A few months back, during the highly successful James River Film Festival, I wrote a small piece about Robert Mitchum. Without cutting and pasting what I wrote in that post, I will here briefly summarize that I felt that Robert Mitchum met many of the requirements for the type of memorable and lasting cinematic face that Roland Barthes had circumscribed in his essay on Greta Garbo, “The Face of Garbo” (1957). The face object, to use Barthes’s term, does not necessarily correspond to pure acting ability or whether one looks good. Rather, the “face object” is that face which, when put in front of a lens, becomes something more than the face and can induce emotions and contemplations. To once again quote Barthes:
“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached or renounced. . . .
It it indeed an admirable face-object.”
To expand on this idea, I have compiled my five favorite actors (men) who I believe conform to Barthes’s thesis. (A “five favorite female face objects” post will appear in a few weeks.) Feel free to comment and add suggestions. Without further ado, my five favorite male face objects.
Robert Mitchum: I have already written about him, so I will not waste any more space except to reiterate that he looked great in black and white. Indeed, all but two of the men on my list had their most impressionable and lasting “face” moments captured by black and white cinema.
Clint Eastwood: Eastwood’s face parallels Mitchum’s in how it has aged over time. Eastwood may age, and his face may show the weathering of time, but his stoic, slender features still persist. One must also never forget his eyes, those piercing green eyes. From his first signature role as “The Man with No Name” in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) to Gran Torino (2008), Eastwood’s stare has transfixed audiences. (I also believe that much of how Eastwood has been captured on film by himself and other directors is a direct result of Leone’s insistence on the extended close-up shots that dominate his Westerns.)
Eastwood, unlike Mitchum, is a product of color cinema. His most iconic role, Dirty Harry, was often shot in bright, unfiltered sunlight, and rather than having his face bleached out, Eastwood’s face absorbs the light and brightens.
Toshiro Mifune: Almost every Mifune role I have ever seen was shot by the famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, so my impression of his face is seen through Kurosawa’s eyes. Of course, Kurosawa possessed great vision, and he enhanced the face of Mifune, who represents the iconic image of the samurai warrior. Mifune’s face had amazing elasticity. It could remain frozen and imposing, as it often is in High and Low (1963) and The Hidden Fortress (1958). Yet he could manipulate his eyes, lips, chin, and cheekbones to express humor, fear, and other maniacal energies. Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne of Blood (1957) are most memorable in this regard.
Sidney Poitier: Poitier is the polar opposite of Mitchum and Eastwood. While those two were able to remain gorgeous and imposing while still displaying all of the wear and tear of aging, Poitier seems to have defied time, at least on camera. I remember seeing Poitier in some rather mediocre fare in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but his face still looked as good as it did in his famous roles from The Defiant Ones (1958), Lilies of the Field (1963), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Time seems to stand still within the space between the camera and Poitier’s face.
I also cannot recall a more engaging smile than that of Poitier, and his smile was able to communicate much more than simple joy, although it was quite adept at doing just that.
Heath Ledger: Ledger is the most contemporary addition to my list, and I think time will judge his relatively short body of work kindly. Obviously, people are most familiar with his work as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). And while that make-up and paint could have been applied to anyone’s face, it is Ledger’s face that has made that image resonate. For a rather young man, Ledger’s face had a gritty maturity to it, which made him perfect in his role in Brokeback Mountain (2005). Yet it was not these two performances which led me to include Ledger here. Rather, his performances in his early films solidified his status as a Barthes-ian “face object.” Some of those late 1990s early 2000s films are slightly better than average, and others are miserable drek, with The Patriot (2000) being the primary example of the latter category. Yet in those films his face is still luminescent. Having his face framed by flowing locks of hair did not hurt.
Ledger became a hunk not through abs, tattoos, or huge pectoral muscles, but because, in a way, he, among all of the men listed here, is most Garbo-like. Barthes writes that “Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt . . . . she is always herself, and carries without pretence, under her crown or her wide-brimmed hats, the same snowy solitary face.” Re-arranges a few words and pronouns, and Barthes’s sentiment seems to define Ledger’s onscreen visage.