The Method brought Freudianism to the screen. Its numerous devotees (Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda) ushered in an era of fluid, naturalistic acting that has continued to flourish to this day. Think of the famous improvised scene in On the Waterfront, in which Brando picks up Eva Marie Saint’s dropped glove and briefly toys with it before seamlessly sliding it onto his own meaty hand. Or consider Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who gave the careworn human face an unprecedented workout with their sneers and snorts and cackles and winces in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The aim of the Method has, over time, come to define the fundamental mission of dramatic acting itself: to use the face and the body to express subtle, complex, conflicting psychological and emotional states.
But everything old is turning new again. In this moment of nips and tucks and anti-wrinkle shots, acting is becoming more stilted, stylized, and masklike. Naturalism, it turns out, might have been an anomaly in the history of dramatic performance, as we now relinquish the taxing project of mirroring reality in favor of merely gesturing toward it. In his 1957 essay “The Face of Garbo,” Roland Barthes wrote that Greta Garbo “still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image … when the face represented the absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.” It’s nearly impossible to imagine a critic today writing anything similar. The new bus and billboard advertisements for Damages seem like an unconscious admission of our stiff leap backward: The faces of Glenn Close and Rose Byrne are sketched, in black-and-white, to resemble a pair of tragic, unsmiling masks.
So how, exactly, has this shift affected acting? By making it more difficult, would seem to be the obvious answer. “Just enrolled in a new actors’ workshop. ‘Acting with Botox.’ How to get your eyes to say what your face won’t,” the comedian Kevin Nealon wrote, not long ago, on Twitter. Some actors appear to be underplaying their characters, consciously making them cool, without affect. If you can’t move your face, why not create an undemonstrative character? Others have taken the opposite approach: On two cable dramas starring actresses of a certain age, the heroines are brassy and expansive, with a tendency to shout and act out, yet somehow their placid foreheads are never called into play. Usually, when a person reenacts a stabbing or smashes a car with a baseball bat, some part of the face is going to crease or bunch up. Not so with these women. As though to compensate for their facial inertia, both perform with stagy vigor, attempting broad looks of surprise or disappointment, gesticulating and bellowing. If you can’t frown with your mouth, they seem intent on proving, you can try to frown with your voice.
There’s a measure of narcissism in the act of viewing, not just in the craving to be viewed.
We can’t know for sure how surgery is changing the art of acting, or what it feels like to act with Botox (like your face is covered with latex?), since only a handful of actors will cop to having undergone the procedure—and invariably only to say how dreadful it was. “I tried it once and let me tell you, it’s freaking frightening,” Kyra Sedgwick told W magazine. “It was like: Oh my God, I can’t move my forehead, and it really scared the s--- out of me.” Not surprisingly, it is the rare performer who will discuss how her non-existent surgery has affected her craft. “There’s a certain amount of denial that goes with it,” says Sheila Gray, an acting coach who has worked with actors on Michael Clayton, The Wire, and The Sopranos. “I don’t think you’ll find an actress saying they’ve had it, so you won’t come across anybody saying it’s changed their technique.”
Several plastic surgeons told me that actors do privately fret about rendering themselves unemployable by taking cosmetic work too far and limiting their expressive range. “I ask them, what expressions, what emotions, are you concerned about losing?” says Stephen Pincus, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. “They’ll say, ‘I have to be mad, or surprised, or I’m worried about my eyebrows, I don’t want to be a blank stare.’ I say, ‘I can paralyze your forehead from this point up, but you’re not going to be able to wrinkle a good part of the forehead. Is that an issue for you? If it is, we shouldn’t do it.’ ” Some of his patients go ahead with the treatment. “They’re more concerned about wrinkles than about the five seconds of emotion people might not notice anyway.”