The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

About Face: The Mystique of an Actor’s Visage

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Montgomery Clift

Could anything be more devastating to an actor than losing his face? Maybe not. Yet Montgomery Clift and Mark “Star Wars” Hamill ( a lesser talent, to be sure) both soldiered on after disfiguring car accidents and painful skin grafts. Granted, Clift doused himself with booze and pills to kill the pain, inside and out, and Hamill, who was not majestically handsome to begin with, eventually found solid work as a voice actor after George Lucas stopped phoning. But, in some strange sense, since it is an actor’s job to adopt masks and personas, scar tissue isn’t exactly an obstacle to finding a convincing mode of artistic expression.

Look at Mickey Rourke: He underwent numerous plastic surgeries to debeautify himself, whether purposely or not, after a decade of playing pretty bad boys on the margins of society. His face is the subject of mocking speculation all over the Web, from to TMZ to London’s The Guardian newspaper. Although the “Wild Orchid” star has had some bumps in the road—namely run-ins with the law and a tempestuous marriage to Carre Otis, his ex-wife and co-star who he allegedly beat up in 1994—he’s since taken some dark, interesting roles (“Spun” and “Sin City” come to mind) that make good use of his mangled mug and still-dangerous allure. Now he’s back with a new film, “The Wrestler,” that will debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in a couple of weeks. Early reports suggest it may be a comeback (oh, how I rue the word) for Rourke, an ironic turn of events for a man who quit movies to become a professional boxer, then crawled his way back into the Hollywood ring wearing the pouty puss of a seasoned medical victim.

Plenty of actors undergo physical torments and extreme deprivations in order to inhabit the head space of a character, or to create an uncanny resemblance in bodily form, rather than by gestural illusion. Robert De Niro’s transformation from a thin-and-ripped bruiser to an obese bully in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” is a classic example of Method acting gone berserk. De Niro trained for months to get Jake La Motta’s punishingly muscular bod, then gorged on junk food mid-shoot to make himself 60 pounds heavier for the dubious honor of playing a fat, washed-up loser. He’s only been bested recently by the chameleon-like Christian Bale, whose reserves of nerve and iron will are something to reckon with, quite apart from his adeptness at concentrated role-playing. If you’ve ever seen “The Machinist,” you know what I’m talking about. He doesn’t look starved and horrifically emaciated—he is starved.

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari

But that kind of strenuous transfiguration doesn’t really touch on face so much as body, the nonfacial corpus. Face is both more rigid, and harder to alter (except by age or, as in the case of Hamill, a traumatic accident) and more fragile, particularly when it comes to female actors. Cultural theorist Roland Barthes wrote a famous short essay for his 1957 book Mythologies called “The Face of Garbo” in which he argued that the reclusive starlet, nicknamed The Divine, “offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature,” at once androgynous and clearly feminine. She was the hinge on which certain cinematic ideals were hung. Star worship, roughly equivalent (then and now) to Greek pantheism, began to merge in the early sound era with notions of modern individuality. Actors ceased to be universal types or concepts, and became people. Prior to that shift, the classical, nearly unsexed purity of Garbo’s divine Swedish face, more than any other attribute, really helped make the movies into a kind of church, with Garbo as its Godhead.

We often equate the face of an actor with beauty, whether this actually holds true in the unlensed material world or not. Celebrities, if you happen to meet them in the flesh, are not uncommonly disproportionate, with heads that seem too big and unwieldy or faces that are just too eye-poppingly totemic. But onscreen, it’s a different story. Cameras love the contours of a finely chiseled, if slightly freakish, face. And sometimes, particularly with effeminate faces, whether they belong to women or men, the face becomes for observers an icon of some inexpressible desire, some unrealizable dream of perfection that casts a blunt light onto the habitual madness and myriad disappointments of everyday reality. Before actors spoke, of course, the effect was heightened beyond sense and reason, to an almost empyrean realm. Will there ever be another visage like that of Louise Brooks or Anna May Wong? Or how about Valentino, whose face, like God’s, was apparently so sublime (sublime = grandeur + terror), it drove many young admirers to mass hysteria?

John Hurt in The Elephant Man

Then, of course, there are actors who seemingly do their job without a face at all. John Hurt donned a dirty burlap sack and delivered one of the most heartwrenchingly anguished performances of early Amerindie cinema in David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man.” He earned his 1981 Oscar nod mainly through the use of his voice (a type of disembodied face) and a single eye peeping through the hood worn by his onscreen alter ego, John Merrick. Mathieu Amalric did much the same thing in last year’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” portraying the real-life French editor of Elle, who after a massive stroke was totally paralyzed except for his left orb, which he blinked to signal that he wasn’t a vegetable and learned to speak through. Amalric not only had to contort his body and freeze his face into a wretched grimace for the duration of key scenes, he had to communicate the entirety of Jean-Do’s personality through a single, strained, often hyperactive eyeball. But the eye, like a voice, does the work of a face, even in isolation—it is, as they say, the soul’s mirror.

So what more valuable asset does an actor have than a face? An actor’s face is her livelihood, certainly. Casting directors don’t look at résumés, they collect head shots. People aren’t given professional work in the dramatic arts because of the size of their feet or the arch of their back. When Woody Allen casts Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” he knows he’s getting more than talent, he’s getting good face. As with anyone, a face is an identity, or a potential set of identities. Some big-name actors get by with the same face in movie after movie, never bothering to change their fundamental appearance or adapt it for the sake of a role. Tom Cruise is always “Tom Cruise,” no matter what’s he’s pretending to do in front of the cameras. Nicole Kidman can wear a prosthetic nose, as she did for “The Hours,” but she’s still Nicole Kidman-wearing-a-prosthetic-nose. The face trumps all.

Others, like the great changeling Jim Broadbent (know who he is? Not by name, I bet you don’t), who appears in the upcoming “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” fool us into thinking they’re different actors in disparate parts. This is partly due to the disguise element of good makeup and hair and costume stylists, as well as the bodily tics and feints actors use in their repertoire of psychological trickery. But it is also due to the way great character actors use their face—how they exercise control over all those facial muscle groups. Comedians like Chris Tucker or Jim “The Mask” Carrey, the man with the most plastic face in Hollywood, are particularly good at this. (Their comedy is another matter.) Long before the dawn of movies, Darwin was deeply interested in the pliability of mammalian faces, and the amazing range of emotions they conveyed. He even wrote a book about it, though it’s not as famous as “The Origin of Species.” Leafing through its copious and incredibly fascinating illustrations, one can imagine the insufferable James Lipton pretentiously prescribing it to his Actor’s Studio audiences.

Faces and physiognomies are as essential to actors as they are to audiences, who pay to see (or hear) them. But obviously, the qualities that come through an actor’s face (or eye or voice) are unique and peculiar to an individual’s whole range of movement within a given setting, as well as that actor’s talent for projecting different emotional states. Admittedly, the power of movies—whether we’re talking about “Tropic Thunder” or the avant Thai masterpiece “Tropical Malady”—goes far beyond the mystique of a face. But it’s in the classic device of the close-up, when we confront the face (i.e. mind) of an actor, that a film acquires psychological depth, and seems more real than reality itself.


Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Posted in Articles

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