It is said that stars do not need scripts or mere stories to thoroughly inhabit a motion picture. Histories without language, or even thought, quiver behind their eyes. Their presence—ineffable, diaphanous, seductive—provides the audience a beacon to follow a prefabricated narrative to its only meaningful conclusion. Outside the realm of this splendid cosmology, movies that rely on actors and 'acting,' the common tools of theater, tend to miss the mark when these metaphysics come into play.
There are eyes that photograph as soulful, as opposed to merely expressive—allowing the onlooker a glimpse into the funnel end of eternity. Think Robert Mitchum and Humphrey Bogart, whose eyes invite inquiry into the unwritten histories behind them. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, great movie stars are constantly defenestrating their spirit essence right down the lens. Joan Crawford could scrub bathtubs by merely gazing at them. And that wonk-eyed Siamese sex cat, Karen Black, disturbed us with a revelation.
Eyes are pieces of your brain sprouted to the surface to have a look around, mere sensory devices that reflexively absorb visual data for their biological hosts. Terrestrial-based actors rely on them to signal their characters’ intent and motives. Stars, on the other hand, use them to simply erase what their thespian counterparts aspire to imitate.
Consider screen goddess Barbara Steele, whose famed peepers hint at the corrosive void that has replaced her soul. They offer a brief glimpse at the corrupted flesh beneath an unblemished alabaster encasement. Steele photographs like a glistening statue betrayed by all those who gaze upon it, as if some monument to classicism were startled into bitter sentience, or unwanted Keatsian fever. Her marble-white flesh remains an aesthetic plea for the proscenium arch's return to drama, and her columnar bearing and soaring height fused her to the monochrome of director Mario Bava's cursed pasteboard castles. This was the monster wrought by Italian genre horror: a theatrical form of the archaic. A wraith howling at a paper moon.
Steele was made to inhabit the precise screen persona crafted by necromancer Riccardo Freda in The Horrible Doctor Hitchcock: a subterranean passageway, falling off into shadow. A pale figure glows from the gloom. But her coal-black eyes offer a glimpse of another, darker pit. Actually green, they often appear unlit on film, at times evoking in Steele a slinky pneumatic tadpole.
Another beauty: eyes so blue they seem painted on, doll’s eyes in porcelain, only the mouth, naturally downturned, would not suit a toy—not one for children anyway. Her father told her she was ugly. As if suspecting the vampirism to which she would eventually succumb in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, the Vampyre, he banned mirrors from the house so she would have no way of checking. Perhaps this lack of assurance in her own astonishing beauty accounts for why Isabelle Adjani wears it so lightly.
Adjani might be the only mortal to ever really expose the fearful and infernal beast sometimes described as “the human condition.” In Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, her eyes concretize absence as they harden into lapis stones, an angry gaggle of archetypes shoots through them. A dank, garbage-strewn subway tunnel serves as a fitting backdrop to a solitary ritual to excise the human shell from its demonic tenants within.
Eyes are squidgy and vulnerable, which we try not to think about, but when they grow a little too large they remind us of their jelly-fish nature, beaming amphibious opportunism from Peter Lorre. Or the anguish of seeing nullity, out of which Montgomery Clift made a career. Going hairless in Mad Love (1935), Lorre turned his whole head into an eyeball, like one of The Residents, his actual eyes staring fixedly from it like little brothers. If Georges Bataille's pornographic masterpiece The Story of the Eye could be transmuted, its words made flesh, the mere presence of Lorre would give us, in a single figure, the book's weird flux of biological motifs: eggs/testicles/eyes. A living metaphor.
Hollywood has taken avant-garde notions beyond metaphor. Beyond the bounds of routine physics the star is an eye projecting dark matter instead of light.
Additional writing by Jennifer Matsui, David Cairns, and Tom Sutpen