O.J. Simpson has learned at least one thing in the 13 years between his arrests: When they take your mug shot, smile.
The mug shot is the ignominious I.D., captured at a moment when the subject is, all at once, shamed, humbled, frustrated, fearful, and usually at a record low of dishevelment. The mug shot is supposed to be just a bureaucratic record. In practice, however, it is punishment for being a suspect at all. Say what you want about “innocent until proven guilty,” if you have a mug shot, you can always be framed by someone as a dubious character.
If you have a career in the public eye, a mug shot can be the end of it. When that image hits the media, you are the most visible bump on the pimply face of crime.
It’s only natural to look a wreck in a mug shot. But chickenpox and painful childbirth are natural, too, and we’ve tried to eradicate them. Why not the miserable expression in a mug shot?
Decorum demands solemn expressions for solemn occasions. However, the viciousness of modern politics and public relations has rendered decorum a luxury. Former Rep. Tom DeLay was one of the first to figure out that he didn’t have to pose for his enemies as a dour, cornered pre-convict in a public-domain photo. When police booked the former Majority Leader in October 2005, DeLay smiled for the camera like, well, a political professional accustomed to smiling for the camera.
When Tom DeLay smiled instead of frowned in that booking room, he broke the hearts of a thousand Democratic consultants. His photo came out so average and anodyne that it is currently posted as his bio picture on Wikipedia.
It was the same for Rush Limbaugh. He showed up for his 2006 booking in a suit jacket and an uncollared shirt, and gave the photographer the kind of confident look that is exactly the opposite of the regulation mug shot face.
Most celebrities have since figured out the trick. Before doing four days for DUI, Nicole Richie smiled like the hostess at Chili’s. Probation-busting Paris Hilton has had lesser photos show up as publicity stills for The Simple Life. Mel Gibson smiled for his mug shot after his July 2006 drunk driving arrest. And after his arrest last week, O. J. Simpson looked more like he was posing at an autograph convention than facing a handful of felonies.
There is of course something undignified, almost unhinged about greeting the booking officer’ s camera with a Hollywood smile. Happiness is the last emotion that fits the context—but context is exactly what these celebrities must think about. Mug shots don’t exist only in the context of the police station. Mug shots get used in political attack ads and career- and family-walloping tabloid stories. Better to grin and be thought a fool during fingerprinting than to look as worried as you are and have that image flashed and captioned around the world for the rest of your life and beyond.
Charlie Chaplin wrote the song “Smile” as the theme for his final “Little Tramp” picture, Modern Times. In our own modern times, the lyrics (by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons) could simply be read as practical advice for the recently arrested:
Smile tho’ your heart is aching,
Smile even tho’ it’s breaking,
When there are clouds in the sky
You’ll get by,
If you smile
thro’ your fear and sorrow,
Smile and maybe tomorrow,
You’ll see the sun come shin-ing thro’ for you
Light up your face with gladness,
Hide ev-’ry trace of sadness,
Al -’tho a tear may be ever so near,
That’s the time,
You must keep on trying,
Smile, what’s the use of crying,
You’ll find that life is still worth-while,
If you just smile…