The mouth, together with the eyes, more than any other of our features, maybe best reveals the nature of our personality and what, whether sympathetic or anti pathetic, we radiate of cold or warmth. In a physiognomy survey, according to Dr. Li Tao in his book How to Read Faces, 40 out of 100 women recalled best the eyes of a man whose characteristics they were asked to memorize. Sixty out of 100 women, however, remembered best his mouth. A mouth is a marriage of features, involving lips, teeth, and tongue. For what it incorporates of speech and mood and intention, the mouth is perhaps the most vividly kinetic feature of a human being. “It is the eyes and teeth that do more than anything else to create horror,” says a top Hollywood makeup artist. No other feature of ours is more changing of form or specifically mobile or fluctuating in what it directly conveys of force and feeling.
It is, symbolically, entrance to the underworld, the devouring aspect of earth, the beckoning grave. In Aztec iconography, a gigantic open mouth is the embodiment of I the hungry, all-consuming earth. Opening the mouth is judgment, indicates the powers of speech, represents utterance itself. In ancient Egypt, the Opening of the Mouth ceremony was a stoic graveside ritual. The hery-heb priest, wearing panther skins and reciting “glorifications,” touched the mummy’s face with an adze. An ox, symbol of virility, was then slaughtered and its right foreleg sawn off — it was the leg thought to contain the animal’s physical powers — and presented to the mummy’s mouth. We know mouths more by irregularities than otherwise. Many have become well-known. There are Hapsburg lips, buck teeth, thin lips, or crooked smiles, a whole slew of potential hitches that can make of a mouth a marvel or a monster.
A perfect mouth must be the paradigmatic arrangement, as a unified whole, of white teeth, exquisite lips, all shaped, between filtrum and chin, to an exquisite but never formulaic mandala. It is almost always sexual yet spiritual in mixed, bewildering degrees. There is in the perfect mouth, to my mind, a sweet aristocratic curve that draws a faint line down the cheek just by the corner of the lips at a perfect angle of incidence, creating on one side, often, an ever so slight dimple. If I had to choose one, I would vote for Lauren Bacall as having the perfect mouth. Loretta Young’s, in cut and contour, is also breathtakingly beautiful. As are Bianca Jagger’s, Mia Farrow’s, Nastassia Kinski’s, and lovely Michelle Pfeiffer’s. (There are mouth movies, I’m convinced, where mouth imagery is paramount. Dangerous Liaisons is a good example.) As to men, Gregory Peck’s mouth, half-closed and sensitive, is the sign, some say, of a dynamic generous personality, a sharp mind. Actor Robert Taylor had a wonderful mouth. I think the most exquisite mouths in painting can be found, of a man, in the matchless configurations, both in the Uffizi, of Perugino’s Raffaello Giovanetto and, of a woman, in Botticelli’s Primavera.
So many people, so many shapes, so many exceptions to the rule, if anything like a rule exists. Bogart’s was scarred, Stacy Reach’s harelipped, Harry Reasoner’s — even wider than Peter O’Toole’s — shaped like the slot of a letter box. Picasso had a loose mouth, the kind for some reason often described as sensual. Rasputin, the mad monk, had one the size of a sand trap, as does Morton Downey Jr., and the fictional giants Gargantua and Pantagruel. Voltaire had a wry munch of a mouth, rumpled, elongated, and wide. Ford Madox Ford’s mouth, ovoidal, always hung open. And Bertolt Brecht’s opened in a complete circle — he hadn’t many teeth—and smelled, at least according to Elsa Lanchester, like a black hole. “He smoked awful cigars. Or perhaps the passing through Brecht made the smoke come out with the sourest, bitterest smell.” Dancer Gelsey Kirkland had silicone put into her upper lip, so she would look more poutingly sensuous. Frankenstein’s monster also had a hole for a mouth. And the fabled Astomai of India, who live on the scent of flowers and fruits, have no mouths at all.
A mouth’s shape takes on symbolic significance in The Fountainhead in the preposterous Howard Roark, that fierce egotistical semi-projection of Ayn Rand’s warped ideal of a hero, half dummy, half fascist. “She saw his mouth and the silent contempt in the shape of his mouth,” Rand wrote, “the planes of his gaunt, hollow cheeks; the cold, pure brilliance of the eyes that had no trace of pity.” Rand, a peculiar woman in her own right even by Hollywood standards, was a short, bowlegged creature with a nasty temper and a wide, critical mouth cruder than any of her own creations. Ayn Rand, born Alice Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg in 1905, moved to America and desperately sought her anti-self in revering tall, domineering, handsome, men, like her, all selfish and savagely successful.
