President Abraham Lincoln had a tiresome horde of strangers flocking to the White House seeking a job. Of course he had to reject nearly all of them, as there were few openings. Once, when someone asked Lincoln why he had rejected a certain man, Honest Abe replied, “Because I didn’t like his face.”
“But a man can’t help his face!”
Not so. Lincoln explained that we are all responsible for our faces by middle age.
The story has stuck in my mind. As a writer, I try to know something about faces, as an actor does. I agree with Lincoln: My belief is that while the very old and very young may look alike, the folks in between have a muscle memory of many years that comes to shape their faces, or at least their expressions. Some folks frown easily; some smile at the drop of a hat. Some have some stiffness around their eyes, like the worldly characters and near-criminals in a Doonesbury cartoon, with their stiffness indicated by black shading. I suppose folks growing up in an abusive Mafia family would have only a few basic expressions ingrained.
Can a “drop of a hat” easy expression be changed? I have never tried, but I would think so. I remember a man from Arrette Comedy Troupe telling me he got really burning cheeks as he became able to droop his mustache. He looked so funny. I remember a dancer from Up With People answering me that it had only taken one season to be able to raise her leg to shoulder height as she danced. I liked how she had dedication to her dance craft. The best always do.
As a writer, I know that for our craft of using words, the best of us can rattle off grammar terms and the titles of books to learn from—books they have read. For actors, where their body is their instrument, the best can touch their toes and control their faces. I remember being taken out of a movie when Jodie Foster, in two seconds, rapidly put her facial muscles through a range that her character wouldn’t have—but I don’t think anybody else noticed. This was for a splendid scene in Elysium where she is being triumphant and pleased and forceful and predatory.
I wouldn’t want anyone to be over-conscious of her face, but I think it’s good to have some awareness. As Dale Carnegie might say, when his wife mentioned wanting a fur coat, “The expression on a woman’s face shines brighter than the clothes on her back.” And then immediately buy her the coat!
You may have already guessed what this week’s poem is:
by E. J. Pratt
It took the sea a thousand years,
A thousand years to trace
The granite features of this cliff
In crag and scarp and base.
It took the sea an hour one night,
An hour of storm to place
The sculpture of these granite seams
Upon a woman’s face.
~For the past month my most popular post by hit count, to my surprise, is Fears of Elysium, an essay built around the Matt Damon and Jody Foster movie. (Archived June 2013) No one has commented about why they like it. Blogger and writer Steven Pressfield, upon starting his blog, noted that a post with a thousand hits would get only two or three comments. My Elysium piece, with well under a thousand hits, has no comments, I have no idea why it would be “the post of the month.”
~The dark around the comic strip character’s eyes is not just so they can hide: The stiffness might be more accurately described as due to a dark signal delay—They have to process before they react. See my essay Sarcasm and Lies archived August 2010.