Shaving Face: Five Beard-Shaving Scenes With Unexpected Symbolic Weight

Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Luke Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums, and more.
Ray Rahman

Chekhov famously said a gun in the first act will go off by the third. We say, less famously, that a beard in the first act will be shaved by the third. This Friday sees the release of Get Low, a new film with some festival-cred, starring Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, and, most importantly, Robert Duvall’s massive beard. Predictably, by the end of the film, the beard will be removed — with deep symbolic weight.

 This, however, is neither the first nor the last movie to feature a character-developing shave. Here are five shaves that advance both the plot and awesomeness of their movies:

Chuck Noland, Cast Away

Tom Hanks in Castaway

Winning the award for Most Foreboding Last Name Ever, Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) gets lost at sea before washing up on a deserted island, where he’ll remain for many years. On paper, this sounds like a particularly boring episode of Lost. But no paper — not even the fancy kind used for résumés — can translate the insanity of Noland’s beard, which, like the man behind it, only gets crazier throughout Cast Away. Upon his eventual, clean-shaved return to civilization, Noland sadly discovers that shaving his beard won't win back the time it took to grow it.

Richie Tenenbaum, The Royal Tenenbaums

Luke Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums

Richie’s unrequited love for his adopted sister, Margot, ended his life as a painter, his life as a tennis pro, and almost his life, period. When Richie learns of Margot’s many sexual indiscretions — including one involving his best friend — he cuts his hair, shaves his beard, and then slits his wrists. His beard — the last remnant from his days as a tennis star — has a Samson-like significance; shaving is the final act of capitulation. The scene is eerily set to Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” which, given the circumstances of that singer’s death, retroactively lends the scene further, unintended resonance.

“Papa,” The Road

Viggo Mortensen in The Road

This unnamed father’s gnarly, post-apocalyptic beard is a product of circumstance. Flashbacks confirm that the man (Viggo Mortensen) prefers to keep a clean face with, at most,  a dashing moustache. But in The Road, any activity requiring such selfish attention would likely result in dying or being eaten. So when he and his son find a (relatively) safe, well-stocked bunker, the ensuing shave scene offers a brief glimpse of optimism, as well as a quick break from the movie’s taut suspense.

Lila Jute, Human Nature

Patricia Arquette in Human Nature

Just as one would expect from something from a movie written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, this shave scene is surreal, symbol-laden, and part of a deeper commentary on the human condition. Patricia Arquette plays a genetic outlier whose body grows Teen Wolf-volumes of hair. Tired of being a freak, she decides to end her brief, lonely life in an intimate, candle-lit scene. Like the suicidal Tenenbaum, she takes a razor to her face before taking one to her wrists. She changes her mind, however, and drops the blade when a rather plucky mouse reminds her that “She is what she is.”

Ron Burgundy, Anchorman

Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), the premiere newscaster of ‘70s San Diego, is well-known for his fetching moustache. But not even his famous follicles can stop the tide of feminism; his coveted job is eventually given to a former girlfriend. Dethroned and emasculated, the journalist roams aimlessly around town, chugging a carton of milk that inevitably leaks into his unemployment beard. Fortunately, an imminent panda birth demands the expert news coverage that only a veteran like Burgundy can provide. After ducking into a restroom, he emerges sans beard and triumphantly announces, “Good evening. I’m Ron Burgundy.”

Commentarium (37 Comments)

Jul 27 10 - 9:45am

Movies or real life, I am all about the beard. There's something "mmhmm" about the lumberjack look. I'll take me a beard, pair of tighty whiteys, and flannel button up over a clean-shaven business suit any day.

Aug 31 12 - 12:15am

You and every other lesbian.

Jul 27 10 - 10:36am

Another great shaving scene takes place between Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. in "Fur: An Imagined Life of Diane Arbus." Downey's character is covered in thick hair from a genetic disorder. When Kidman helps him shave his beard and the rest of his body, the two consummate their relationship. Afterwards, a dying Downey kills himself by running into the ocean. Tragic and beautiful!

Jul 27 10 - 12:15pm
Ray Rahman

Thanks Trina, I'll have to rent that. Anyone know if the link between shaving and suicide extends beyond Hollywood and into real life?

Jul 27 10 - 1:40pm

Kyra Sedgwick shaving John Travolta in Phenomenon, just freaking hot.

Jul 27 10 - 1:52pm

Hopefully the link doesn't extend too far beyond Elliot Smith and "Needle in the Hay." If so, I'm never shaving my beard....although, I sorta envision more of a cleansing process.....guess it was for Luke Wilson's character too.

Jul 27 10 - 3:18pm

Oh yeah, that Sedgewick shaving scene was the best non-sex sex scene I've ever done seen.

Jul 27 10 - 8:06pm

You left out the head-to-toe follicle fest that was Robert Downey Jr. in "Fur."

