Barbara Steele, the somewhat-reluctant queen of Italian Gothic horror.
There is, I submit, something we might call a PROFOUND FACE.
Barbara Steele was a graduate of the Rank Charm School, a sort of publicity gimmick/finishing school for movies stars. Armed with the kind of training perhaps more suited to a fashion model than an actor, she pitched up in Italy and appeared in Fellini’s OTTO E MEZZO, as well as a slew of horror films, including Mario Bava’s MASK OF SATAN, the film which really inaugurated this period of Italian horror cinema.
While Fellini was clearly particular about the kind of performances he manipulated and constructed from the raw material of his actors, some of these horror directors were perhaps less scrupulous, less concerned with anything outside the purely visual-aural design of their films and the scarifying effects produced, so the actors were treated purely as elements of mise-en-scene.
Is Barbara Steele a great actress? I would say probably not, though she can be a very good one. But she is undoubtedly a GREAT FACE (and age cannot wither her), which means not just pretty or striking, but iconic. She has the kind of face that haunts cinema, with those massive eyes that are just as good for looking into as for looking out of. A profound face is one which can amplify the emotion of a scene even when it appears to be doing nothing, perhaps by reflecting back the audience’s feelings.
It’s a great injustice, but some players simply don’t have an interesting essence on the screen: they can appear before a camera and think about their dead dog, and though genuine emotions may be rampaging around inside them, nothing photographs. The same emotion that lies across Josh Hartnett’s face like an expired trout will come shooting from Oliver Reed’s laser-beam eyes, down the barrel of the lens and into any receptive audience member. But in addition to this sense of life in the eyes, there is the amplifying effect that a Great Face, acting purely as a sculptural construction, can have on the emotion shared by actor and viewer.
In very lucky instances, a Profound Face can find itself attached to the skull of a truly great actor:
Lillian Gish helped to change screen acting forever. D.W. Griffith found in her an ideal performer to develop the more controlled style of playing he began to favour early in his directing career. Many things come together in Gish: an ability to make a small movement of the face or body read as massively significant, when viewed against a still canvas; an ability to psyche herself up into a state of real hysteria (to the extent that one reporter lost his lunch after witnessing Griffith shoot the climax of BROKEN BLOSSOMS); an ability to use the earlier, more gestural style of silent cinema acting while infusing it with psychological conviction*; and an ability to just stand there and give great face (to use the vulgar parlance or our times).
Of course it’s impossible to separate out entirely that essence that lurks in the eyes, the skills of the performer, and the power that a striking face carries in its contours.
It’s a very mysterious area, this, and if I’m not doing a very good job of shedding light on it, hopefully it’s only 10% because I’m an idiot and 90% because explaining this is like explaining love.
I had the pleasure of nearly working with Lara Belmont once. She had just done Tim Roth’s THE WAR ZONE, which was much-hyped in the biz, and the word was that casting her in our film could help us get the backing, so I was under a certain amount of pressure to like her. I met her and DID like her. She liked our script and the notes she gave me on her character were very intelligent, if practically illiterate from a strict grammar and spelling point of view. Only then did I see THE WAR ZONE.
She looked fantastic onscreen. Her seemingly lidless eyes hooked you into a scene, and you could read great depths of thought behind them. Her steep wall of forehead and impossible four-dimensional lips made her fascinating and surprising from every angle.
All this was somewhat dissipated whenever she parted those lips to give utterance. A newcomer to acting, Lara hadn’t really any facility with lines, which tended to sound like lines when she spoke them. I later heard that Roth and crew had sometimes filmed rehearsals, without telling her, in an attempt to capture the freshness and spontaneity that would vanish when she was self-conscious. I wasn’t convinced this had worked.
Anyway, whore that I am, I offered her the part. I was hoping that the experience of doing Roth’s film, and the confidence she must have gained from the (to me, somewhat inexplicable) rave reviews, would help her out. Knowing how great she was considered purely as a compositional element, and knowing that she was both smart and extremely dedicated (she burned her body with a cigarette lighter during one scene of THE WAR ZONE, something I had no intention of asking her to do), I had some hope that her difficulties with dialogue-speaking could be overcome. I was gambling with both of our reputations, though.
Anyway, Lara’s agent ultimately persuaded her to do a different film instead (“a piece of nonsense”) and our project lumbered on for a few years before dying a natural death. So I never found out if our film could have sailed to glory on Lara’s amazing face. I’d still love to get her in front of my camera though: whether or not I succeeded in getting the best from her as an actor, no film with those features gracing it could ever be entirely ordinary.
*My maternal grandmother saw BROKEN BLOSSOMS on its re-release in the early sound era, by which time both the melodramatic story and performances seemed ridiculous to somebody steeped in the cinematic fashions of 1930. Decades had to pass before the film could be seen without considerations of dated-ness: to us, it is not the product of some obsolete trend, it’s an alien artifact, from an utterly foreign culture which we can nevertheless understand perfectly thanks to our shared humanity.