Books: A Point of View: Click on the Icon |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Click on the Icon : on radiant faces

(S02E09, broadcast 17th and 19th August 2007)

"Just a pretty face will do"
— icon in making

The word ‘icon’ gets tossed around like the term ‘Renaissance man’. Just as any actor is called a Renaissance man if he can play three chords on a guitar, so the photograph of any face becomes an icon if you can still attach a name to it after its owner is dead. But the original icons had nothing to do with photography. They were pre-Renaissance religious images usually depicting Jesus and scenes from his life or death, with his mother Mary often figuring prominently. The amount of information in the icon was often quite restricted, and that’s the element that now fascinates us most. Some of the pioneering modern artists picked up on that very element of minimum information, maximum suggestion. An icon often had little more to it than the curve of a mother’s weeping cheek.

When modern painting tried to return to the icon’s simplicity, it was in search of that characteristic of pre-sophisticated, often pre-competent art by which the viewer’s imagination is drawn in to fill a space, instead of shut out by a display of technique. Here lay the power of the photograph. It could register a form but simplify its content, especially if the image was in black and white. In Hollywood, there had been many famously beautiful faces before Greta Garbo arrived from Sweden, had her teeth fixed and became the world’s biggest female film star. But Garbo was the first to realize that the very idea of a face could be beautiful. A woman much more original than she is often given credit for, Garbo knew that any kind of camera, whether cinematic or still, always lies, because it gives a single figure far more importance than it can have in life.

She also spotted that nothing was more important to a female movie star than the studio publicity stills that went into the newspapers and magazines all over the earth. Garbo would dictate the lighting in her stills sessions until the frame contained the bare minimum of information about her face: it was just eyes, a mouth, and a shadow. Often the nose was just a pair of tilted nostrils.

Garbo was well aware that she was a bit of a lump in real life. This even became apparent in some of her movies. Watch her dance in the role of Mata Hari and you wonder why the set doesn’t shake. But in the stills she always looked ethereal. By now there is a whole generation of people who have never seen Garbo in a moving picture. They should. In Ninotchka she shows you how graciously funny she could be, and you can guess that she was called boring in real life only by people who were scared by the way her lovely face stirred their imaginations to expect so much that they couldn’t value her down-to-earth common sense. But one of the reasons that their imaginations were stirred is that they were meeting the icon, which, with the aid of her own cunning, had been shaped and projected by the studio publicity system.

Since Garbo, every female film star has wanted the same for herself. Louise Brooks achieved iconic status without making many films that a mass audience ever saw, and nowadays almost nobody has seen any film she made, yet she is instantly recognizable by her hairstyle, which in itself gets described as iconic. By the time the movies got as far as me, there were female icons to burn. I grew up watching Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak. I thought Linda Darnell was the loveliest but I lost my heart to a single photograph of Rita Hayworth. The photo was a studio still taken by ‘Whitey’ Schaefer and I didn’t know, when I first pasted it to my wall, that the star had had her hairline lifted by the studio so that her forehead would reflect more light.

Rita Hayworth could dance. If she had been an inch or two shorter, she would have been an even better partner for Fred Astaire than Ginger Rogers was. But Rita Hayworth’s abilities meant nothing to me beside her looks, and Orson Welles, who was married to her briefly, probably felt the same way. It wasn’t what she could do, it was what she seemed to embody: beauty itself.

Kim Novak was the extreme case of that. She didn’t even have to act, which was lucky, because she barely could. She just had to stand there looking out of this world, so that James Stewart, in Vertigo, could believably go out of his mind for her. It was always tough on the real actresses that so many mere beauties became icons, but it was inevitable because men are born idealists, and usually stay that way most of their lives.

Occasionally an icon could act. There was an actress called Janice Rule who was so lovely that she overwhelmed any part she was playing, but in a Western called Invitation to a Gunfighter, which only a few people have ever seen, she is the plausible reason why Yul Brynner goes mad to possess her, shooting up the whole town. A woman who could drive Yul Brynner to achieve acting must really have had something. For a while I collected Janice Rule movies. She was in The Chase, with Marlon Brando and the young Robert Redford, but for me there was nobody on the screen except her. I feel the same way about Natalie Portman now, as long as she isn’t dressed up as Amidala, Queen of Naboo, the bad-hair planet.

Mention of Marlon Brando reminds us that there are male icons too. In the thirties the publicity stills of Johnny Weissmuller proved him to be the most beautiful man on earth, the title that Denzel Washington holds now. Weissmuller had the kind of classical face that was probably non-existent in ancient Greece but which was born again in Brando and Elvis Presley. Take a look at a publicity still of Brando and check out the sculptural perfection of his mouth.

