Wednesday, February 28, 2007


I thought I’d take a break from my cooking escapades and talk about something that I enjoy more than cooking. Film. I had planned to make this post earlier, but I had wanted to include video clips to prove my point, but that will not be possible, since you can only post links and pictures, not video. So… I will do my best to state my case without the aid of video.

There is a film term that refers to actors, who either have an “open face” or a “closed face.” This term simply refers to whether you can place a camera in front of the actor’s face and see them think while they are acting. Some people have very expressive eyes that dance, glisten and are very active and ’alive’ for the benefit of the camera. This is somewhat unnecessary in theatre, but in film, it becomes very important. Most of the famous actors you know have this. A lot of the actors you know and like pull you into the story because of their eyes. They are the windows to the soul as they say.

There are some actors however, who manage to be very successful, even though they don’t have opened faces. This is not to say that they aren’t good actors, but because the eyes are so important to film, they are better suited to theatre. In theatre, the eyes are almost unimportant, because most audience members are going to be sitting too far away to clearly see them, at least not as closely as in film.

It’s easy to see why some actors can be so successful even though they lack the ability to leap off the screen. Most of you have heard of the 1920’s experiment by Russian filmmakers Pudovkin and Kuleshov where they filmed a man staring blankly into the camera, and intercut the footage with other images, like a bowl of soup, a coffin, a dead woman, a little girl. Everyone who saw the footage were amazed by the acting of the man, even though he was doing absolutely nothing but looking into the camera blankly. Some actors may go through the motions and gestures of acting, but without the expression in their eyes, on film, they look like they are lying. Most people don’t see this because of the incredible power of editing.

The next time you see a movie, or TV show, ask yourself, “how much am I bringing to the performance?”

Don’t believe me? Fine, but try this… Cup your hands around your eyes, or cut out a hole in a piece of paper or cardboard so that you can only see the eyes of the actor you see on TV. Pay attention to what you see or don’t see in their eyes. Can you see what they are thinking? Better still. Turn the volume off, and see if the actor is communicating to you with their eyes. Can they get across complicated emotions to you? Are they telling the story just with their eyes?

Now I’m not suggesting that having expressive eyes make a good actor, but it is one of the most important tools a film actor has. If an actor doesn’t have it, they have a handicap that prevents them from being truly great in that medium. In film it is so important that some actors can get by without any acting skills at all, because of their eyes.

What actors am I talking about? The most famous actors that I can think of that have closed faces, are Johnny Depp, and Orlando Bloom. I don’t care how popular they are, most people get something out of their performances because of what the audience brings to the table. Their eyes tell us nothing. Try the experiment I mentioned above and you will see. Their acting skills go part of the distance, and the viewer goes the rest.

Take a look at the film Kingdom of Heaven. I actually liked the movie, but the film’s greatest flaw is Orlando Bloom. There is a scene in the beginning of the film where the camera is up close on his face as he thinks about his dead wife and son. He’s supposed to be so overcome with grief that he feels dead inside, but does he look it? Nope. If you look into his eyes, he may be thinking about what groceries he needs to buy later, or wondering what he’s having for lunch. Who knows, but the point is, is that as an actor, his eyes can’t tell us.

On the flipside, there is Lawrence of Arabia. I mention this film because it is the kind of film that Kingdom of Heaven tried to be. There is a scene near the end where the Arabian army led by Peter O’Toole comes across a detachment of the Turkish army. The Arabs want to slaughter them, but they are trying to reach Damascus before the British, and to stop and fight would mean disaster. So the scene is very simply shot. We have Peter O’Toole in the foreground with Omar Sharif beside him. Omar, the only man with any sense, is trying to convince Peter not to attack. Peter’s face is alive and moving. He is just standing there, but his emotions are taking over to an extent that he looks like he is going to explode. You can see his bloodlust rising, his revulsion for it, and his hesitation to give into it. Omar is just as alive in the scene, as he greatly admires Lawrence, and doesn’t want to see him sink so low. This is one if the most powerful scenes in film history for a reason. There is so much more than I mentioned going on in the frame here, but for a great part, most of the emotion we see, and feel in the scene depends on what we see in their eyes. Have a look at the picture above. It’s from that scene. Better yet, go see that movie now.

Who has an opened face? Peter O’Toole, Michael Cain, Nicole Kidman, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Omar Sharif… You know, I think I’ll stop here, because it is the exception that a film actor doesn’t have an ‘open face’ and I could go on forever.

Filmmaking is a collaborative process. It’s more than the stunt-people, make-up, and wardrobe that makes an actor look good. You mustn’t forget the director, editor, and the cast that surrounds them. Often they are more important.


Anonymous said...

I would agree that Orlando Bloom has a "closed face", and is in general a wooden actor, but this does not apply to Johnny Depp. In Edward Scissorhands he has practically no dialogue, and heavy makeup, but still manages to express powerful emotions through his eyes.

Anonymous said...

Too bad that Peter has still not won an Oscar,

Anonymous said...

Being able to physically portray a character is the first thing an actor must be able to do when tackling a new role. The audience always sees the actor before he/she speaks and huge amounts of information have already been absorbed by the viewer. (costuming is important here too) This is acting 101.

Johnny Depp...yuck!

Traci said...

why am i craving a sandwich?

Rob A. said...

Because I have fallen down on my duty to comment on this post. I will agree with you.... To a point. While you are most likely correct in saying that an open face actor is more likely to rise to the top there are many roles in film that do not require such a " skill". It really depends on the type of film being made. While I don't think Depp would have been good in Lawrence of Arabia, neither do I think that O'Toole would have worked for Edward Scissorhands. You may not like the film but that is not the actors fault. It has more to do with casting the right person for the right role. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in my mind does not have an open face but he is a very good actor and has chosen his roles well.

Doc Savageland said...

I think we are talking about the same thing, and I totally agree with you. I don't think I was very clear in my posting, but it is not my intention to impune the skill of a film actor because they do or don't have an 'open face.' I can think of many expamples where not having an open face would be essential to a role. The only time I think it becomes essential, is if you are trying to make a character endearing and liked by the audience. One look from the right actor and you can win over the audience. A closed faced actor seems somewhat distant, no matter what they are doing, but if that's the part they are playing, then that kind of person is great for the role.