Popeye the sailorman’s mouth, perhaps in proper cartoon fashion, has always seemed to me exclusive of his face. So has Will Rogers’s odd gob and actor Bruce Willis’s, whose smirk seems a sort of clipped-on appendage of his face, rather than part of it, presumably the kind of mouth Djuna Barnes found on Alfred Stieglitz. “I noted then that his mouth had that fine and sudden stoppage of lip seen mostly in the south of Germany. Someone has told me that I have a peculiar habit of noticing mouths. I have, and when I see one that does not merge into the rest of the face, I want the world to know about it, a mouth that is a personality upon a person.”
There have been many big mouths. William Randolph Hearst. Mick Jagger. Desi Arnaz. Wallace Beery. Nat “King” Cole. MacDonald Carey. Fifties singer Guy Mitchell. Probably no one has a bigger mouth than Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, though at least the shape isn’t grotesque. Springsteen’s isn’t really big, it’s a large gnathic boulder, most of it, like George Gershwin’s and comedian Joe E. Brown. (In the film Showboat it looks like he’s wearing two collars!) Andy Griffith has a big, peasant, earth-scoop of a mouth. And Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is like a massive portcullis, with the widely spaced, peglike teeth of a moronic Hun. Bush’s economist Alan Greenspan has a huge spelunking ugliness of mouth, with the equally cave-like horror of wet lips. (Were he and Martin Landau separated at birth?) Jerry Lewis, all mouth — he had one big enough for Dean Martin to have grabbed to pull him about (a favorite gambit of Milton Berle’s, by the way, who first made it famous) — always seemed to have a mouthful of donuts, like loud yam-in-the-mouth sportscaster Mel Allen. Maybe it was Lewis’s brandy-glass chin that made it seem so full. Like Carol Burnett, whose mouth, to me, resembles a filled pouch.
Actor Michael Douglas has one of those Where the Wild Things Are steam-shovel mouths. And of course Louis (“Satchmo”) Armstrong got his nickname from the fact that he was satchelmouthed. Luciano Pavarotti has a mouth like a porchetta maestro that might be brought to the table in his hometown of Modena, with its tail, an apple — or maybe a mushroom — jammed in its mouth. And of course actress Martha Raye had a walloping huge mouth, wide as a cantilever bridge.
Fanny Brice's mouth resembled a mandrill's. Sandra Bernhard's, with that rictus, almost rectangular, is as wide and commodious as the back of a garbage truck. Martha Raye's mouth was almost half of her face. Carol Burnett's is monstrous. Janis Joplin's round, pumpkinified head was exacerbated by her mouth, or vice versa, I'm not sure which. Joan Rivers is a living example of that strange phenomenon in a person, repulsive in my opinion, of having a big mouth combined with thin lips. (Her narrow, scheming eyes as a sort of semaphore virtually point to her mouth like arrows.) Pop critic Camille Paglia has a bitterly crooked mouth, badly aslant. Other moose mouths are Sophia Loren, Josephine Baker, William Jennings Bryan, Milton Berle, Will Geer, and novelist George Eliot.
A certain kind of big mouth, wide and crocodilean, is comic—only because it is clownish. Cole Porter had such a mouth. So did the Joel Grey of Cabaret. Grins aren't always involved with such mouths, though it's invariably zany and funfare-like. Jack Nicholson has one. His makeup as the joker in the film Batman was a small reach. Nancy Reagan definitely has one of the shallow, almost drawn-as-a-line, simpering variety, fatuous and insincere. Such mouths can also be threatening and dark. Edward G. Robinson's, for instance. And Jack Palance, who used it to full advantage, along with his hateful smile, in Shane, gunning down a poor wretch.
