Welcome to Beauty BCE, Highsnobiety’s series unpacking iconic moments in beauty history. Writer and makeup fanatic
It’s a gray day in Buffalo, New York. Layla, played by a then 17-year-old Christina Ricci, balefully tap dances under a spotlight. She’s not on stage, or even in a dance studio. Instead, she’s in a suburban bowling alley, awash in beige decor. Unsmiling, Layla appears to be in a trance. Perhaps she’s trying to remember her next move, or maybe she’s pretending to be somewhere, anywhere, more glamorous than a run-down bowling alley. But as drab as her surroundings are, one thing breaks up the scene’s visual monotony: Layla’s glittery, bright blue eyeshadow. It’s disruptive, nearly profane — Layla’s cornflower eyeshadow symbolizes her mood, her character, and an escape from a rote, ordinary life.
We’re talking about Buffalo ‘66, the 1998 film directed, written by, and starring Vincent Gallo as protagonist Billy Brown. Just out of jail, Billy reenters the washed-out world, a bleak backdrop that serves to underscore his plight: how to reconcile a desire for more than what he’s got with the banality of real life. Billy finds respite in Layla, whose shocking, sparkling blue eyeshadow signals to him, and the audience, that she too is looking for something more than a humdrum existence. No ordinary romance, theirs begins when Billy kidnaps Layla and forces her to pretend to be his wife. He needs her to help him construct an alternate narrative, one in which he’s married and hasn’t been in jail. Ostensibly the act is for Billy’s parents, but, as we come to find out, it’s also for Billy, who wishes his parents might care one way or the other. Layla, with her flair, optimism, and blue eyeshadow, offers Billy a distraction from his dissatisfaction.
With her iconic makeup, Layla joins the ranks of cinema’s long history of culty, blue-lidded characters, from Elizabeth Taylor’s moody Cleopatra to Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet. A woman in blue is an outsider, a catalyst, an interruption. For Layla, her eyeshadow serves as a billboard for her innate difference from the overwhelming sameness all around her. According to makeup artist Gucci Westman, who selected Layla’s Maybelline eyeshadow, Layla’s blue lids serve as a “way out.” She elaborates: “[Layla’s] look evoked innocence and living in a fantasy in a non-romantic world. It was about creating her own fairytale in an anything but idyllic situation.”
It’s easy to imagine Layla applying an electric pop of color to rescue an otherwise gloomy winter morning. It’s also easy to imagine Billy kidnapping Layla and her blue lids for the same reason: escapism. Together, Layla and Billy embark on a strange odyssey through the winterscape. Though the two bicker throughout the film, and Billy often treats Layla unkindly, the mismatched couple find themselves drawn to each other. In Brown, Layla finds an escape from her ennui; in Layla, Brown can latch onto the idea of not only living, but staying alive. Her idiosyncrasies transform his static reality, and help him find a future worth holding onto.
25 years after Buffalo ‘66 first hit theaters, Layla’s makeup still inspires designers, artists, and the sartorially savvy. Even if you haven’t seen the cult film, you’ve likely come across imitations of her blue-rimmed eyes – on social media, in editorials, or maybe at your last Halloween party. When Westman worked with Gallo and made the decision to use blue eyeshadow for Layla, she was just beginning her career. Now, Westman is a celebrity makeup artist with a wealth of red carpet and editorial experience alike, working with the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Anne Hathaway, and . And in 2018, she launched her own luxury cosmetics line, . Yet to this day, her work on Buffalo ‘66 remains one of Westman’s greatest beauty hits, highlighting the power of makeup as a storytelling medium.
It’s not just Layla’s eyeshadow that fleshes out Buffalo ‘66’s overarching themes of ennui and romanticism — it’s also her skin. We meet Layla mid-dance routine: Her cheeks have the same fantastic glow you might get after a good workout. In other words, she looks full of life, a total contrast to Brown’s sickly pallor. Westman describes Layla’s skin as “angelic, radiant,” an effect that she achieved by prepping with a Shu Uemera cream. It’s worth noting that after filming Buffalo ‘66, Westman went on to perfect the art of the plump, dewy complexion. Now, it’s one of her signatures, a look anyone can mimic using Westman Atelier’s
Like many cult films, Buffalo ‘66 is beloved not just for its plot, but for its enduring visual resonance. Billy Brown is certainly no hero, and Layla’s character is presented largely through his lens. Yet, through these two antiheroes comes a portrait of what it feels like to want more than the grim reality at hand; more than the staid routines of daily life. And the way this portrait is delivered – through a bright eyeshadow, a skewed romance; an unexpected journey – can’t be underestimated. “There is a certain audacity to using that much color, especially in the grayest environment in Buffalo,” says Westman. “It was a ‘90s moment — it was Christina Ricci, it was the makeup, Vincent Gallo, the shock of the plot line. It was of its time and there really hasn’t been anything like it.”