Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Foreheads: Bruce Willis and Robert de Niro (Plus a Bonus Cameo)

OK, let’s talk about some dramatic examples of the impact of this whole forehead theory. But first, let me explain something which it struck me might not be intuitively obvious: most of the muscles we can consciously control connect internal structures of the body – bone to bone. The muscles of the face are different. They connect bone to skin. When we make expressions, our muscles are pulling directly on the skin of our faces.

I’m glad I could clear that up for you.

Now let’s take the happy case of Bruce Willis. He’s got a forehead of gold. Age adds character to foreheads. In Bruce Willis’s case, he’s gotten lucky in terms of skin structure. What do I mean?

The skin on his forehead is fairly thin and tight. This means that he doesn’t show much bumpy folding when he tenses his frontalis muscles. He can do it when he wants to. He just doesn’t do it without really intending to. Moreover, the thinness of his forehead skin means that when he tenses his corrugator muscles, he gets all kinds of interesting sharp furrows between his brows.

When he was young, his comparatively smooth forehead contributed to the impression that he was a callow actor. Consider him being threatened by arch-terrorist Alan Rickman in Die Hard:

Yeah, I look really tense.

Here too. Tense, but also interested. And tense.

However, as he’s gotten older, he’s finally started showing some structure to his forehead, and to his credit, he has understood its expressive power. Here he is in Hostage:

As you can see, there is virtually no tightening of the frontalis. However, the corrugator is tense, producing the furrowing of the brow that works so well for him. He doesn’t have to overplay scenes where he’s upset: his brow brings all the punch he needs to a below-the-brows expression of distress. He seems to understand this, at least intuitively, because for the past ten years or so, he’s been playing up the pathos very successfully in scenes where somebody’s got the drop on him and he’s afraid and upset and humiliated.

It’s important to note – the corrugator isn’t only good for expressing distress. Check out Bruce doing anger and focus:

He’s tensed the muscles under his eyes, and the muscles in his cheeks, and his friend the corrugator. Look at those complex lines between his eyebrows. He doesn’t need to raise his voice, he hardly needs to talk at all. His forehead can do most of the emoting for him. He knows this, and he uses it.

But that’s not where Lucky Bruce’s luck ends. He’s got something else going for him: a strangely shaped frontalis. Take a look. This is from Hostage again (there is a reason he's naked, which we need not discuss here):

What’s happening in this picture? The corrugator is relaxed, but the frontalis is starting to show some flex. Why is his forehead still relatively smooth? Because when he flexes his frontalis, it tends to produce folding on the outer edges of his forehead. You see that little bump of light on the right above his eyebrow? That’s the base of the axis of his normal frontalis flexing.

The outcome of this is that he can flex his frontalis and produce a line of deepened folds rising from the outer edges of his eyebrows, without the center of his forehead folding. The emotional impact of the frontalis contraction is transmitted, without the extremity of the entire forehead wrinkling up. This makes a huge difference when your closeup is 14 feet tall. It means he can go on marginally underplaying scenes of emotional intensity, and come off perfectly pitched in the footage.

I couldn’t find a still of it on the Web – and boy did I look – but he uses this ability to fantastic effect in the final shootout of Hostage. When he shoots the last bad guy (if you rent it, you’ll know which shooting it is), he maintains that flat-affect below-the-eyebrows expression. His eyes widen only slightly. But his frontalis is fully contracted along that outer axis. A column of lines rises up the outer edges of his forehead. You get the impression of a state near to panic and emotional chaos – without an ounce of scenery-chewing.

That’s how Mr. Willis is so lucky. That, and he’s a smart enough actor to take roles that fit the optimum use of his face.

Now let’s look at the reverse case: Robert de Niro. Here he is asking if you’re talking to him:

You know the scene. Look at those forehead wrinkles – the corrugator is relaxed, but the frontalis is raising the eyebrows and folding the forehead. The forehead is a series of pronounced ripples. It works great as a maximal emotional state. Sadly, de Niro is 31 or 32 in this picture. How do you think that’s going to go for him thirty years later?

