Pride & Vanity. Vanity & Pride. Both vying for precedence as The First Deadly Sin. How characteristic. Who, oh, who will win? Who would want to?
The rooster, the peacock, the Emperor in his new clothes. What are any of these without their haughty feathers or, for that matter, the mere idea of feathers? They are small, puny, naked things, mortified and ashamed. Pride always comes before a Fall. It’s just this side of Shame. Shame, which is not a Sin but the wooden nickel God gave us when he cast us out of the garden and into the world of Men without so much as a suit of clothes. How like an angry father. How quickly “I’m so proud of you” turns to “I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
Pride is exclusive, which is to say it’s excluding. One of its etymological antecedents, the Latin ‘prodesse,’ breaks down into ‘pro’ which means forward and ‘esse’ meaning to be. ‘Pride,’ literally meaning to be before. So Pride is what we do when we put ourselves ahead of others. Apart. Above. It is the antithesis of Love. Pride requires no accomplishments to bolster it. Pride is so elitist, so proud, it needs only its own idea of itself to be.
And Pride is not the same as Dignity. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were, on the whole, dignified. Their opposite numbers, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini were – to a man – frighteningly proud. Those old twin cocks, Bush II and Blair, along with their bantam opponents, Hussein and bin Laden, were all proud, all dangerous people. I don’t think of them as dignified. Here’s another example: I recently watched the 1965 Cambridge Union Society debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, the subject of which was “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” To hear Baldwin’s oratory, its beauty and clarity and confidence and rage and compassion, is to experience a dignity that opens the heart and the mind in a way that is both arresting and welcome. To listen to poor Buckley’s response is to endure the pitiful pride and vanity necessary to the technical execution of the opposing argument. It’s embarrassing to behold. I can look back on President Obama’s presidency – whatever its successes and failings might be – as one that has been acquitted with consistent dignity. A Trump presidency will undoubtedly be one marked, perhaps even disfigured, by Pride. And who can consider Trump without also considering Vanity, denoting as it does excessive Pride, especially in one’s appearance. Vanity also means Futility, as in comb-overs and spray-tans.
Here’s a tale. When I was a young commercial producer, one of our ad agency’s clients had developed a Revolutionary New Product. Something they hoped mall America would praise God for the good of. This new and needful thing? Low-Fat Peanut Butter. It was the kind of peanut butter that had label-warnings written in teeny-tiny letters, letters so minuscule they are, in the trade, called mouse-type. I suppose this was because mice are the last creatures on earth innocent of the inter-webs and TV (even my dog watches golf) and so maintain their interest in reading. Well, what the mice were being warned against by this label was the possibility – the slight, slight chance, mind you – that once having eaten this low-fat peanut butter, they might experience severe abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and leakage.
There. I said it.
The peanut butter was, whimsically, called Peter Pan. Peter Pan Peanut Butter. You know it. It’s been a supermarket staple forever. But now, Low-Fat! There was a picture of Peter Pan on the label, looking mischievous and slightly cruel. The winking image of an elf evil enough to devise a diet peanut butter that induced leakage. What else did he have to be winking about, after all? Was his heavily lashed, batting eye a sexy come-on to Moms everywhere? Eat me, he might have been saying. You’re going to love it. Or was the perma-wink Peter Pan’s invitation for Mom to join in on a private joke, just the two of them. An inside joke, as it were. Deep inside.
It was the ad agency’s notion that - given a choice between Peter Pan Low-Fat and the fully-fatted peanut paste offered by the leading competitor, Skippy, anyone would choose Peter Pan in a blind taste test. The advertising line was, ‘You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to choose Peter Pan Low-Fat,’ or ‘You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to choose Peter Pan,’ ‘You don’t have to be a child prodigy,’ and so on. In other words, any idiot would be sure to choose Peter Pan Low-Fat and that idiot, ladies and gentleman, was you. The creative team wanted me, the agency producer, to find, not actors, but real, really remarkable people to do testimonials about the wonders of Peter Pan. That is, they wanted to find a nuclear physicist, for example, to hawk The Pan. These real, really remarkable people had to be geniuses and had to pick Peter Pan Low-Fat in a blind taste-test in order to be cast. The only other requirement was that none of them have an adversity to leakage.
Let me cut to the chase and say that I did find these people, including a child prodigy mathematician who was, at the age of 12, already starting classes at Harvard. Unfortunately, his name was Mohammad and, this being the time of the Gulf War under George I, the client was shy about having a little brown person hawking their little brown paste. They covered by saying that Mohammad didn’t depict their user demographic fairly. I’m sure they were right. I’m sure there’s not a teaspoon of low-fat peanut butter to be found in all the Islamic world to this very day. Rocket Scientists were grossly under-employed under George I, and so it was no problem finding one of those to be in our spot. A hungry astrophysicist will eat almost anything, it turns out.
The hardest thing to find by far was a female brain surgeon with spare time enough to have issued and raised two young children (as the storyboard demanded), who was herself youngish looking and reasonably attractive. Oh, eye surgeons were easily found. Lower GI specialists, yes. ENTs, innumerable. But brain surgeons? Female? At the time, I located fewer than 20 lady neurosurgeons in the entire United States. Of the three who agreed to the pre-screening taste-test, one had to cancel. And so we had just two on the casting tape to choose from. The first was heavy set and smiling but didn’t pick our butter. The other woman was a good-looking forty-something, whose beauty was only slightly ruined by many years of study and sawing through craniums and tinkering with the brain’s vague, yet precision machinery. Dedication, intelligence and warmth radiated in faint sprays of crows-feet around her huge, genius eyes. Her youthful ambition had once been expressed in a stern jaw-line, a jaw-line which her life-time’s experience had lately softened, giving her a look of gentle steadfastness. She looked, in short, exactly how I would want my own brain-surgeon to look. Like Susan Sarandon, circa The Banger Sisters. Incredibly, she genuinely liked Peter Pan Low-Fat: we had her on a date-stamped tape doing a blind taste test that proved it. And she said she would do the spot.
Anything to be on TV, she said.
And I had to wonder, “Even if it means getting a little crap in your pants?”
Six weeks later, we were ready to shoot. We had flown the brain surgeon and her two daughters in first class from New York to Vancouver and put them up in a suite. It was two days before the shoot and I, for one, was eager to meet our lovely lady-doctor face to face. Not to mention wardrobing her and her kids. But when I called her room to make an arrangement, she put me off. “I’m not a morning person,” she said. Well, I caved in. I didn’t want to pressure her unduly. She was not, after all, a professional actress. She was a brain surgeon. She put me off twice more, didn’t want to sit down with the director, didn’t want to join us for a get-acquainted drink. So it was that I did not meet our star performer - and what a performer she was - until the morning of the shoot.
At 5:00 AM, we were on location, shooting in one of those bland, California kitchens whose sunny, light oak cabinetry says ‘middle class,’ ‘average,’ and ‘this should be you but it never will be so shut up and watch.’ We had taken over most of the house, using the sunken living room as a holding pen for the client and agency people, while one of the bedrooms was being used for wardrobe, hair and makeup. From a distance, I saw the brain surgeon come in with her children, and observed as they were escorted down the hallway to dress. They seemed to scurry down that hallway as if into a rabbit-hole, moving a trifle too nimbly for the early hour. Too nimbly, I thought, for someone who was not, as the good doctor described herself, a morning person. 6:00 AM came ‘round, then 7. I noticed a PA hauling a 20-pound bag of ice into makeup. Strange, thought I. By then it was 8 AM. At 10:00, I could see by the schedule that we were meant to have gotten off our first shot a half-hour ago. Just as I had this realization, the makeup and hair people emerged in their smocks, looking oncologically grim. As they came closer, I knew the patient was me. The makeup man was weeping, and the hairstylist was doing her best to prop him up. Apparently, I was terminal.
“Neber, neber, neber, neber all-my-life haf dis happen to me. Di eyez so black, di facez so swoll!! Dere’s nodenuff ice inna da whole North Pole gonna get tha’swollen down. Oh, my Ga-a-a-d!”
“Shhhh, darling, it’s gonna be okay,” says the hairstylist. Then, turning to me, “It’s true what he says. He’s tried everything. Everything. I tried to cover up the scars with her hair, but it’s no good.”
“Dis what I try tell you! The docto-lady haffhad a faceliff!”
The Doctor Lady Have Had A Face Lift. Very recently, it would seem.
