Monday, December 17, 2012

Great screen beauties register at 30 paces

From my pieces about physiognomy and cinema for Intelligent Life:- 
'Spielberg’s casting instincts have always tended to the Rockwellian/physiognomical. Remember the assortment of hillbillies who rounded out the cast of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind  — some whiskery, some round, some as beaker-thin as Walker Evans figures — or the Krakow jews in Schindler’s List, in which differentiation — a pair of jug ears here, a disappearing chin there — singled you out for salvation, according to the curious Darwinism of the movies. Faces are destiny in Hollywood. Nor is there anything shameful about this. “Too much is written about how actors feel, too little about how they look,” wrote Kenneth Tynan in his profile of Greta Garbo, finding in “the broad ivory yoke of her shoulders” the build of a javelin thrower. “She walked obliquely, seeming to sidle even when she strode,” and kissed “cupping her man’s head in both hands and seeming nearly to drink from it.”  Screen beauty is a very different beast from offscreen beauty. In photographs, Keira Knightley is a peach but in front of a movie camera, her face trips over its own angles; conversely Kristen Stewart can look a little drab in photographs but a movie camera reveals has as the classic screen beauty she is. The earliest stars were almost ideographic — Lillian Gish’s eyes, Mary Pickford’s curls, Douglas Fairbanks’ moustache all registered at 30 paces — which is why onscreen good looks are often so porously absorbent of their opposite. “She was ugly,” recalled James Baldwin of seeing Bette Davis in “20,000 Years in Sing Sing” (1932),“[her] skin had the dead-white greenish cast of something crawling from under a rock, but I was held, just the same, by the tense intelligence of the forehead the disaster of the lips.” Ungallant, but Davis’s pugnacity was sharpened in such headwinds. Audiences loved the flaws; they were the concavities in which character could flourish.' 

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