SHEER AMERICAN CRAGGINESS

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At the Cinema: in Hollywood, physiognomy is destiny. Tom Shone sees fate in the gnarled faces of Spielberg's "Lincoln"

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln" has the resonance of a tuning fork, cleanly struck. Set during the last days of the civil war, when Lincoln spotted a narrow sliver of opportunity through which to pass the 13th amendment, the film gives us one of the cinema’s best portraits of a working president: sagacious, weary, cunningly riding out forces beyond his control to achieve his desired end and free the slaves. Lit from above to bring out that bone structure, Day-Lewis is joined by the fissure-featured Tommy Lee Jones, playing a Republican radical, the weasel-faced John Hawkes, wrangling votes, and a confederate general played by Jackie Earle Haley, his face bearing the pockmarks of hate. It’s one pug-ugly film. The world would have to wait until the Rolling Stones’ current tour, 150 years later, to see anything matching 1860s America for sheer cragginess. 

Spielberg’s casting instincts have always tended to the Rockwellian. 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 figures in a Walker Evans photograph. Or the Krakow Jews in "Schindler’s List", in which differentiation—a pair of jug ears here, a disappearing chin there—singled a person out for salvation, according to the curious Darwinism of the movies. In Hollywood, faces are destiny. "Too much is written about how actors feel, too little about how they look," Kenneth Tynan said in his profile of Greta Garbo. He saw 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 off-screen 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 a classic screen beauty. 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 on-screen good looks are often so porously absorbent of their opposite. "She was ugly," James Baldwin said 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."

A little ungallant, but Davis’s pugnacity was sharpened in such headwinds. Audiences loved the flaws; they were the concavities in which character could flourish. When Humphrey Bogart became a star, he was already on his second marriage, with a smoker’s leanness and receding gums which turned every smile into a rueful grimace. "To make it completely fascinating," Louise Brooks noted, "at one corner of his upper lip a scarred quilted piece hung down in a tiny scallop." Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro were all past 30 when they got their breaks, with faces to match. Ryan Gosling, by contrast, recently told me he wanted to retire at 40—a year before Bogart got going. 

People are getting younger and more beautiful all the time—have you noticed that? I don’t mean real people. I mean the unreal people—the pop groups and politicians, newsreaders and weathermen. Doctor Who’s sidekicks used to look like replacement teachers; now, they pout and preen like Zoolander. A career like Pete Townshend’s would struggle to happen today. With the spread and miniaturisation of screens, we see a beautiful face every five seconds. Next to the cast of "Friends", the regulars from "Cheers" now look like old drunks. 

We will always have the Jessica Albas and Ryan Reynoldses, suspiciously smoothed-skinned humanoids with eyes too close together and no discernible nose, summoned by the constant inquiry, fielded since pre-school, "have you ever thought of going into the movies?" But the movies still plumb the odd fault-line. We have Joaquin Phoenix, whose entire career relies on the chord struck between his scarred, snarling lip, and the clue we think this gives us to his equally tormented inner landscape. We have Emma Stone, whose eyes bugged so winningly when confronted with a half-naked Ryan Gosling in "Crazy, Stupid Love". ("Seriously? It’s like you’re photoshopped!") Then there is Paul Giamatti, with the physique of a melting snowman, and John C. Reilly, whose face may have been assembled from mashed potato by a six-year-old anxious to hide some uneaten peas. 

Neither man is ugly, of course. They are cinema-ugly, which is not real-life ugly. We look on their squashed features as fondly as a wife. Movies unfold in real time, both the hours it takes to watch them, and the years in between, when our idols—we are surprised to find out—age at the same pace as us, each pushing the other along. That’s the magic of Day-Lewis’s Lincoln, whose bones tingle and creak, as gnarled as an old oak, its sap still rising. 

Lincoln opens in Britain Jan 25th, Germany Jan 24th, France Jan 30th. Out now in America

Tom Shone writes for New York and the Sunday Times. He is the author of 'Blockbuster' and 'In the Rooms'