By Eleanor Hoover
Updated July 04, 1983 12:00 PM

Carol Burnett was more than a little surprised after her appearance on the Academy Awards show in March when people suddenly began calling her a stunningly beautiful woman. Beautiful? Self-deprecating comic Carol Burnett? What had changed? Just this: About four millimeters had been added to her chin. Although she’d acquired her new look a year and a half earlier, the world didn’t fully awake to the transformation until Oscar night.

Carol had undergone an osteotomy—an oral surgical procedure that was performed in a hospital but did not require an overnight stay—to correct “what my family used to call the Burnett lower lip,” including a recessed chin and overbite. One remedy is a chin implant performed by a plastic surgeon. Carol in fact had had such an operation 10 years earlier, but it clearly didn’t make much difference. This time around, appearance was a secondary motive. “I had been having headaches at the base of my skull,” she recalls, and getting her bite corrected held out hope for curing the headaches.

She first heard of osteotomy through another victim of “the Burnett lower lip,” her daughter Jody, now 16. Jody’s sisters, Carrie, 19, and Erin, 14, both went through years of orthodonture (something Carol’s parents could not afford for her). But when Jody decided she didn’t want to wear braces for such a long time, her Honolulu orthodontist suggested an osteotomy. (The family—including husband Joe Hamilton, who separated from Carol nine months ago—had recently moved to Hawaii.) He took X-rays of both mother and daughter to determine whether the skeletal deformity was hereditary. The results were inconclusive, but “he told me my bite was very off,” Carol remembers. “I said I didn’t have to pay him for an X-ray to know that. Then he said I had a weak chin. I laughed. I didn’t need him to tell me that either.” At that point, the orthodontist referred both Jody and Carol to Lewis Williamson, a Honolulu oral surgeon. “I asked him if an operation could correct the headaches. He said, ‘Maybe—but it sure would give you more of a chin.’ I shot back, ‘When do you want to do it?’ ”

Carol went ahead without reservation, despite her memory of her earliest dental visit when she was 10. A county welfare dentist in Santa Monica drilled and filled nine cavities in a single session without benefit of novocaine. (Since then she has brushed her teeth six to 10 times a day as a kind of insurance that such a torture session will never recur.)

Then there was Jody’s experience when she was operated on two months before Carol. She had to have her jaw broken, reset and wired, and by her mother’s standards, at least, she had a rough time during her recovery. Carol’s case was less complicated: Only her lower jaw was involved, while for Jody it was both upper and lower.

Dr. Williamson says such jaw surgery, which has been around since the turn of the century, has been greatly improved technically in the past few years. Today it costs from $1,000 to over $7,000, depending on the complexity of the problem. In Carol’s operation—called a sliding horizontal osteotomy—a tiny section of chin bone was removed. What happens in such cases, says Dr. Williamson, is that “tissue, muscle and bone structure are shifted slightly; the result can be very dramatic. We didn’t change the bite that much. We cut the jaw in the chin area and moved it up and forward. Two small wires were placed in the jaw to hold it in position. She can get her lips together easier now, without straining.” She still gets headaches, but very infrequently.

The surgery took an hour and a half under a general anesthetic. During the two weeks before the stitches inside her mouth were removed, Carol was forced to eat slowly to keep food from slipping between her lip and jaw. She lost 14 pounds, dropping from 124 to 110. “For a while my chin was stiff because I couldn’t use the bottom part of my mouth. But by doing special exercises I finally got it working.”

Had Carol known such an operation existed, she might have had the procedure done sooner. It’s not all that uncommon, nor are such problems as the Burnett lower lip, as she learned when she began getting around again. “I’ve had people come up to me on airplanes,” she says. “I knew what this one stewardess was going to say once I saw her chin. ‘Could I ask you something?’ she said timidly. ‘Dr. Lewis Williamson in Honolulu,’ I told her. ‘Call him for advice.’ ”

Although Carol has said she’s happier because of her new look, she is still her old modest self: “All the doctor really did was give me a little more of a normal profile. And do you know what’s the greatest thing of all? Feeling the rain on my chin for the first time.”