With Frank currently in cinemas, it seems some actors thrive off the restrictions of wearing a mask on-screen.
The greatest film travesty since Tom Hanks decided Cloud Atlas was a good career choice has happened: for the duration of his new film, Frank, Michael Fassbender’s stunning face is covered by a giant plaster cast head. It could be the perennial joke that will cling to the rest of Fassbender’s career or, more likely, it will mark an incredibly brave moment in what is already a bold and impressive body of work. Going behind a mask is a daring move. It automatically removes a key weapon from an actor’s armoury: their face and the expressions and emotions that this dermatological canvas conveys so powerfully.
Fassbender’s role in Frank gives him an opportunity to step out of his own shadow and explore something completely different
When actors are restricted by physical barriers like masks or disguised by heavy prosthetics, this creates issues that the artist is responsible for overcoming. The audience has difficulty in connecting with a character whose appearance is partially if not completely concealed. Like trying to make eye contact with someone wearing sunglasses, there is an obstruction which threatens to diminish the strength and realism of the performance. This is especially true when it is such an obvious prop rather than a physical impairment. A mask is a totally immobile and frozen object, devoid of all human emotion and articulation.
Then again, acting is all about pretence. To fully embody a character, it is surely necessary to disappear at least in part from yourself. Concealing their face and body behind masks and prosthetics is a guaranteed way for the actor and audience to dissociate fictional character from reality. Whether hidden behind a gas mask or beyond all recognition from disfigurements, an actor is automatically separated from any preconceptions, good or bad, that are attached to them. Tom Hardy was able to make Bane entirely his own creation, and his mask was a device in attacking his role. For Fassbender, who tends to be typecast as a brooding baddie, his role in Frank presents him with a unique opportunity to step out of this shadow and explore something completely different.
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Edward Norton has established himself as such a superb actor that there is almost an expectation of excellence attached to his performances. Going incognito, he was able to add another string to his incredibly talented bow with his performance as the masked King Baldwin in Kingdom of Heaven. It could be argued that his understated and moving performance was the only saving grace for a rather forgettable film. Hugo Weaving similarly knows how to work with a restriction – despite between trapped behind a garish Guy Fawkes mask and wig, he is mesmerising in V for Vendetta. Although he never reveals a morsel of skin, he is a character that the audience believes in and cheers on.
Having lost their main resource, actors in these restricted roles are forced to become even more creative, dynamic and subtle
Such a performance demonstrates that an actor does not have to be visible in order for their talent to shine through. Nonetheless, if the actor’s face is completely shrouded, then there is no reason why they can’t spend the whole time with an expression as bored as Kirsten Stewart attempting to smile. But it has to be said that this is rarely the case. Having lost their main resource, actors in these restricted roles are forced to become even more creative, dynamic and subtle in order to be able to make an inanimate object like a mask as emotive as the human face. Although he only has the one frozen expression, V is perpetually expressive and Weaving successfully breaks through the obstacles.
Concealment adds an extra dimension to a character’s complexity and often evokes an immediate reaction from the audience, whether it be sympathy, horror or perplexity. When the Elephant Man first appeared on the screen in David Lynch’s film of the same name, you can guarantee there were several gasps at John Hurt’s drastically altered appearance. And it is doubtful that Gary Oldman has ever been considered quite as repugnant as he is in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal. Yet, while playing a character with some kind of physical restriction may gain initial admiration from an audience as a bold decision, if the performance is as lifeless as the mask that shields the actor, then no one is going to remain impressed. The mask does not determine the performance, but merely provides an additional layer of intrigue and ingenuity to a role.
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Featured image: Magnolia Pictures
Inset image: Warner Bros