The Powder & The Glory

Nature always needs improving.

— Helena Rubenstein

“Go into any department store: it’s frightening how much makeup is on sale.” As Twiggy Lawson speaks, you see a fluorescent-lit floor in wide shot — full of glass counters, sleek bottles, and shiny boxes, plus a sales clerk attending to the upturned face of a customer. Indeed, it is frightening just how many products, whether duplications, variations, or innovations, are available at any given moment.

Twiggy’s observation comes late in The Powder & The Glory, Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s documentary on the intertwined careers of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Twiggy, of course, is best known a supermodel during the 1960s — at just 16, she was named “The Face of ’66,” and she has since served as a judge on America’s Next Top Model, among other achievements — and as such, her opinion might carry some weight. (This weight might even be doubled if you consider the excessive eye makeup she made famous, a look she says she copied from a ragdoll she owned as a child.) And yet, the documentary seems to take no notice of the key word in her assessment — “frightening” — or at least to read it as comic or ironic. For here the titular “glory” is the predominant theme, as the film celebrates the rise of makeup — as concept, art, and industry.

Based on the dual biography, War Paint, by Lindy Woodhead, the documentary underscores the professional rivalry between Arden (born Florence Nightingale Graham, in rural Canada, 1884) and Rubenstein (nee Chaja Rubinstein, born in Krakow, Poland in 1870). Though they lived in the same Manhattan neighborhood, the film notes, the women never met (at least they never had what Woodhead calls a “cohesive business conversation”). Instead, they engaged in a fierce and legendary competition over some five decades, each seeking supremacy in a market they invented jointly, however at odds. The film makes much of their connections, or at least their parallel life paths, cutting between key moments, like their moves to New York or their early inventions of creams, even the help both received from the emerging motion picture industry, which featured close-ups of actresses wearing mascara and lipstick and rouge.

They offered contrasting personal appearances (Arden was lithe and Rubenstein was, according to Kitty Carlisle Hart, “short and squat, built like an icebox”), as they also made different commercial appeals. As Virginia Drachman of Tufts University puts it, Arden grasped early on that the suffrage movement might be positively deployed, as in, “Every woman has a right to be beautiful”), while Rubenstein was more upfront about her purposeful creation of the need: “All the American women had purple noses and gray lips, and their faces were chalk white from terrible powder. I realized that the United States could be my life’s work”). Where Arden, the film says, appealed to women of “wealth and status,” Rubenstein conjured an “edgy, dramatic personality rather than glamorous beauty.” Faced with anti-Semitism along with “hostility toward women in business,” narrator Jane Alexander says, Rubenstein turned such seeming negatives into a positive, selling herself and her products to an ever-growing “niche market.” (The documentary stops about there in its investigation of the prejudice Rubenstein dealt with, omitting what must have been an incredible set of experiences.)

Both women appear here in vintage photos under narration by academic experts and a couple of former employees — most entertainingly, Pablo Manzoni, Arden’s erstwhile Former Creative Director for Makeup. Their stories are occasionally illustrated by some awkward, not-so-funny animation, where the principals take on the form of Olive Oyl, whether climbing a literalized ladder to corporate success or, late in Rubenstein’s life, confronting masked burglars in her bedroom.

More interesting than this sort of silliness are the film’s considerations of the multiple and layered contexts for Arden and Rubenstein’s frankly remarkable careers. Though the device to mark the passing of time is reductive (each decade, 1920s through 1960s, is introduced by a new “look” on model Courtney Craft’s face), the sheer number of years these companies have existed is daunting, not to mention their dominance in the field. The film notes the links between various cultural developments — youth rebellion as a marketing strategy, the overlap of department stores and modernism, television and mass marketing — as makeup sales evolved (and almost always increased).

That Arden and Rubenstein brought particular aspects, of personality, taste, and even technology, to these evolutions seems almost an afterthought for the film. It notes in passing their marriages and their collecting activities (Rubenstein accumulated paintings and other art, Arden bought thoroughbred racehorses, including an eventual Kentucky Derby winner, Jet Pilot). But it leaves too many questions unasked. When Nancy Koehn of Harvard Business School observes the increase in makeup sales during the Depression, seeing it as a function of class aspiration, however illusory, the film doesn’t pick up on the insight (namely, “how cosmetics make consumers feel at a certain economic moment”). The Powder & The Glory settles for well-researched timelines and superficial correlations rather than thinking through the cultural effects of makeup, the business and the art.

RATING 5 / 10