Kurt Russell in The Thing: Father of the Beard
The 1982 remake of science fiction-horror classic The Thing by John Carpenter became a success for a number of reasons. The almost surreal body twisting special effects set a new standard which digital effects are unable to mimic to this day. Overall the film presented a moody and suspenseful tale fueled by male paranoia. It also was far-reaching in the style department. Or was it so behind that it moved ahead of the game? Obviously the arctic surroundings had the actors walking around in some prime outerwear gear which for the most part can be hard to identify. Many have for instance been on the lookout for the glacier sunglasses worn by Kurt Russell (they are either by Vuarnet or Bollé and totally vintage by now) or his leather jacket by Schott. But on one level The Thing is also a film about Kurt Russell’s beard.
To put things in historical perspective: in 1982, with the first stirrings of clean shaven square jawed yuppies as a male ideal, the beard had run its course. Notice how in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) the rebels, hidden on the ice planet Hoth under similar circumstances as the characters of The Thing, don’t bother with facial hair. Yet Russell at the edge of civilization stubbornly rocks a true beard with strong echoes of late period Jim Morrison. The doomed rebel king of The Doors paved the way for the beard in pop culture: the clean-cut Beach Boys grew beards, John Lennon and George Harrison quickly followed and so did Yves Saint Laurent in his Messiah of haute couture phase. The trend continued well into the 1970s with the slick yacht rock musicians sporting a relaxed beard in Californian studios and sundrenched marinas. Hollywood followed suit, although a recent replay of for instance The China Syndrome (1979) suddenly makes clear how memories can deceive. Michael Douglas’ beard, once the sign of an anti-establishment rebel, looks disappointingly well-groomed, an effect heightened when he wears a foppish cap.
Now Kurt Russell as R. J. MacReady would never go for such dandy flourishes. The man flies helicopters through hairy weather and likes to spend evenings downing a bottle of whiskey while losing at computer chess. After a shape shifting alien invades the isolated base camp, MacReady is the one who keeps his head cool and tries to figure out how to beat the creature. Russell plays MacReady with a certain weary aloofness, survival instincts kicking in gear when needed (although it never is stated as such, his implied back-story is of an alcoholic Vietnam vet.) His attitude in combination with long hair and perfect beard (not too long, not too neat) make him one cool dude, basically installing the desire for a beard in a generation of young men. At the time a rather problematic wish since the beard was completely out of fashion. Now that we live in the 21st century renaissance of facial hair it is hard to imagine that the beard for at least two decades was the sign of the outsider: the bum, the hermit, the professor lost in thought. Women generally disliked them and wearing a beard during a job interview led to almost certain rejection. Well, teenagers who patiently rode out the times finally got their wish and are now able to hail Kurt Russell as one of the crucial style icons of the past thirty years.
Oh yeah, MacReady obviously never goes to the barbershop to get his beard reshaped — no warm towels or fragranced oils either — he does it alone. Frost and J&B will do as moisturizers.
This article first appeared in Man Got Style (2015)