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Lines, Please

If you can’t move your face, can you still act with it?


Does a certain FX legal drama (okay, Damages) employ an in-house plastic surgeon? Recently, after watching a rerun from late last season, I was left with little sense of what had transpired dramatically, but rather with a distinct, lingering impression of artificially serene foreheads and features disconcertingly askew. Although, as always with celebrity cosmetic work, it’s impossible to know who has done what—Hollywood denials have become a spectator sport—it was also impossible not to notice that on this show, as on so many others, the faces look like they have been adjusted, and with not-very-natural results. Nearly all of the actors, male and female, appear too stiff, too sleek, and project a general cryogenic torpor.

These days, to watch television or to go to the movies is to be jarred, put off, and sometimes saddened by our nonstop exposure to cosmetic interventions. We’re all familiar with the usual specimens, the Heidi Montags and Mickey Rourkes, whose many extreme surgeries and baroque physical changes are routinely dissected by blogs and tabloids. But I’m talking about a different species of performer. Less freakish yet far more abundant are the actors who, by virtue of a range of injectable substances (Botox and its cousin, Dysport; Restylane, Juvéderm, and other fillers of this ilk), are mysteriously unaffected by gravity, childbearing, or free radicals. They seem to have avoided growing old entirely or, like Benjamin Button, to be growing younger with each year. Either that or they look as if they’ve ripened abnormally, their features drifting off in odd, conflicting directions.

Awards-show season is prime time to witness such aberrations of aging. For many viewers, spotting surgery and Botox has taken the place of ogling the gowns. “I was watching the Golden Globes on the phone with a colleague, saying, ‘Oh. My. God. Look at what she did! Shit. Damn. Look at what she did,’ ” says Margery Simkin, a casting director whose films include Marley & Me, Erin Brockovich, and, more recently, Avatar. It’s easy to imagine a future in which Joan Rivers (an avowed plastic-surgery enthusiast herself) buttonholes red-carpet walkers to ask about doctors, not designers.

“It used to be, ‘Oh, they’ve had work done.’ Now it’s like, ‘Who hasn’t had work done?’ ” says Simkin, who notes that the near-obsolescence of realistically aged actresses—Frances McDormand, Melissa Leo, Meryl Streep, and Helen Mirren are among the few—presents hurdles for casting directors. “It has definitely impacted my work,” she says. “It’s something that you think about when you’re assessing someone for a role.” To illustrate her point, Simkin recounted an anecdote from casting Avatar, for which James Cameron used “motion-capture” technology that recorded the actors’ expressions via skullcaps on their heads. “I talked to the animation supervisor, and I said, ‘Is there anything I should know? Is there a shape of a face, a kind of eyes, something that is going to be more or less workable in this new medium?’ And do you know what he said? ‘No Botox. The faces have to move.’ ”

In ancient Greece, way back when acting began, in the late-sixth-century B.C. (around that time, Thespis, a Greek poet, became the first person to stage a tragic play, and, according to Aristotle, to inhabit the role of a character as opposed to merely narrate as a member of the chorus), the question of whether or how a face moved was not of paramount importance. Mainly, this was because the actors wore masks. These were marked by exaggerated expressions intended to enhance visibility in enormous open-air theaters. Facial disguises were also handy because the male actors tended to play multiple roles, including the female ones. Realism, obviously, wasn’t a big concern. This would remain true in theater for centuries to come. In medieval morality plays, actors portrayed abstract qualities such as Justice or Virtue, and in commedia dell’arte, stock characters (doctor, captain, harlequin, merchant, lover) called, again, for masks. Even in silent films, the lack of sound meant that actors like Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow often relied on gestures and expressions that today appear campy and overwrought.

Yet a hunger for naturalism soon emerged in Hollywood. Motion pictures allowed viewers to watch actors at close range, and this simulated intimacy made theater-style acting seem melodramatic. Performers like Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Louise Brooks were praised for their toned-down, realistic approach. But it was not until the thirties and forties, with the rise of the Method, that acting truly became a matter of nuanced facial expression. Actors were asked to draw from their own lives, and often to regress themselves to specific moments or memories. “You learn to dig into your unconscious and make use of every experience you ever had,” said Marlon Brando, the Method’s most legendary practitioner. In other words, an actor no longer painted a tear on his or her face, or donned a mask to represent a fixed emotion; he tunneled his way into a psychodrama that caused him to cry or laugh or half-laugh half-cry organically and authentically.

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