At Madame Tussauds, The Wooden in Wax
You Can Touch Celebrity at the Museum, but You Might Not Want To

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

When we got really bored, like on rainy days at the beach, my sister and I used to play a game with our dog, Colie.

Play dead.

Not Colie playing dead, us playing dead.

We'd lie down and not move, not blink. Colie got spooked. A lot of dogs get spooked by this. She'd whine, bump us with her nose, we'd lie there. She couldn't figure it out, as if she were looking at a ghost. She'd back away, and bark, lots of barking.

Poor Colie. We'd walk her down to the ice cream place and buy her a cone.

The point here is that the 50 figures in Madame Tussauds wax museum, which opens its seventh worldwide branch today at 10th and F streets NW, make me want to bark.

Of course they're not playing dead, they're playing alive. No matter. There's something creepy about them; liminal, as anthropologists would say -- on the threshold between dead and alive, statue and ghost, art and trick. Maybe this is why some people go to wax museums: to get creeped out in the presence of the undead, or the non-alive. Others of course, will pay their $25 ($18 for children, $23 for seniors) simply to have their pictures taken with their arms around Bill Clinton, who smiles as if he's just made you like him after weeks of trying and now he doesn't have to think about you at all anymore.

Yes, go ahead and touch him. Shake hands with Thomas Jefferson, who has a weird brightness about him, as if he'd taken 250 micrograms of acid an hour ago and can't wait to explain the universe to you. There were other sides to Jefferson, but most of them aren't here. He lacks gravitas. He lacks seriousness, force, threat, allure, aura, charisma, the usual complement of human vibes. No chi, no prana, no life force, no animal magnetism and none of this lack is redeemed by art or some kind of optical illusion or magical sleight of mind. So shake Tom's hand, pump your own vibes into him.

Interact! Hit a putt on the green where Tiger Woods squats with otherworldly abstraction. Give Jennifer Lopez a pat, or Beyoncé. Not a few visitors have checked out Brad Pitt's tushie.

"People think of us as a collection of roped-off figures, but we're not," says Paul Williams, creative director of the Tussauds Studio in London, and a man who pronounces the name as Too-SAWDS, perhaps with the British attitude that it's perfectly fine to speak French, but you don't have to speak it the way they do.

"We want you to touch them, touch their clothes, touch their skin. It's not a museum, it's not worthy like that. We try to keep people entertained. We try to make it fun. Sometimes an ear gets broken off, but we have a maintenance crew to repair it."

Being Americans, with our cultural inferiority complex, we want to think of this as a museum, a venerable institution deriving from Madame Tussaud, who scurried around at the foot of the guillotine collecting heads and making wax impressions of those sacrificed to the good of the French Revolution. (Soon, she went to England and never returned, a sharp-faced and practical woman, one senses from the wax bust of her.)

Tussauds is no temple of history or art. Washington has enough of those. It also has enough wax figures: senior White House aides, undead lobbyists. Senators especially, who look like they don't walk as much as roll down hallways on ball bearings embedded in the soles of their shoes. Roll, roll, "Great to see you," roll, roll, "Good to see you" . . .

Bark, bark.

Anyway, Tussauds is different from other tourist bait gleaming in our alabaster city. It's not as low as a roadside snake farm in Georgia, or a carnival freak show (the Lobster People!), maybe even a step higher than the Ripley's Believe It or Not museum at the Orlando Odditorium, or the Guinness World Records operations in cities from Tokyo to Gatlinburg, Tenn. But not quite as high as the embalmed Lenin in Moscow or the remarkable Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, a notably waxen corpse that is most amazing for the fact that it seems to have gained at least 10 inches in height since death.

Things do get odd at Tussauds, however. So many figures look like they're someone else's memory of the person, or they've been uploaded from people who've spent their lives being told they look just like the person being portrayed: Marvin Gaye, Johnny Depp, Babe Ruth, Morgan Freeman. (Funny how nobody ever says anybody looks like Franklin Roosevelt. Even the Franklin Roosevelt figure here doesn't look like Franklin Roosevelt -- bottom of his face too big, top too small.) The Ella Fitzgerald face lacks the bebop precision and serene metaphysics of the woman herself. Instead she looks like a woman who's spent her life being told she looks like Ella Fitzgerald. (She's nice about it. She always responds: "I couldn't carry a tune in a basket.")

So much sadness here, too. George H.W. Bush seems to be watching a long putt not drop. His son George seems to be holding his breath to make his chest look bigger. Tom Cruise has the ill-cut suit, frozen grin and eyes of a car salesman who thought he'd just closed the deal and now he's watching the customer walk out.

Relax, George. Get over it, Tom.

Bark, bark.

Of course, Lincoln always looked sad. Here you can sit next to him in his box at Ford's Theatre and hear applause, but you can't stop thinking that he's about to have a .44-caliber pistol ball implanted in his head. Creepy. Like a display of John and Jackie Kennedy waving from a convertible in Dallas.

There is happiness. Hillary Clinton lifts her face to grin at a distant future, as if she were Lenin disguised as an eighth-grade girl running for student council. (Tussauds does have her tipping the Toledos a few pounds heavier than one recalls.) And Bob Dylan. Any error in his rendering would have to make him look happier than life. Has any American celebrity ever looked so prematurely wizened and sour? Here, an oddly large face is oddly smooth, with none of the snarky, snaky pseudo-mystical wise-guy look we've known and loved all these years. Get close enough and speakers play "The Times They Are a-Changin' " in a ghostly memory of his young voice.

Bark, bark.

Ah, these still unravished brides of quietness, these foster children of silence and slow time. (This is not plagiarism of Keats, O ye fussbudget media critics, it's just a clever reference.)

J. Edgar Hoover looks far more monstrous than he did in life, but way less crazy than he looked the day I saw him in 1968. Richard Nixon has lips. It's not that he didn't have lips; everybody has lips except a Marine gunnery sergeant I knew. It's that you don't think of Nixon as having lips, and these lips verge on fleshy. Wrong wrong wrong.

The women aren't as disturbing, maybe because some women wear makeup until they look like nearly successful replicas of their own ideals of themselves. Angelina Jolie nicely decorates the space she occupies next to Brad Pitt, who looks good, too, possibly because like Angelina he's noted for his beauty. You check out her lips. Collagen? Can't tell, but you always wonder.

Whatever went wrong with the figure of Bob Woodward, Watergate reporter, author of best-selling book after book? He doesn't look like Woodward at all, he looks like a 1970s East German spy of dubious sexuality. Actually, the real Bob Woodward looks a little like William Kristol, the neocon dogmatist at the Weekly Standard, but the wax figure here doesn't look like Kristol either.

Is it the fact that these things are wax? Why not make them out of cushy fleshlike latex, some technological miracle that must have come along in the last 200 years, something from the space program, like Tang breakfast drink? Tang is unsuitable, of course, but why not latex? Because latex won't hold the hair or the color the way wax does, Williams says.

And then Madame Tussauds wax museum would have to be called Madame Tussauds latex museum. Something wrong with that. All wrong.

Bark, bark.

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