Small mouths tend to look weak, making a person seem ineffectual. Stan Laurel. Calvin Coolidge. William Faulkner. A fat person's mouth, though it may be large—viz, Jonathan Winter’s — often seems smaller in relation to his size. Basketball star Larry Bird has a small mouth and one of the ugliest smiles ever, which looks like a rip in a bag. When he smiles, his nose seems to lengthen, to grow, so that it actually seems in jeopardy of being devoured by the tiny persistent mouth of a redneck. Small-mouthed people often look tut-mouthed and stubborn, noncommittal, pinched, and laconic. George Washington, Dame Edith Evans, Harry Truman, Queen Victoria, Buster Keaton, and John Lennon come to mind. Wretched excess of the decade goes to Jody Foster and that pinched little coin purse of a mouth in Silence of the Lambs, the use of which in the film — drastic overuse, in my opinion — which she thought, laughably, gave her a Southern accent and hid her bad acting, in neither case of which it did. Clara Bow's mouth, with its Cupid cuteness, was small but pretty. So was Helen Kane's, the Poop-Poop-A-Doo girl, with her "bee-stung” lips. Estelle Getty, of TV's Golden Girls, has a straight, tiny mouth. As did Claudette Colbert, who tried to enhance it with lipstick.
I'm convinced Charles Chaplin grew the mustache of the “Little Tramp” in order to cover up what was a ghastly, baleful smile — menacing, with the big, snap-you-up teeth of the priap. (He bedded starlet after starlet and was a legendary womanizer.) Burt Lancaster had a cold, killer smile, all teeth. There are ugly smiles. Smiles involve the eyes. False smiles, as in so many graduation or wedding photos, are next to unbearable. There are savage smiles — even ugly ones. Adolf Hitler's strained smile was frightful, it gave away too much, even embarrassed him, and he always brought a hand up like a claw to cover it. No one has an uglier smile than Hugh Hefner, rubber lips, with no upper teeth visible. Actress Ellen Corbin, who played the grandmother on The Waltons, had an awful, lying smile. So does Dan Rather. The same with Elvis Presley, in my opinion, whose crooked, beefcakeish manufactured excuse for a half-smile, insincere and shaped more to the dimensions of a sexual challenge or an over-the-shoulder snigger, though he did have an attractive mouth, was all wrong. President Jimmy Carter sometimes smiled when he was ready to cry. Upside-down smiles, such as the kind, for instance, Julie Andrews has, always make that person look pained, uneasy, and phony.
Teeth are of course to a mouth what furniture is to a room. Long teeth, in one book I read, indicated a tight, cautious, careful personality Crowded teeth can be menacing and scare children. A whole mythology of fear is connected to teeth in anthropological studies. Totems and taboos abound. I think, more than anything, a child's biggest fear — arguably the first and most elemental of the many there are — is of being eaten or swallowed up. I'm sure it's behind the archetypal terror children have of things like quicksand and earthquakes and flowing lava. Whirlpools. Even tidal waves. Call it the “Li'l Red Riding Hood syndrome.” Remember all those stories of being devoured? Billy Goat Gruff. Hansel and Gretel. And no end of cannibal tales. I was always petrified as a boy of the Monstro scenes in Disney's film Pinocchio. The verb “to swallow up” never has a positive connotation in the Bible. “Korah and his followers were swallowed up by the earth/Sheol, as were Pharoah and his chariots” (Num. 16:28-34, Exod. 15:12). And of course Yahweh sends a great fish after Jonah, to gulp him down.
Too many teeth, paradoxically, make a crabbed or angry smile. (Were the smiles of early man originally snarls? Some anthropologists insist they were.) Young U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy Jr. has a menacingly feral smile. So does his overweight uncle Ted. Even President Kennedy, for all his good looks, had to keep closing his mouth over his teeth, almost as if to master them, in order to talk. Loud, obstreperous Morton Downey Jr., the “mouth that roared,” has a mouth almost cannibalistically horrid. Maurice Chevalier, with the curled lower lip of the boulevardier, not only had too many teeth but a smile that seems out-of-date. (My mother told us never to smile in graduation photos, lest the pictures seem dated.) Even George Harrison’s smile is dark, for that reason. (That, and his poor dentition, never corrected, from his early years in Liverpool.) Teddy Roosevelt had a piano of big teeth. As did Phil Silvers, Burt Lancaster, and the whole awful Osmond Family, to a one. I also think gap-toothed smiles are lewd, sort of brainlessly carnal, like David Letterman’s and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. It’s an odd syndrome, the ugliness that results in having too much, or too little, of what in normal measure is attractive. Singer Dolly Parton, for instance, often overweight, like the late actor James Coco, looks even uglier thin than fat. And Phil Donahue, take a look sometime, has far too much hair for anything like good looks! So it is with teeth. More than enough are too much.
