Lines, Please

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

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.

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.”

But we do notice. No matter how understated or “good” the cosmetic work, no matter how deftly it re-creates the state of seeming “rested” or “refreshed,” the observing brain is tough to fool. Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s off—a lopsided lip? A sag to one side?—but your brain keeps trying to correct for it. That’s because we’re hardwired to sense even minor facial asymmetry, the sort of slack or droop that can result from Botox migrating to inappropriate places. Research has shown that even babies will stare longer at an attractive face, and our inborn concepts of beauty rest on simple rules of proportion. “Symmetry is the hidden persuader, correlated with attractive scents, nectars, and faces,” writes Nancy Etcoff in Survival of the Prettiest. “Symmetry is tied to beauty because it acts as a measure of overall fitness.”

Watching gorgeous actors in workaday roles, we’ve always had to endure a measure of cognitive dissonance (Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl), but the ubiquity of surgery and Botox have introduced new verisimilitude issues. As Simkin puts it: “If someone has obviously had plastic surgery, you have to ask, ‘Would this character have done that?’ And if the answer to that is no—because they’re a mine worker, maybe—then it’s a problem.”

It’s surely no coincidence that the flowering of cosmetic surgery has accompanied the transition to unforgiving high-definition video. “I was super against [Botox], saying I’ll never do it, then you see yourself on HD and you want to kill yourself,” says Rosanna Arquette, whose documentary Searching for Debra Winger explores the pressures faced by women in Hollywood. (She has yet to succumb.) Indeed, HD has presented such aesthetic challenges that the Make-up Artists & Hair Stylists guild has offered seminars on how to apply cosmetics appropriately. “If an inanimate object could be sexist, that’s what high-definition video is,” says Nora Ephron. “People don’t want to look at the flaws in women’s faces in the way they will look at them in men’s faces. That’s one of the injustices of the world.” (Male actors, however, are not immune to their flaws: George Clooney told the Daily Mirror, “I was watching Up in the Air and I thought ‘Jesus, who’s the old, gray-haired guy?’ And it was me.”)

Perhaps what bothers us most acutely about excessive cosmetic work is that it makes the artifice of the entertainment industry all too obvious. Producers cling to performers who are themselves clinging desperately to youth, or at least to their peak-earning-years images. But when someone like Nicole Kidman tells Marie Claire, “To be honest, I am completely natural. I have nothing in my face or anything,” we can’t help but furrow our own brows.

Such suspicion is behind our mass exasperation with the moving wax museum that is Hollywood today. Of course, it’s no revelation that Botox, like makeup, hair dye, or any beauty treatment, is, at root, deceptive. But to further deceive about what is false already may require one suspension of disbelief too many. By abandoning realism, naturalism, and all possibility for dramatic mimesis, performers are damaging the very medium that has given them careers. They have forgotten that there’s a measure of narcissism in the act of viewing, not just in the craving to be viewed. If we can’t see ourselves onscreen—or our more ideal selves—movies and TV shows lose much of their allure. The fantasy is no longer real.

Lines, Please