Unmasking FACE/OFF

Actor Noah Segan on the major acting of FACE/OFF.

There is a reason that “thespian” rhymes with “lesbian.” They are two of the awesomest things to be. That’s a broad generalization for the sake of a solid pun. So’s that and this. While ladies who lunch on other ladies are an accessible, diverse and inclusive group, actors are mercurial, testy and often completely nuts. There is nary a marginalized, specific community so wildly unknown and unknowable as The Actor. Even their goal, that rote, clichéd concept of “motivation” is hard to articulate. Are they looking for upmost sincerity and believability? Does an actor have their own agenda, a feeling or concept that they want to express beyond what’s in the script? Maybe some of the better ones have an uncanny ability to understand the tone and vision of their material and adjust accordingly. Also, we call lady thespians “actors” because you wouldn’t call a lady cop an “officer-ess.” Interestingly, we also call lady lesbians “lesbians.” There are no coincidences, Dear Reader.

Full disclosure: The first step is admitting it. In smoke-filled rooms with styrofoam coffee cups, we sit in a circle on public-school Formica desks and folding chairs. We rise up, one-by-one and clear our throats. Everyone has to say the same thing and I’m no different. I’m anxious every time I have to face the crowd and announce, “I’m Noah, and I’m an actor.” We stick together, and we respect one another, no matter how disparate and desperate we are. Good actors and good filmmakers dote on each other, and this ode is no exception.

Yo, doggg, I heard you like actors so I put these actors in actors with other actors. Face/Off is a rare insight into how actors actually do their job, and a distillation of why it matters. It is a perfect storm of filmmaking that illustrates the machinations of where they fit into cinematic grammar. In the benevolent dictatorship of cinema, the director sits at the top of a trickle-down economy of creativity. It’s Reaganomics in effect. A guy like John Woo has permanently influenced the language of cinema, specifically through his visual aesthetic, his slow-motion fights, his evolution of the pot-boiling crime genre. He created a microcosm of effect through his work in Asia and rose to a global, mainstream scale by making films in Hollywood. He took tropes that had been set up by Western writers and filmmakers to birth the noir and detective movements, filtered them through his own cultural lens and then offered them back to the West, which in turn added them to the vocabulary. With great successes, by his third English-language film, he had the luxury to access big budgets, high concept material and top-tier talent.

In 1997, John Travolta and Nic Cage weren’t the biggest movie stars in the world, nor the engrained caricatures we consider them today. Travolta had been a sex symbol and teen idol. It was only a couple of years earlier that he reignited his career through Pulp Fiction, which has become his most iconic role. He had been welcomed back into the zeitgeist for a great reason, since Tarantino’s film only added to Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Welcome Back, Kotter in illustrating that he has the ability to become part of our collective cultural consciousness. Cage had spent the better part of the last two decades establishing himself as a very rare actor, someone who could play the lead role in a film with the specificity and idiosyncrasy usually reserved for smaller roles. He was a “character actor” who starred in films, and it bode well for filmmakers with the confidence to commit to their protagonist being so unique, folks like the Coen Brothers, David Lynch and Uncle Frank. He’d won an Oscar for the extremely dramatic, naturalistic Leaving Las Vegas and promptly committed his hyperbole to action films like The Rock and Con Air. Even with such variety and prolificness, he never sacrificed the creation of characters that were so inexplicably iconoclastic they often confused and galvanized audiences.

At the time, Travolta, Cage and Woo were all firmly ensconced in a career trajectory that could ascend to the place of collaborators like Bay, Cruise or Willis, but not quite there in terms of sheer box office power. They were, however, already iconic, part of the aforementioned collective consciousness. Those looks, camera angles, editing choices, voices and ticks were identifiable and intrinsic to the success of the film. Not only were two actors playing individual characters and trading off, but they were using each other’s personalities, histories and physicality to do so. As if to punctuate the theatrical, Kabuki-meets-Greek Tragedy concept of switching bodies, the audience gets hints that we are reading a love-letter to the magic of transformation. In the first big action piece, Travolta’s Federal Agent lands a helicopter on Cage’s Terrorist getaway plane, a symbiotic, sexual bump-and-grind. Pinocchio’s theme song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” plays during a big battle, as if to suggest that our lead characters aren’t real boys, just puppets. Elaborate set pieces end up home to phenomenal action scenes that do a poor job of hiding wires, rigging and stunt doubles. That doesn’t detract from the film. It supports what Travolta and Cage are doing, showing us the process, the wizards behind the curtain.

The care and feeding of an actor is a complicated endeavor. While they don’t eat much, they require basically all of your attention, unconditional love and a ton of money and/or gifts. They are often ornery, revisionist and reactionary, until they lean on whatever bohemian excuse they can muster to get their way. In reciprocity, they’ll give you something pretty to look at, maybe a dose of truth couched in humor or drama. As you consider the commitment to your actors, consider that you’ll never truly understand them, as they are constantly in flux; it’s their nature. Only through rare exceptions, Face/Off being one, will you get some insight, a guide to just how special their skill and talent are. As they hide behind their costumes and accents, their characters, be grateful for Face/Off, eschewing all the subversiveness for an unabashed, obvious illustration of their process. Dry clean only.

This was originally published in the March issue of Birth.Movies.Death.  Face/Off screens at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.