Unfortunately Brando did the same, and became so fascinated with the orifice he ate with that he tried to give it a life of its own on screen by pouting. Antonia Quirke, in her highly original novel Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers, is very perceptive about the faces of the male screen stars but sometimes underestimates the degree to which they are hamming it up. Trying to improve on their natural blessings, they tend to mug. Even Tom Berenger, blessed with the nearest thing to a perfect face in recent times, ended up doing strange things with his mouth, and still stranger things are done by actors who would like to be icons. I call it mouthing and I say that it should not be tolerated. Popcorn should be hurled at the screen until the practice ceases. Otherwise Bruce Willis will go on thinking that he is being charming when he purses his lips.

He has been pursing them until they bleed ever since his first days in television, and he is still pursing them as he comes swinging in through the plate-glass window to mow down a row of central European heavies in Die Hard All Over Again. Even Harrison Ford, otherwise excellent icon material, holds his mouth half open in the mistaken assumption that he looks more thoughtful that way. All the icons have to do is just be while we look at them, but not even the smart ones are content to do that, and there are real dummies who don’t fit the icon frame at all but think they might if they do enough work with their mouths and the way they stand.

Between NYPD Blue and CSI Miami, something happened to David Caruso which his admirers call a movie career but I think might have been a brainstorm. Some internal blunt-force trauma convinced him that if he pouted thoughtfully enough while taking his dark glasses off before putting them on again, we might finally register the iconic perfection of his face. On screen he stands sideways no matter what, just so that we can see his face from all angles. The director, perhaps per contract, cooperates by closing in until Caruso’s face fills the frame. It remains, however, just a face, which is the very thing that the iconic face refuses to do. The iconic face is radiant with the incorporation of the ideal. Its owner can be as dumb as they come and have no acting talent at all, yet somehow the fearful symmetry comes shining out.

It’s because our imagination is pouring in. There’s a moment in Camille when Garbo, at the theatre, turns around to smile at Robert Taylor, who was handsome but might as well have been carved out of wood, like a cigar-store Indian. Garbo’s face seems to flutter as she turns, as if the film has been double printed so that one still succeeds another. I can remember my own gasp the first time I saw her do that. There was a similar moment in Rear Window when Grace Kelly leaned across the screen to kiss James Stewart. Why wasn’t she kissing me? I was already in long trousers. She looked pretty good in real life, but on screen, lit so her face was just radiance and an outline, she was an icon.


Some listeners thought that I was being more self-indulgent than politically exploratory when broaching this subject, but I thought I was being both. The appreciation of human faces has become part of the celebrity culture, and no topic of modern times could be more political than that, especially by the extent to which it does not appear to be political at all. (Naomi Campbell thought it had nothing to do with politics when Nelson Mandela sat her down at the same table as Charles Taylor, erstwhile President of Liberia. Actually she had been put right in the middle of the battle for Africa’s future.) Just as we rank prospective friends and life-partners by their voices, we rank them by the faces they appreciate. It’s one of our first clues to their aesthetic sense. The power of the film-star face — often, to a large extent, a constructed myth — to influence reality was the most original part of the story line of the movie L.A. Confidential, which turned on the unsettling paradox that a young woman who looked like Kim Basinger might be induced to look like Rita Hayworth. So far, the best book on the subject isn’t about the faces of female film stars but about the faces of male film stars. It’s the novel I referred to in the text, Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers, by Antonia Quirke. The novel’s narrator sees the surrounding world entirely in term of iconic male faces. Without the author’s wit and gift for analysis, it would have been a story riddled with madness, but as the clock ticks it seems less mad all the time — which might mean that we’ve all gone mad. I must be one of hundreds of male readers who thought immediately of writing a counter-novel about female film stars, but I gave up the idea after clicking through about three pages of the Tea Leoni images on the web. At my age, it would so clearly be the work of an obsessive. And yet ‘obsession’ is not far from being the right word when our minds are being navigated by an ideal perception. You start thinking that a small woman in a raincoat half a mile away in the mist might be Ludivine Sagnier.

Iconic faces may be shorthand but they are a real notation, and social progress can be measured by how they rise in favour. Nowadays it is quite possible to imagine that a white young man, let alone a black young man, might want to look like Denzel Washington. This is a clear improvement on the time when Michael Jackson wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor. On the same theme but in another part of the forest, what is most frightening about Japanese pornographic comic books is not so much that the female figures are schoolgirls in bondage, as that they are still given Westernized features. All those young blondes with pointed noses are tokens of cultural discontent.