“We didn’t need dialogue,” Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond proclaims in “Sunset Boulevard.” “We had faces!” Movie stars still had faces in 1950 when Billy Wilder’s inimitable dark comedy was filmed. But somewhere between then and now, actors started forgetting how to use them.
Now it’s the dialogue that’s bland or ugly. Maybe that’s why I’m starting to pay more attention to faces. The sport in moviegoing can be found in watching for which actor’s the best at doing the most with the fewest words. And though I’m basing such presumptions on wildly informal, totally unscientific research, women have it way over men as far as nonverbal acting is concerned.
I gave “The Bachelor,” for example, a star and a half more than it deserved because of Renee Zellweger’s performance. One scene in particular won me over. It took place in a fancy restaurant where Chris O’Donnell’s dim-bulb bachelor makes his first dopey swipe at a marriage proposal. The swirl of emotions that pass over Zellweger’s face--bewilderment, incredulity and smoldering rage--comes in a startlingly quick yet vivid sequence. If I were her boyfriend and saw that look, I’d have left town before she recovered the capacity to speak.
Zellweger’s silent moves were in such stark contrast to the tepid mindlessness of that alleged comedy that it took me a week to consider the possibility that maybe she was carrying out the nonverbal equivalent of going-over-the-top.
“Don’t you think she mugs too much?” one skeptic asked me rhetorically.
I suppose I’d just as soon have someone mug with some flair instead of watching others gawk and gibber clumsily for two hours.
Which is what I find far too many male movie stars doing. There was a time, for instance, when I thought Tom Cruise had the best on-camera instincts I’d ever seen in a box-office powerhouse. But watching him stumble around the whole of “Eyes Wide Shut” wearing the same monochromatic look of perpetual befuddlement made me laugh at what I supposed were inappropriate times in the movie.
In fairness to Cruise, I have trouble thinking of any movie actor in the sound era, past or present, who could do with his facial expressions what, say, a Sissy Spacek could do in “Carrie” or “3 Women.” Or, for that matter, the looks of love and loathing exchanged between Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon in the recently released “Anywhere but Here.” In Woody Allen’s forthcoming “Sweet and Lowdown,” Samantha Morton very nearly upstages a powerful cast of Sean Penn and Uma Thurman in playing a laundress who can’t speak at all. Without words, Morton’s turn comes close to being the most eloquent screen performance of the season.
One can’t imagine even the most daring lead actors of the moment--Nick Nolte, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, to name three--holding a scene for long without words to prop them up. Of male movie icons since the end of the silent-movie era, only James Stewart leaps immediately to mind as someone who could project raw yet complex emotions. Check out any of his 1950s Anthony Mann westerns. Or, for that matter, his work with Hitchcock in “Vertigo” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
Well, hold on! What about those strong and silent types like Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood? They didn’t have to say much to hold your attention.
“You’re talking about something different,” says actor-director Margaret Whitton. “People projected what they wanted on those. . . . It’s not the same thing as a performance that projects outward to an audience.”
So why are women so much better at nonverbal acting than men? One person--a guy, in fact--suggested to me it’s because women are better listeners than men and are, thus, more practiced at responding, with or without words. Sounds right, but to be sure, I asked around.
“There aren’t many scripts out there that have well-conceived roles for women,” Whitton says. “So maybe we have to work harder to fill in the blanks.”
Emily Watson, who plays the title role in the forthcoming adaptation of “Angela’s Ashes” and has shown some nonverbal dynamism of her own in “Breaking the Waves” and “Hilary and Jackie,” suggests another possible reason.
“It may be that men are more conditioned to keep their emotions in check than women,” she says. “I’m only speculating, but I think women have a lot more freedom than men in expressing their emotional lives, and so they’re more . . . versatile at it, I suppose.”
All these reasons sound right. Getting back to Whitton’s comment about scripts, I would add only that there aren’t too many roles for men that are well-conceived. If this situation persists or gets worse, men may have to learn to use their faces as storytelling devices in self-defense. And they shouldn’t have to do much, as the silent films of almost a century ago can prove. Buster Keaton wore the same expression in dozens of movies. Yet how is it possible that a genius like Samuel Beckett could find the universe in Keaton’s stone face? Men, you have your work cut out for you.