On Corporeality

The first real “film criticism” paper I ever wrote was in July 2009, a month before my 17th birthday. I wrote about the tropes of “hero” and “villain” in The Dark Knight (2008) and how the lines between those roles are blurred. My writing style had only begun to take shape at that age, but the second-to-last paragraph – the most personal part of the essay – remains special for me.

“There is one scene in The Dark Knight that has moved me every time I have watched the film (three times). It is the scene between the Joker and Harvey (now “Two-Face”) in the evacuated Gotham General Hospital. After the Joker sits down next to Harvey’s bed, he pulls off the red wig and musses up his pulled-back hair and all of a sudden the Joker’s very human arms and hands, free of makeup, are on display. Even though his hands and forearms are visible at earlier points in the film (and in the scene set during Commissioner Loeb’s funereal parade, the Joker is briefly seen without any facial makeup), this time, the unblemished skin of the actor/character forces me to think about the cruel reality of Heath Ledger’s death. This was not an effect planned by the film-makers, of course, but it is film intersecting with real life and that is always something that happens. So easy is it to get carried away by the Grand Guignol spirit of the film, that it comes as a jolt to realize that there is a living, breathing human being underneath the cosmetics and outlandish costumes. We forget that the actor-as-Joker is flesh and blood and bone, a real person with thoughts and feelings who is also able to hide all that and convince us that his imaginary character is “real.” He is only acting, but damned if he hasn’t reeled us in and taken us for all we’ve got. It is perhaps the most poignant scene in the entire film, seeing the strong-looking arms of one whose life was ended far too early.”

I found myself thinking of that paragraph late last night when I caught a bit of Flawless (1999) on TV. Although I first saw the film just a few short months ago, I found myself thinking of the Dark Knight essay.

There is a scene early on in the film when Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a female impersonator, is getting dressed in drag. There is a feeling similar to seeing Heath Ledger’s arms when Flawless shows Hoffman pulling himself into a dress, seeing all the freckles on his back. (If you pick up the latest copy of Rolling Stone, freckles are apparent there too.) It’s so easy to lose perspective on a person when he is the subject of an endless number of cover stories, editorials and blog posts, a surreal media onslaught. Those freckles remind you: there’s a human being underneath the aura of celebrity.

Flawless is not, I have to say, a flawless film, but Hoffman always demands your attention. The above clip is one of my favorite moments in the film. Sometimes movies are worth watching just for the way an actor can inhabit a character, regardless of issues with the script. The actor blends with the character in such a way that you are still drawn to him.


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