Gilbey on Film: The art of cinematic disguise

Anonymity gives actors a special kind of freedom.

If you see the new film Cloclo, a biopic of the singer-songerwriter Claude François (which I review in tomorrow's edition of the NS), do keep an eye out for the 38-year-old actor Benoît Magimel, the pretty-boy star of The Girl Cut in Two, The Piano Teacher and Little White Lies.

I didn’t. Having spotted his name among the cast list, his participation in the movie slipped my mind entirely until a friend and I were discussing Cloclo a few days ago. Benoît Magimel, of course! I forgot he was even in it - remind me which part he played again? But then it’s hardly surprising I overlooked him when he bears about as much resemblance in the film to his real self as Justin Bieber does to Ernest Borgnine. You can see for yourself here the disparity between the perfectly fetching Magimel as he usually appears, and the intimidating, breeze-block-faced Cloclo version. I’m sure you will agree that, while not quite analogous to Gary Oldman in Hannibal, this is no mere case of Kidman’s Nose.

It’s not hard to fathom why the film’s director asked Magimel to undergo this prosthetic overhaul, or why the actor agreed. He’s a fine performer, and very strong in the part of François’s manager Paul Lederman, but disguise adds another layer to the work. It’s a tradition that can pay dividends come awards season - think of Charlize Theron in Monster, Robert De Niro in at least a third of Raging Bull or, yes, Nicole Kidman in The Hours - but it would be cynical to suggest that this influences those performers’ decision to go at least partly undercover.

Being in the glare of attention, whether it’s from the camera, the public or the paparazzi, must leave performers thirsty for a get-away-from-it-all break from themselves. Doing that on screen has its own perverse glint - you are there, and yet not there. This can be expressed in the form of in-joke (Cate Blanchett appearing behind a mask in Hot Fuzz), eccentricity (Debra Winger as a male angel in Alan Rudolph’s strange, forgotten 1987 film Made in Heaven) or in a film’s entire casting approach (James Caan, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino “uglied up” as the villains and miscreants of Dick Tracy).

Disfigurement and disability necessitates the adoption of prosthetic disguise or concealment: the likes of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Eric Stoltz in Mask and John Hurt in The Elephant Man had little alternative to submerging themselves in make-up. (Though some tantalising clips survive of David Bowie playing John Merrick without any cosmetic assistance in a Broadway production of The Elephant Man; the role was also taken at various points by Bruce Davison and Mark Hamill.) And a grimace or an ill-tempered sneer is never going to be enough to pass as monstrous in fantasy cinema: Tim Curry’s glazed scarlet body, clomping hooves and potent ebony horns in Legend are impressive even in our CGI-dominated age, not least because they represented such a violent reaction against the same actor’s camp showbiz persona honed in the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Annie.

CGI and motion-capture now enable every actor to inhabit their own performance in animated form. (A blue bodysuit peppered with dots, each one corresponding to a different joint, allows the actor’s movements to be replicated by a computer-generated equivalent: think of the performer as a puppeteer operating a million strings on a marionette that, in turn, resembles a monstrous likeness of him- or herself.) So we can know we are watching Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis in The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn, or Willem Dafoe in John Carter, without actually clapping eyes on their flesh-and-blood forms. (Then again, cinema is only light on a wall, so any discussion of degrees of physical authenticity must be moot.) Serkis in particular has made a career out of giving performances in CGI disguise: how many of the billions of people who have admired his work in King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the Lord of the Rings trilogy would have recognised him had he not enjoyed a few moments of non-CGI screen time in the final LOTR instalment, The Return of the King?

Kevin Spacey reflected on the art of staying hidden back in 1997:

Paul Bowles thought of himself as a spy. A secret agent. He said his job was to get information across the border. I very much feel that way as an actor. You can accomplish that task as long as you remain a spy. When you're uncovered, you can no longer move quite as stealthy, you can no longer dodge the radar. I've always chosen to let the work speak for itself. I like to stay in the shadows.

He was talking about his reluctance to discuss his private life, but the same principle surely feeds into the disguises actors adopt. It’s not just the ostentatious shrugging off of vanity, the relinquishing of that side of the actorly persona which demands photo approval or a stylist on 24-hour call. Putting yourself beyond even the basic recognition factor for audiences allows the performance to be seen without baggage or associations - to dodge the radar, to use Spacey’s metaphor.

Of course, a good actor will either do that anyway, or use the baggage of past roles to their advantage. Anonymity, though, opens up a new sort of freedom. If these secret agents could only learn to let go of the on-screen credit and go unbilled, the experiment would be complete and extreme. Imagine that: an entire film in which an A-list cast remains stubbornly unidentifiable and uncredited. There’s something delicious about that idea, even if it does require a basic subscription to the cult of celebrity in order to make effective any advertised retreat from it. But if fame is a mask that eats the wearer’s face, maybe this is the only avoidance tactic available to the celebrity performer short of retirement: the mask that masks the mask.

Benoît Magimel as himself (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Unconvinced by Ken Loach’s benefits story? That says more about Britain than the film does

The director has clashed with a film critic about his representation of the welfare state in I, Daniel Blake.

I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s new film, has kicked off a row between the director and The Sunday Times’ film critic, Camilla Long.

Published on Sunday, the review – which called the film a “povvo safari for middle-class do-gooders” – has led to Loach and some audience members rowing with Long online.

Long also describes the film – which is an unforgiving drama about the cruelty of welfare bureaucracy – as “misery porn for smug Londoners”.

Her contention is that it is “condescending” and “patronising” to benefits claimants, partly because it will mainly be seen by affluent audiences, rather than “the lowest part of society” – so acts as a vehicle for middle-class guilt rather than an authentic reflection of people’s lives.

I’ve seen the film, and there are parts that jar. A reference to the Bedroom Tax feels shoe-horned in, as if screenwriter Paul Laverty remembered last-minute to tick that box on his welfare scandal checklist. And an onlooker outside the Jobcentre’s rant about the Bullingdon Club, Etonians and Iain Duncan Smith also feels forced. (But to me, these parts only stood out because the rest of the script is convincing – often punishingly so.)

A critic is free to tear into a film they didn’t enjoy. But the problem with Long’s review is the problem with the way Britain in general looks at the benefits system: disbelief.

For example, Long calls it “a maddening computer error” and “a mysterious glitch” that Daniel Blake – a 59-year-old carpenter who has been signed off from work by his doctor after a heart attack – is denied his disability benefit.

Actually it’s because he’s been found “fit to work” after an agonising tick-box phone assessment by an anonymous adviser, who is neither a nurse nor a doctor. This is a notorious problem with work capability assessments under a welfare system constantly undergoing cuts and shake-ups by successive governments.

Both the Personal Independence Payment (which replaced the Disability Living Allowance in 2013 under the coalition) and Employment and Support Allowance (which replaced the Incapacity Benefit in 2007 under New Labour) have seen backlogs and delays in providing financial support to claimants, and work capability tests have repeatedly been under fire for being intrusive, inappropriate, or just wrong. Funding for those in the “work-related activity group” who claim ESA – in which you work if you are deemed able to during continual interviews with an adviser – also suffered a 30 per cent cut in last year’s budget.

Also, when people claiming ESA believe they have wrongly been found “fit for work” and appeal – as Blake does in the film – more than half of decisions are overturned when they reach a tribunal.

It’s a system that puts cost-cutting above people’s welfare; Jobcentre staff are even monitored individually in terms of how many sanctions they impose (Blake’s friend Katie is sanctioned in the film), making them feel as if they are working to targets.

The situation for disabled, sick or broke people claiming welfare is unbelievable in this country, which is perhaps why it’s so difficult for us – or for some watching Loach’s portrayal of the cruel system – to believe it at all. At best, it’s because we would prefer to close our eyes to a system that we hope we never have to grapple with. At worst, it’s because we don’t believe people when they say they cannot work, and demonise them as “shirkers” or “scroungers”.

By all means question Loach’s cinematic devices, but don’t question the point of telling the story at all – and the story itself. After all, it’s the very inability of people who rely on the state to have their voices heard that means they are always hit the hardest.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.