Tom Sutcliffe: Thank goodness his face doesn't fit

The week in culture

Share
Related Topics

In an interview with this paper a few years ago the actor Paul Giamatti said this about his face: "Let's be honest about this. I'm limited by my looks so I'm a tough sell. But there's plenty of folks out there who look just like me, and someone has to play them." You can see what he's saying, of course. He works in an industry enslaved to physical beauty. So it's understandable that he might feel disadvantaged by the casting process. When they start searching for the next James Bond or someone to go head-to-head with Angelina Jolie in a romantic thriller he's not likely to be drumming his fingers by the phone. On the other hand, though, how wrong could that sentence be? Limited by his looks? A tough sell? Surely not. Giamatti's looks are as integral to his success as George Clooney's are. And "plenty of folks out there who look just like me"? Please. There are many different ways of winning the Physiognomy Lottery, and Giamatti may well feel that he didn't scoop the big prize. But he certainly got five numbers out of six when it came to standing out from the crowd and his face – far from being a commonplace – is actually a cinematic treasure.

It quite often gets the epithet "potato face", which gets you started on its virtues, but doesn't go nearly far enough. For one thing, we need to know what kind of potato, surely? And the crucial point is that Giamatti isn't some kind of scuffed King Edward or knobbly baker – pocked and lumpish and coarse. He's a Jersey Royal, if anything: cherishably diminutive and with a kind of infancy to his facial curves that is at odds with the world-weariness of his features. Those curves are well-aligned to the comedy he can deliver to a film as well. Like a lot of people, I first encountered him – at least in a central role – in Alexander Payne's film Sideways, where he established his ability to play nerdy anxiety. And in that his face was the perfect prop, sagging a little round the jowls as if someone had caricatured wary middle-aged disappointment. He's the archetypal schlub – a little rumpled and out of shape, battered by the world, and expressing his outrage at it (in that film, at least) through a mask of glumness.

The idea of the mask is relevant I think. Modern actors don't hide their features behind real masks, as Greek actors did, picking a tragic or a comic visor to suit the mood. But they do create their own masks which we recognise in much the same way. And while some masks are relatively uncommunicative in themselves, a kind of all-purpose blankness of expression which lends itself to many different roles, other masks are mutely expressive. George Clooney, for all his beauty, is not a bad example of the former. Think of him acting and think how rarely you see an extreme expression on that face. I'm willing to bet that you could take stills of him acting rage, sexual interest and wry amusement and perform with them a reversed version of Kuleshov's famous experiment in montage (in which he demonstrated that exactly the same expression would look different to an audience depending on what images accompanied it). A George Clooney still is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled. There's really no guessing what lies behind that gorgeous façade.

Giamatti's screen mask, by contrast, is immediately expressive. You only have to look at his face to suspect what he's feeling – and in his best roles, that suspicion can be enlisted to great effect. In Thomas McCarthy's Win Win, where he's perfectly cast as a well-meaning lawyer who slides his way into moral failing, there are scenes in which he says nothing which say much more than the scenes in which he says a lot – if you follow my drift. More importantly, he can hint in his performance at the gap between the front of the face and what lies behind it, in part because we assume so readily that it means just one thing – that geeky haplessness in the face of the world. Clooney's face might get him offered more parts. Giamatti's face means he can do much more with the ones he gets.

I'm pleased she hasn't bedded herself in...

I went to Tracey Emin's Hayward show the other day – and it would be dishonest to say that I went with an open mind. Given the amount of coverage that she's had as an artist, I expected this to be one of those shows that jogs your memory, rather than surprises you – and since my own reaction to her early work is a bit mixed, I didn't think that all of the reminders would be engaging. That prejudice wasn't overturned by the relentlessly confessional nature of much of the early work: not self-regarding, exactly, given how self-lacerating she can be, but untroubled by the thought that we might not be as interested in Tracey Emin as she is. "Picking your scabs and framing them" was the dismissive formulation that came to mind for this creative-therapy, an admittedly brutal reduction that wasn't exactly discouraged by the moment when I turned a corner to find several of the artist's used tampons solemnly arrayed in Perspex vitrines. But then I went upstairs to look at more recent work and it was as if the Hayward was hosting a joint show by two artists with a shared sensibility, but entirely different ways of working. No obtrusive autobiography, but enigmatic and poignant pieces which are beautifully made and – though it might sound implausible – almost retiring in their manner. I don't suppose it would exist at all without the stuff downstairs, but I can't say I'm sorry she's moved on.

It pays to arrive early

I don't know whether you're an early-sitter or a last-minute-arriver when it comes to the theatre, but there are two distinct tribes, I think. Some sit in splendid isolation in the auditorium, doing due diligence with the programme notes. Others virtually have to be frogmarched from the bar. More often than not I'm with the third-and-final-call crowd. But twice recently I've gone in uncharacteristically early and been rewarded with the theatrical equivalent of a DVD extra. The first occasion was at Deborah Warner's production of The School for Scandal, which presents a half-rigged stage and a crowd of Hoxton ninnies putting on an impromptu fashion show. To the sound of pounding dance music they pose and preen and snigger at the audience. Some critics disliked it as much as the production that followed but – barring Alan Howard's valiant one-man stand against self-advertising actorliness (sorry, "Brechtian alienation") – I thought it was the high point of the evening. The second instance was at Nick Hytner's wonderfully enjoyable production of One Man, Two Guvnors – where early arrivers get a performance by The Craze, a skiffle band. I think it's a trend that should be cautiously encouraged. A prize, perhaps, for best pre-curtain entertainment?

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Reprographics Operator

£12500 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest independent Reprogr...

Recruitment Genius: Web Design Apprentice

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a well established websit...

Tradewind Recruitment: French & German Teacher

£120 - £145 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: French & German Teacher X2 Materni...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer / Systems Administrator

£25000 - £32500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in SW London, this compan...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Going viral on YouTube stopped me feeling like a ghost - and made me speak out about mental illness

Alika Agidi-Jeffs
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would tackle our looming dementia crisis

Susan Greenfield
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee