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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump