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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism