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Thomas Sutcliffe

Tom Sutcliffe: Thank goodness his face doesn't fit

The week in culture

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?