Not so hot. This is some candid shot of the man, presumably not in a state of any emotional intensity at all. But he’s got distinct horizontal furrowing, as if his frontalis were tensed, and vertical furrowing between his brows, as if his corrugator were tensed. That’s his neutral expression. He can no longer keep from expressing a particular set of emotions, whether he’s feeling them or not.

But he also doesn’t respect that this is a physical parameter he has to work with as an actor. Here’s a still from Righteous Kill:

What the hell is he looking at? I don’t know. I skipped the movie, cuz you know what, life is short. But holy moly, I’m gonna guess from that frontalis action that what he is looking at is just about the most disgusting thing a human being has seen since they were lancing bubos in London in 1351.

What we’re looking at is the physical substrate of a bad case of late-career overacting. It’s so severe that many of his roles are now designed around the buffoonish extremity he cannot help putting into his work:

Yeah, that’s from Analyze This. He’s doing stuff with his frontalis, his corrugator, and everything else he’s got. It’s a comedy – that face is a cartoon face.

But look, Maidman, you might say, what’s the poor man to do? He’s got genes for a very foldy forehead. Well, that’s a pretty good point. But it doesn’t have to get in the way of his acting. You know who had very similar forehead structure as he got older, and didn’t ham it up with what nature gave him? Marlon Brando, that’s who.

As a young man, we see him achieving a reasonable maximal forehead folding in an intense scene, in Streetcar (1951):

Clearly age is going to take him down the same bumpy-forehead road de Niro has traveled. And so it did. Here are a couple shots of him from The Godfather, when his neutral-expression forehead structure was already emergent:

Really study that second image, small and crappy though it is. His frontalis is contracted there, his corrugator is partly tensed, and he’s got the same field of bulging ridges that de Niro has. Are you getting the sense that this is a parodic scene? Overplayed? Of course not. Brando is compensating – his cheeks are slack and his eyes are half-closed. By instinct, by training, by looking in the mirror a lot – whatever it is, Brando knows how to recalibrate his younger acting technique to match the instrument he’s working with in middle age. That’s 1972 you’re looking at. Let’s jump foreward to 1990:

That’s from The Freshman, a movie where he played a character who was a parody of Don Corleone. At this point, he can do absolutely nothing about the complex structure of his forehead. So what’s he doing with the muscles in it? Next to nothing. In his very late films, he shows virtually no muscle activity on his forehead at all. What he permits himself to show is quite enough to convey all the emotional changes his characters are going through. In Don Juan de Marco and The Island of Dr. Moreau, he frequently wears a bandana or hat, eliminating the problem altogether. He has a deep understanding of the use of his changed face as an acting tool.

This concludes my series of posts on foreheads. I hope this analysis of actors strikes you as useful, even though you are painters or painting enthusiasts. As figurative painters, we are trying to understand how to convey states of character and emotion through faces. Actors are after the same thing. I think we have a lot to learn from their successes and failures, and the reasons for their successes and failures.

Two last things:

1. I was looking at a lot of mediocre baroque paintings today, and I realized I spoke too soon before. A lot of painters have shown a lot of complex foreheads. They just didn’t do it very well.

2. Robert de Niro, if you ever wind up reading this, please don’t take offence. I think you’re an incredible actor, and I hope my discussion of the physical aspect of your acting is more useful to you than it is insulting.


  1. Thanks, Daniel. I never really thought so much about foreheads before.

  2. Also consider that his increasingly comic face is the reason why he's been taking more and more comedic roles in his old age. I don't remember De Niro doing much of that in the 70s and 80s. De Niro deserves credit for that, and the fact that he's pretty funny.

  3. Chris - That's a good point. I hadn't thought of that before, that de Niro's accommodation is coming not in the form of changing his acting style, but rather in actively seeking material that matches how his style now plays. I agree as well - his comic timing is very good. I'm still not going to watch "Righteous Kill" though.

    1. Your all a bunch of douche bags

    2. I'm kind of hoping you're De Niro; I've wanted to apologize directly for this post for a long time. Of course, if you're not De Niro - who are you?