Carly Simon, who has bucketfuls of teeth, still has a lovely smile. So has Tom Cruise, with its flashing whiteness. The late Jackie Onassis had a beautiful mouth and a wide smile. As does Geena Davis, whose country-bright smile, I thought, was the only memorable thing in that cartoon of a film, Thelma and Louise. (Piefacedness, the American ideal of beauty, ever notice, often goes with high smiles?) Curiously, most smiles reveal only a person’s upper teeth — Princess Diana comes to mind as a good example — though in many strange cases it’s the reverse, as with, for example, NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and Doug Llewelyn of television’s People's Court. Only once in a great while does a smile reveal a person’s full set of choppers, as, say, with grinners Sammy Davis, Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson, Magic Johnson, Robert DeNiro (once in a while), and, say, rock ’n’ roller Sam the Sham, of the Pharoahs. (Remember that shit-eating grin on those ’60s album covers?) A vampire mouth, with its two fangs, is oddly erotic, as biting, in a sexually possessive sense, often is.
“Best description of sex I’ve ever read,” a woman friend of mine recently told me of a bloodsucking scene in Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat, emphatically adding, “And that was between two men!” As to biting and mouths, of course, tongues are also involved, which the Marquis de Sade called the most sensuous part of the body.
Smiles are of course aligned to lips. Andy Warhol in his culture-humping diary gushed on and on about actor Rob Lowe: “It’s like his eyebrows are penciled on and his lips painted on — everything so perfect.” Warhol, by the way, had one of those ugly, sheepish, incorrect smiles, along with that lumpy Czech potato of a head. And with that dome of fake white thatch for hair? Protruding upper lips often accompany slightly buck teeth, lovely in vivacious actresses like Rosanna Arquette, Carol Lynley, and Geena Davis (though so-called high smiles like hers always reveal too much of a person’s gums) can nevertheless give people like Donald Sutherland, for example, a sort of dopey, Mortimer Snerd-like quality. Huntz Hall, the goofball of the Dead End Kids and old Leo Gorcey movies, with his wicked overbite and overlapping, almost camel-length upper lip, stands as the classic example of a person with such lips. Actor Martin Sheen has that same long configuration. It is commonly said to indicate shyness, even a childlike personality. With talentless Bill Cosby, who has one, mouth games alone are his act. Audrey Hepburn’s smile, which was perfect, like Julia Roberts’s—both had “white smiles”—included much of her mouth.
On the other hand, well-defined protruding lower lips, in people like George Gershwin and Bruce Springsteen—or, classically, Al Capp’s comic-strip detective Fearless Fosdick and his fiancée of 18 years, Prudence Pimpleton (the Sigourney Weaver of the “funnies”) — are often weirdly aligned to jutting chins. For classic jutjawedness, however, no one’s can possibly compare — except perhaps for old Senator Leverett Saltonstall (R.-Mass.) — to the brandy-glass chin of ’50s actor Eddie Mayehoff, who played the loudmouthed father “Jarring Jack” Jackson in the Martin & Lewis comedy That's My Boy. According to Dr. Li Tao, such lips and reaching chins are usually “associated with jealous, possessive, egotistical qualities.” Chins offset a mouth, as Malcolm de Chazal once fascinatingly pointed out, noting that they are “exclusively a human feature, not to be found among the beasts. If they had chins to prevent the personality of his mouth and eyes from overwhelming the rest of his face, to prevent each individual from becoming a species unto himself.”
Usually either bellicosity or nebbishness, one or the other, is associated with such chin and lip combinations. Mel Torme is all lower lip, petulant and upthrusting in the way a ceolacanth’s does or some kind of prehistoric fish. And he’s chinless. In a way, Cary Grant had that same kind of lip but managed to look handsome. Oddly, Bernadette Peters manages the combination of having both bow lips and a jutting chin. Queerly, President Bush, whose famous (and lying) pronouncement “Read my lips, no new taxes,” actually has no lips, only a parsimonious slant of a mouth, snapped shut.
Speaking of Al Capp, the description writer Richard Woodley once wrote of the cartoonist’s mouth suggests the slightly nutty, outrageously right-wing remarks it once spouted:
“When he smiled, his eyebrows sloped precipitously down, closing his eyes, while his mobile mouth as if in reaction to a downward punch from his nose, arced upward and remained open.” Smiles can be a very odd thing, indeed — which is perhaps why photographer Cecil Beaton once fussily remarked, “Rarely do I ask my sitters to smile.” He went on to say, “If they can do so naturally, I am delighted ... but [too often] the smile [develops] into a nervous twitch, or the lower part of the jaw quivers like jelly. There are moments when a smile goes dry over the sitter’s teeth and the process of bringing the lips back to their former position is dreadful to behold.”
