“Eye of the Beholder”: The Face Under the Bandages
She starred in one of the most iconic Twilight Zone episodes of all time. And yet if you passed Maxine Stuart on the street, you probably wouldn’t recognize her.
That’s because she spent all of her screen time under a thick layer of bandages in “Eye of the Beholder”. Yes, Stuart played poor Janet Tyler, whose only crime was not upholding the standards of beauty in some skewed dystopia.
Of course, she wasn’t the only actress who played Janet Tyler. Once the bandages were off, we saw only the face of Donna Douglas (the future Elly May Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies”). So why the switch? Why wasn’t the part handled entirely by either Stuart or Douglas?
Primarily because of how director Douglas Heyes opted to handle this amazing script. He wanted the twist ending to land with a real wallop. That led him to stage it so that we never see the faces of the doctors and nurses until the big reveal.
It also led him, he later said, to audition the actors and actresses with his back to them. He knew their voices were key. So for the medical personnel, he picked ones with warm, caring voices, to make it all the more shocking when we see how they really look.
We’re supposed to assume that Janet Tyler is horribly ugly. Since her appearance is only talked about for the first three-quarters of the episode, we have to use our imaginations. So, to convey (at least aurally) the notion that she’s ugly, he cast Maxine Stuart at least in part for her somewhat rough-sounding voice.
It’s not a bad voice, to be sure. But, well, it doesn’t sound like one that would come from a beauty queen. Quite the opposite. And that’s the point. Audiences needed to be really gobsmacked when her bandages dropped and the doctors and nurses recoiled in horror.
Hence the casting of Donna Douglas. Between the voice, her reactions, and her actual face, we’re well into “what the hell” territory. It’s an indelible TZ moment, up there with Henry Bemis’s glasses in “Time Enough at Last” and the spaceship on the roof in “The Invaders”.
But not everyone was happy with the casting of Douglas. As Maxine Stuart later said:
I certainly agree that I could not be considered a great beauty by any stretch of the imagination. However, I do feel that since this particular show dealt with conformity, they might have allowed for a less startling-looking woman and settled for reality!
But as Tony Albarella, editor of “As Timeless as Infinity: The Twilight Zone Scripts of Rod Serling” has written:
Stuart’s point is valid, but it wouldn’t have worked on screen. Extravagant beauty is necessary to establish a contrast between Janet Tyler and her repulsive fellow citizens. When Serling describes the climactic scene in his script, he demonstrates his command of the visual medium of television: ‘She raises her head. If she is not startlingly beautiful, we have missed our point entirely’.
Yes, Stuart herself or any “ordinary” woman would have provided a contrast with the pig-faced people around her. But Serling and Heyes wanted the moment to have real punch. That meant casting a woman who viewers would see and immediately go, “Her?!? Ugly?!? You’ve got to be kidding me! She’s gorgeous!”
The fact that she looks like a beauty-pageant contestant, in fact, enables that shock to convey the episode’s anti-conformity message more powerfully. The inevitable conclusion of anyone who finishes watching the show (including the Leader’s horrific speech and Serling’s final narration), I believe, is something like this:
“Wow. Who couldn’t see that woman is stunningly beautiful? Well, THEY couldn’t. Beauty is obviously not an empirical fact. It’s a judgment call. Maybe we shouldn’t be pressuring people to fit some pre-conceived notion of beauty. Perhaps some individuality isn’t so bad after all.”
But to get to that point, viewers have to be met on their own terms. That meant casting someone like Douglas, not Stuart or some other less glamorous actress.
Stuart, I should note, wasn’t bitter at all:
I certainly hope that my comments about the ending don’t sound ungracious or ungrateful. I loved doing the show. It was a pleasure for me to act in such good material, and a gratifying and enjoyable task. I thought it was beautifully written.
Indeed it was. It was also perfectly cast. Douglas provided a pretty face to look at, of course, and played the final scenes with sensitivity and grace. And Stuart gave a lovely performance as well. Her voice almost brings me to tears at a couple points. And the next time you watch the episode, notice her hands — she imparts so much feeling with them.
I’m convinced the episode wouldn’t be nearly as strong as it is without both of them. So thanks, Donna. And thanks, Maxine. Together, you were the ideal Janet Tyler.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!