Previously, I wrote a five favorites column about my five favorite male face objects. Today, I turn to the ladies and examine my five favorite female face objects. And as a reminder, I am again using the criteria that Roland Barthes used in describing Greta Garbo in his classic essay, The Face of Garbo. These are not necessarily my favorite actresses; Jodie Foster would have appeared near the top of any list of my favorite or best actresses, yet, in my opinion, she does not quite have that magical cinematic face that the women listed below possess. Again, this list encompasses those women who I believe have that inexpressible quality that allows their face, once in front of the camera, to enter a realm between technology and magic. Without any further ado, my five favorite female face objects.
Greta Garbo: I am aware Barthes already wrote about her, but there was a good reason he did: he correctly identified the unquantifiably glorious quality of her face on camera. I cannot remember anything else about Garbo other than her face. To my recollection, no other physical characteristics seemed worth filming. Either the camera or our eyes always gravitate to that face, which in Barthes’s words “offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature.” Below is the famous last scene from Queen Christina (1933). Garbo, who began her cinematic career in silent film, knows how to communicate without words. She is utterly dazzling.
Cate Blanchett: My favorite contemporary actress, Blanchett also possesses a face that magically draws the camera and our eyes. Her face has a certain slenderness that plays off of shadows and light. Wide ranging directorial talents spanning from Peter Jackson to Martin Scorsese have used Blanchett’s face to illuminate their films. In The Aviator (2004), she captures Hepburn not so much with her voice as she does with her cheeks and mouth. And despite its slenderness, her face can immediately occupy the whole screen. I loved looking at Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007); her performance was a wonderful deconstruction of gendered binaries. She needs to be filmed in black and white more often. Check out the clip from I’m Not There. Her reflection in the car window is amazing.
Julia Roberts: Out of all the actresses on this list, Roberts was the last one to be included. I am not a particular fan of her or her films, and there are many actresses whom I would rather watch in a film. However, few have her natural charm or charisma. Her smile sparkles and pops, and her eyes and mouth can project a tremendous depth even in rather average films such as Closer (2004) and Eat Pray Love (2010). Much like Blanchett, the savvy director knows that long closeups on her face can produce more impactful cinema than many of the lines that Roberts has to deliver. Below is my favorite scene from Closer. I love watching Roberts’s eyes communicate her feelings.
Gong Li: When I was in high school and college, I would always gravitate to the foreign film sections of Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, or local film rental places (all of which, by the way, are now history). For reasons beyond my knowledge, such rental places would always have Chinese director Yimou Zhang’s films: Red Sorghum,(1988) To Live (1994), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Ju Dou (1990), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), and Shanghai Triad (1995). And in each of these films, Gong Li would be cast. Zhang has a wonderful eye for color and cinematography, and he adeptly utilized Li’s mesmerizing face to wonderful effect. Below is a Li monologue from Raise the Red Lantern.
Brigitte Helm: I admit that I am including Helm here based only on one film: Metropolis (1927). I make no apologies. Her iconic, devilish wink will continue to haunt film montage segments for generations to come. In Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, she had to play a variety of characters, and for each one she was able to adjust eyes and mouth just so. In the end, each character had its own distinctive beauty.
To add more fodder for discussion, actresses that were just outside my five favorite female face objects include Jodi Foster (of course), Barbara Stanwyck, and Julie Christie. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.