Most men feel that in a woman the most sensual mouths are those with full lips — though the great Greta Garbo had arrow-thin aristocratic lips, as did Wallace Simpson and Jean Harlow (even heartthrob Rudy Valentino had thin lips) — where women, says Dr. Li Tao, “find men’s mouths sexy not because of the shape and type of lips, but because of the expression.” You often can’t tell what a sexpot’s mouth looks like because of the heavy lipstick they wear, epitomized, say, in Andy Warhol’s bold silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe. (She habitually used five or six lipsticks, amply applied, to get the right shade and amount.) But just as excess fat blurs the outline of a face, so can lipstick ruin the contour of a mouth; Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Jayne Mansfield, Dorothy Lamour, Diana Dors, and Joan Crawford, who slathered lipstick on like putty, are in this group. Who can ever determine the natural shape of their mouths? There are also, of course, those women with only “smears” for mouths, like those skinny, overly rouged petite queens who wear turbans and rings and in what was once Hollywood would be seen at “premieres” and things. They’re usually in their 80s.
There are certain monkey-mouths associated with ovoidal, bowling-ball-shaped heads. Emily Dickinson, Wallace Beery, actress Michael Learned, Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, Howard Cosell, simian-faced Joe Garagiola, singers John Denver and Bobby Goldsboro — two bubbleheads — and Earvin (“Magic”) Johnson are excellent examples, people with cup-like mouths, like upside-down cowcatchers. Whoopi Goldberg has the classic monkey-mouth. Not all big mouths, by the way, have monkey-mouths. Carol Burnett, for example, has both, whereas Emily Dickinson, though she had a monkey-mouth, had a rather small, prim version of one. Singer Bette Midler, revoltingly enough, manages to have a big mouth, a monkey-mouth, the phenomenon of crowded teeth, and a lantern jaw all at the same time! Ugh! Writer Ray Bradbury’s shorthand description of film director John Huston was not only that he was cruel, called people “honey” and “kid,” but that he had a “chimpanzee mouth.”
So many things can make a mouth ugly. Fat football announcer John Madden, along with a big mouth, has a large, hideous tongue, virtually the size of a pork loin. You can watch it roll, loll, while he talks. It thickens his speech. It’s part of his enormous weight and gets in his way. Then there are wet and dry lips. Forget Mario Cuomo’s big peasant gob. Look at those shiny, wet lips! Is anything more disgusting? Don’t they often attend speech defects? Maybe even cause them? The late Gov. George Wallace had hideous fishlips. Again, so does homely Howard Cosell. And George S. Kaufman, Henry VIII, and Senator Byrd of West Virginia, one of the worst cases. All of them. Almost as bad as the cavernous-mouthed Alien of film horror, dripping acid like saliva from its silver gums. Almost as disgusting is the equally off-putting phenomenon of dry lips — found on choleric people like Alexander Haig, George Jessel, and Paul Tsongas, who in speeches during the 1992 presidential campaign had to wet his lips virtually between every word. When they talk, it has the sound of corn shucks rustling.
I think far and away the ugliest mouth on earth is Henry Kissinger’s. It’s a superannuated bullfrog’s, a meatily fat distended lower lip, alternately dry and wet, curling with contempt, suppressing sarcasm, his grin truly ghastly for the peaks of a few predacious lower teeth that rise from that lumpy jaw as if to devour you.
What about filtrumless mouths, people with those unfortunate flapping upper lips? Claude Pepper, the late actor James Coco, Beetle Bailey. Nixon was the best example, described by Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes as resembling when he smiled “an awning being rolled up.” (It was also the place, even more horribly, where he profusely sweated.) Nor should we forget the “upside-down” smile, which is scary. Bette Davis had one. It gave her, with her penchant for heavy lipstick, the smarmy look of sarcasm, even when she smiled. Julie Andrews is the best example of the upside-down smile, a pouting, down-turned grimace, a tautness made even grimmer when she smiles or sings, evoking the paradox of birds who, in order to soar, have to coast downhill on rising air.
Finally, in a person’s mouth, we may have the almost definitive characteristic of who and what he or she is, a barometer of being, the feature, above all, that fully reveals a person’s worth, force field of intentions, morality — what may give us our best if not final reading, conveying to us, almost vatically, much more of a person than what we merely see. “One’s eyes are what she is,” as John Galsworthy once observed. “One mouth is what one becomes.”