Jul 27 10 - 9:45pm

I thought of Fur, too! I love Robert Downey Jr., and weird movies just as much--if not more--as the next gal, but I couldn't help but make fun of that one. Good movie, but just too ridiculous for me. His gift at the end just kills me, if you think about it in real-life terms.

Jul 27 10 - 10:43pm

Don't forget in Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson. The shaving of his beard marks ihis coming to terms with his relationship with his student and his drug use

Jul 27 10 - 11:02pm

I thought for sure the list would include Pink's (Bob Geldof) shaving/mental breakdown scene from the film The Wall.

Jul 28 10 - 12:00am

you might be interested to know that both the royal tenenbaums scene and the scene from human nature have their roots in an amazing scene from the equally amazing czech new wave film Closely Watched Trains

Jul 28 10 - 12:00am

I have to say you missed Lee Marvin and Toshirô Mifune's scene in Hell in the Pacific in the last 20 minutes of the movie.

Plus there was Jody Foster's scene shaving Richard Gere in Somersby, who she thinks is her abusive husband returned from the Civil War. You think that any second she's going to cut his throat with the straight razor.

Jul 28 10 - 1:34am

anchorman ftw, always

Jul 28 10 - 8:20am

What? How could you miss the shaving scene in Amores Perros? Though, good to see Anchorman here.
"It's so damn hot... milk was a bad choice."

Jul 28 10 - 10:27am
Justin D. Jacobson

Natalie Portman's head shave in V for Vendetta is potent.

Jul 28 10 - 10:31am

No mention of Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. You lose.

Jul 28 10 - 10:37am

No love for Steve's epiphany that he is not in fact a pirate and shaves his, admittedly meager, beard in Dodgeball?

Jul 28 10 - 11:12am
Ray Rahman

You guys are right -- so many good movie shaves, but so little time. I feel especially remiss to have snubbed Closely Watched Trains and Half-Nelson, two personal favorites.

Jul 28 10 - 11:19am

And, of course, the most charged of them all, Martin Scorsese's early short film, "The Big Shave."

Jul 28 10 - 11:34am

Charlton Heston (Taylor) saving his beard near the end of Planet of the Apes and Roddy McDowall (Cornelius) telling him it makes him look less intelligent.

Jul 28 10 - 2:12pm

Harrison Ford's shave in The Fugitive doesn't apply. He only did it so that he wouldn't be recognized by the police right outside the door. It didn't *symbolize* anything! This list is "symbolic weight," not "prattle off any random cinematic shaving scene that comes to mind."

Jul 28 10 - 2:23pm
The Bad

You forget Lee Van Cleef's shave, at the end of "Death Rides a Horse" - no, it was just a few days of scruff, but it was a pre-show-down-with the Mexican baddies; he was ready to face death.

Jul 28 10 - 4:40pm

What about Whoopi's close shave of Danny Glover in "The Color Purple"?

Jul 28 10 - 6:17pm

What about urban cowboy?

Jul 28 10 - 7:08pm

Demi Moore. G.I. Jane.

Jul 29 10 - 11:57am
Ray Rahman

You're telling me that G.I. Jane had a beard? Come on!

Aug 02 10 - 7:12pm

sweeney todd? those close shaves were certainly 'life-changing'

Aug 04 10 - 2:25pm
Warren Peace

Shaving a good looking Beard should be punishable by firing squad!

Aug 05 10 - 3:02am
the Baumer

I didn't have a beard when I played tennis [STOP] Here is a picture [STOP]

Aug 05 10 - 12:38pm

Yes, but he clearly had not shaved between his final match and his suicide attempt. He wanted to die as Richie Tenenbaum, not the Baumer.

Aug 07 10 - 1:29pm

While not a movie, there are several shaving scenes in Ron Moore's re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos) examines his scar from open-heart surgery after being shot by an undercover Cylon agent while shaving, and he shaves his mustache after the rescue of the survivors from New Caprica. Both of those scenes are very symbolic.

Aug 08 10 - 11:47pm

Don't forget the shave scene by Heston in Soilent Green.

Aug 09 10 - 3:30pm
jimbo jones

Without Michael Keaton in Mr Mom, this list is total bs.

Aug 10 10 - 5:18pm
Captain Obvious

I can't believe you missed Le Moustache. The entire movie is about/launches from the significance of shaving. It should be called The Moustache, Before and After.

Aug 11 10 - 12:53pm

Really, Captain Obvious? You're arguing for a *moustache* shave to be on a list that explicitly covers *beard* shaves? Grounds for dishonorable discharge, I'd say.

Oct 05 10 - 1:49am

the fugitive has weight because he is leaving behind is status/identity/doctor fame, money, and friends to prove his innocence, his principles. several friends offer to help him, to fight it, get a plea bargain or whatever, but he is has to shuck all that societal help and prove to himself and everyone else that he is innocent