight out. My mother said, "Never mind, we can have them pinned back." I told her with more conviction than I've been able to muster since, that they were my ears, I'd keep them just as they were.

Let me take a detour here to say it's my theory that we girls, at 11, are stronger, more powerful and more fully realized than we can hope to be again until after menopause.

It's the menstruation thing, the hormones and all, that screws us up for 40 odd years. Before and after, we have potential for magnificence.

At 27 and fully a victim of my hormones, I went to an appointment with Bernie, a commercial casting director in New York City. Bernie looked at me, looked at my resume, looked back at me and said, "Can you do something about the wart above your upper lip?"

Think Cindy Crawford, think Madonna, think 1940s movie stars and a black Sharpie. I just happen to have a mole, most aesthetically situated above my lip, stage left of my nose, house right, if you're facing me head-on.

"It's the food clients, see," Bernie said. "A wart near your mouth, you know, that close to the food products, you know, it makes them uneasy."

He scrutinized my face, peered hard at the offending spot, discomfiting to say the least when a person is trying to look another person in the eye and carry on a conversation. But clearly, Bernie wished to be helpful.

"You could cover it maybe?" he suggested, "With makeup or something?"

"Well, Bernie," I explained, "it's in relief. That is, it's a mole, Bernie, it's a bump. Makeup can't touch it."

But for a week I wandered around the apartment with my index finger strategically placed to one side of my nose and just over the offending landmark. At the end of the week, contemplating cosmetic surgery for the first time, I asked my then-boyfriend (now husband) for his opinion.

"How do I look? Be honest."

"You look," Fred said, "like a woman with her finger up her nose."

So now, I arrive home from Beverly Hills all puffy and distraught and announce that it will cost about 10 grand to make me gorgeous again.

Fred blanches, then tells me I'm completely absurd. Our children go to public school. We've never taken them to Europe. We haven't saved a dime toward college or retirement, and I am destined to get old like everybody else in the world. The deposit was $300? Am I kidding? Am I crazy? Can I get it back? But then he takes pity on me and tells me I don't look a day over 39.

Credit: Dinah Lenney, an actress and writer living in Los Angeles, teaches method acting at UCLA.