What she could do with her face

14 September 2011

Gloria Swanson’s eyes were just so big, and her mouth so oddly small (it was the fashion in the 20s). When she made Sadie Thompson in 1928 she’s been acting nonstop for 14 years and yet was still only 29 years old.

America’s sweetheart, phooey — who wants to play an innocent over and over? Swanson got interesting parts like this one, as a former prostitute who runs off to an exotic island to start a new life. Based on a Somerset Maugham story — and there was no one better than Maugham at story twists — this film shows her at her sultry best.

Since I’m a recent convert to silent film, it’s hard for me to watch Swanson without thinking of her turn as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of the greatest films ever made. But you can’t help starting to think that Norma was right about the greatness of silent film, and that they really did have faces then.


5 Responses to “What she could do with her face”

  1. servetus Says:

    Such a contrast in our own days of lips plumped up via cosmetic surgery.

    • Didion Says:

      Isn’t it tragic? Especially when such amazing actors — Richard Armitage of course, but also Sigourney Weaver and Barbara Hershey (before her unfortunate lip-plumping incident) and others have such appealingly real-looking faces without the crazily Angelina-style excesses in lipdom. I remember ages ago (the 80s?) the comedian Sandra Bernhard said that she was mocked for her full lips. Now you can buy lip-plumping lipstick at Walgreen’s.

  2. servetus Says:

    I admit that I thought that Richard Armitage has really thin lips and gets a lot of mileage out of them. 🙂 But as you say, he’s not the only one.

  3. Hattie Says:

    My mother always said, “People used to have real faces in America.” They still do in Europe, as she observed.

    • Didion Says:

      I’m living in a very working-class town right now, and I feel like I see real faces all the time.

      It’s sort of like wine, right? All those wine ratings agencies have supposedly given such preference for middle-range, palatable wines that the unusual, challenging wines have become marginalized, pushed out of the buyer’s market. It seems the same with faces on screen: movies give preference to all those women who look pretty much like the Olsen twins, such that the more unusual and interesting faces don’t get much play. I was thinking the other day about all those thin-lipped women of the late 70s — Margot Kidder in Superman, Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark — and how women who looked like that would never get roles now.
      Karen Allen

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