In Film, the Political Is the Personal

Time for Your Close-Up

A reporter once asked Tyrone Power if he thought his next movie would be a hit.  “That depends,” Power replied, pointing to his face, “on how many close-ups of this make the final cut.”

Another case of celebrity vanity?  Perhaps, but I prefer to think Power was on to something essential about the nature of film.  Take a face, virtually any face, and project it seven-feet high by five-wide on a theater screen, and you instantly confer iconic power on its owner, however ordinary looking—and Power’s puss was far from ordinary.  But consider a couple of less camera-friendly mugs.  No one could have predicted that the face of Robert Mitchum or of Betty Davis would become instantly recognizable staples of our popular culture, but both did.  Why?  Their indelible close-ups.  When it came to the otherworldly beauty of Ava Gardner and Cary Grant, the iconic effect was utterly devastating.  Which is especially remarkable, since neither Gardner nor Grant would likely have had a chance in theater.  Their thespian range was, to be charitable, limited.  On-screen in close-up, however, they were irresistible.

The Tyrone Power anecdote came back to me unsummoned as I began writing on the politics of film.  I had been jotting down the usual thoughts that arise whenever film and politics are mentioned in the same breath.  Film is a mass...

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