BY TIM STERNE
'We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces'.
Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard
In 1924, the Hungarian critic Béla Balázs declared, ‘In a truly artistic film the dramatic climax between two people will always be shown as a dialogue of facial expressions in close-up.’ It wasn’t always so. Early filmmakers largely eschewed the close-up, but it was gradually adopted as an essential element of film grammar. Anything might be shot in close-up—a hand, spokes, a horse’s tail. The revelatory target, though, was the human face.
The result was almost indecent: frightening, thrilling, and titillating. Roland Barthes writes that in the early days of popular cinema, images of the human face ‘plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy … one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre’. We are partially inured to these effects today, but we’re still suckers for what Barthes calls, unromantically, ‘an admirable face-object’.
The proverbial ‘good actor’ is one whose face we trust, even on the tacit understanding that what we’re seeing is mostly lies. The less exalted actor can still possess that intangible quality, presence. We don’t have to believe the movie in toto, we just need to believe its faces. Whatever our individual predilections, we are all face voyeurs. Faces are seductive, projected faces all the more so: enormous, unguarded, and available for our delectation.
Of course, as anyone who has taken a selfie will know, what the camera captures is not necessarily the ‘reality’ one wishes to convey. The variables of lighting, and the ravages of life, can conspire to distort the image, to exaggerate blemishes and other all-too-human flaws. This is discouraging enough in real life: in cinema, where the pursuit of the imaginary ideal is eternal, imperfection will never do. Hence the need for skilled makeup artists. Even in a case of deliberate dishevelment, an actor’s appearance must be palatable, or at least consistent.
Early film makeup was crude, designed to prevent the washed-out effect produced by the incredibly bright lights that were needed to properly expose primitive celluloid. Thick pink makeup was applied, followed by dark lipstick and eyeliner. As the close-up became the audience-tantalising, star-making shot of choice, more refined make-up and wig-setting techniques were developed. Hollywood being Hollywood, the illusion often carried over into real life. Pioneering makeup artist and wig maker George Westmore gave Mary Pickford her trademark curls, then reproduced them in wig form so the actress could maintain her public image with minimal upkeep.
Modern stars are just as careful to maintain their signature look. To what lengths does the 53-year-old Tom Cruise go in order to look more or less like the 24-year-old Tom Cruise of Top Gun (1986)? How many virgins are sacrificed per annum to keep Angelina Jolie nubile? We prefer our stars unchanging, and most oblige, at least until time outpaces plastic surgery, Botox injections, personal trainers and fad diets. It’s an open secret, a mutual collusion. Andie MacDowell can flog hair colour treatments on TV, safe in the knowledge that we prefer this form of honesty to the alternative. Dark brown tresses are an essential part of her Andie MacDowell-ness; it doesn’t matter how they are maintained.
Rejecting image consistency is a signifier of actorly seriousness. Witness Robert DeNiro’s early-career method transformations, then compare the lukewarm response to his more recent work in which he plays, essentially, Robert DeNiro. ‘Uglying up’ can be a good career move, especially when there’s little risk of diminishing an otherwise flattering public image. Cameron Diaz looks a mess in Being John Malkovich (1999), but it’s a put on. We know how Diaz really looks: perky, blonde, friendly, gorgeous. Tabloid ‘stars without makeup’ exposés are intended as exercises in voyeuristic schadenfreude, but the balloon of collective fantasy is not so easily punctured by sleazy authenticity.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the close-up promulgates only opposing forces of desire and vanity. The human face is endlessly malleable, and in close-up endlessly fascinating. Silent star Lon Chaney was known as ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ for his physicality and skill with makeup. (Chaney’s famous unmasking scene from The Phantom of the Opera (1925) remains unnerving.) Similarly talented chameleons pop up throughout cinema history: Chaney’s modern-day equivalent is Andy Serkis. Without taking away from Serkis’s achievements, it is perhaps inevitable that technology removes some of the charm from these turns. In The Social Network (2010), Armie Hammer does double duty as twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. During shooting, however, one of the twins was played by body double Josh Pence. Hammer’s face was digitally united with Pence’s body in post-production.
Makeup, wigs, and associated appliances don’t need to be high-tech to create an impression: Brando stuffed his cheeks with cotton wool to achieve Don Corleone’s distinctive mumble in The Godfather (1972). False teeth tend to be more complicated. The steel-capped dentures of Bond villain Jaws went through a number of prototypes. Actor Richard Kiel could wear the finished appliance for only brief periods without gagging. English company Fangs FX specialises in monster teeth, from zombies to vampires to Margaret Thatcher. The disturbing image carousel on their website shows off the company’s skill and versatility. I suspect however they would be loathe to replicate one notorious set of cinematic teeth: Mickey Rooney’s racist ‘Japanese’ chompers in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).
On-camera fakery has its limits. Most cinema-goers are familiar with the ‘uncanny valley’, a sense of discomfort and revulsion brought about by digital or robotic representations of human beings that are almost, but not quite, human-seeming. Analogue makeup effects can produce a similar result, especially when the desired illusion is of aging. The result is usually laughable, terrifying, or both, a satanic combination of rubber jowls, unconvincing bald caps, and overdone liver spots. Dustin Hoffman’s bizarre appearance in Little Big Man (1970) is a case in point. Rather than an empathetic picture of advanced age, Hoffman looks like he’s stepped out of the face-melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
In his 1974 meditation on forgery, art, and death, F For Fake, Orson Welles claims that ‘what we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is “art”.’ Welles was an inveterate faker, a bullshit artist par excellence. (This is the man who invaded the United States from the comfort of a sound stage.) The close-up of a human face is cinema’s attempt to serve truth with lies. Sometimes the illusion is perfect, or near enough, and disbelief is suspended. At other times, the illusion is incomplete, or simply incompetent. Whatever the case, we will continue watching. To paraphrase Ms. Desmond, who needs dialogue when we have faces?
Tim Sterne is a Melbourne writer. Find him on Twitter @timsterne.