The cost of the day’s filming amounted to 175,000 dollars. To cancel meant a total loss, compounded by the consequent loss of our editorial contract of 30,000 dollars, not to mention the media plan which amounted to a multi-million dollar national network buy. The good doctor wasn’t a SAG member, she wasn’t even an actress, so there was no agent to call, no union, no one for our client to blame but us, the agency. The burnt hair stink of a lawsuit swirled in my nostrils. Looking ‘round me, I saw clustered the director, his producer, cinematographer, my creative director, copywriter, account executive, all of them freaking out, not a one of them under 45, all staring at me, waiting for me to pronounce the patient dead. Either that, or drop dead myself. Well, I was 27 years old. I wanted to live.
Shoot her, I said.
At 10:30, the account executive took the client to lunch, and at noon, the brain surgeon was trotted out. Clearly, she was having a Clockwork Orange sort of day. For the most obvious symptom of her recent surgery was that she couldn’t close her eyes. The lids were peeled back tight by swelling and by the few tiny sutures still cunningly woven into her hairline. As the hours passed, one eye began to ooze. I ordered a production assistant designated to stand out of frame and pass her bunches of tissue to staunch the flow. All in all, the doctor’s performance that day was disturbingly unblinking.
Smiling, however, was not a problem. There was nothing but smiling all day long. She couldn’t fully close her lips and was, therefore, mouth-breathing under hot lights for hours at a time. Every so often, she’d dip her finger into a pot of Vaseline and rub it on her teeth to prevent her gob shriveling up entirely. Her smile stretched across her face in an inflexible, enigmatic leer. Was she happy? Rueful? Sardonically amused? I’ll never know. Her tenterhooked grin gave nothing away save itself, the perfect answer to Peter Pan’s own sexless, unprisable wink.
By the time the client returned to set, it was mid-afternoon, and much of the swelling had subsided, drained mostly, I believe, through that one eye. The cinematographer had moved his camera away from her and resorted to long lenses, favoring her good side, the one that wasn’t oozing. The lines she was meant to say were, where possible, given to the girls, who were filmed in heartwarming close-ups, mumbling our sticky scripture through mouthfuls of low-fat Peter Pan.
And it all came off. We got enough in-the-can to fashion thirty mediocre seconds of peanut-buttery pitch. And the story of our travail never leaked – pardon the expression. We never told. Not the advertising agency heads. Not our client. And certainly not the good doctor. For the biggest lie of the day was the lie we never told her. Which was this: that no one had noticed. Nobody saw. No one was frightened, inconvenienced, or remotely troubled by her stellar infraction. Her face-lift was never, ever mentioned to her. For, to acknowledge the too-obvious folly of her vanity, her pride in her own appearance, would have been to shame her. And a good performance must always, above all, be shameless.
I’ve since marveled at these events, and often. She’d had the facelift some time between the blind taste test and the shoot. I mean, you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know a facelift can take a year to get over. How could she have done it? I wondered if she’d worked out a barter deal with the plastic surgeon: I’ll do your brain if you’ll do my face. But really, after conquering medical school, her internship, building her practice and professional reputation, could being on TV mean so much to her? Did she want the television audience to see her as she remembered herself as a young pre-med? Played by Rocky Horror era Susan Sarandon?
At the end of the shoot day, I escorted the doctor to her limousine. While we waited for her girls to come out of the bathroom, I leaned in through the limo’s open window, took her delicate, neurosurgeon’s hand in mine, gazed into her one dry eye and said, “Doctor, I’ve been meaning to ask … did you do something to your hair?” Just then her daughters ran out of the house, looking a trifle green. They clambered gingerly into the car, the both of them packed full of Peter Pan Low-Fat Peanut Butter, tight as a pair of water balloons. As I watched the limo drive off, I smiled to myself. And winked. “Peter Pan,” I thought, “Do your worst.” For I knew, whatever gastrointestinal misfortune befell her or her little girls that long, hot summer’s night, the good doctor wouldn’t dare make a peep about it.
Because Pride is not dignified. And Vanity never tells.
4.23.2016, Amanda Moody
A version of this story was originally performed in San Francisco as part of A Cellar Full of Noise's 7 Sins Series, directed by James B. Judd