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Hollywood and Botox: Is the face being erased in our culture?

After I interviewed the actress Naomi Watts recently, nosy friends had many questions. Is she nice? (Yes.) Smart? (Yes.) Does her face move?

While wary of the sting of judgment in the question, I understand – and share – the fascination with the celebrity Botox era. And the answer is yes: On the day we met, Watts's 44-year-old face was beautiful, a little lined, and mobile. Said face's ability to move helps explain why Watts is so good in her upcoming film The Impossible, playing a mother caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Turns out a face that changes is useful when conveying misery.

It's extraordinary that it's now considered extraordinary for an actor's face to move. What this state of affairs says about oppressive beauty ideals is alarming enough, but what does it mean to the art of acting? So many Hollywood actors and actresses – some barely in their 30s – flash-freezing their faces seems to herald a return to the oldest school; actors are once again putting on the masks they wore in the Greek chorus.

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In a phone interview, Toronto casting director Stephanie Gorin tells me that the freezing reached its zenith about five years ago when her office saw a parade of non-moving foreheads, collagened lips and bad facelifts. "I remember one actress who was quite lovely and getting some good roles. I didn't see her for about a year, and when I saw her next, I didn't even recognize her. She was only 40."

Gorin says that many producers won't cast these actors, perhaps noticing that faces as inert as turtles' shells have about the same range of expression. It's no coincidence that the most revered actors appear to have done the least trickery: Meryl Streep, Frances McDormand, Helen Mirren – and men. Yes, Mickey Rourke looks alien, and Ben Stiller's a tad taut, but most serious actors don't mess with their most useful tool out of vanity, probably because they don't suffer the same expectation of glamour as their female counterparts. Daniel Day-Lewis just wouldn't do Lincoln with collagen lips.

A notable exception to the less-is-more rule is Nicole Kidman, one of the most prominent working actresses in film, despite the fact that her forehead has the texture of a baby tomato.

The problem for the art is one of authenticity, because a Hollywood face doesn't make sense in the real world where most characters live. When Kidman played a middle-class bereaved mother in Rabbit Hole, you expected a backstory about the character getting fillers between counselling sessions. (Wrote a critic in The Independent, echoing many reviews: "You still notice how little expression she gets into her face since the Botox-overload.") An actor who goes full Botox can no longer convincingly attempt an entire class of characters – normals and regulars. As Gorin says: "The women who have had a lot of work tend to get upscale roles."

But in what era? Watching Michelle Pfeiffer's L.A.-taut face in Belle Epoque Paris in the film Cheri was completely incongruous, like a robot butler suddenly popping up on Downton Abbey. Too much Botox leads to anachronism, creating a strange, off-putting mood. A face out of time gestures toward the uncanny and the grotesque.

Long-running TV series are the best evidence for the otherworldliness of injectables. Shows such as Desperate Housewives, Damages and CSI all lasted several seasons (the former two are cancelled), and many of the actresses grew more inert with the passing of each year, perhaps beholden to the unkindness of HD. The shows evolve, but the faces don't.

Maybe the rise of Botox will mean the end of naturalism in acting. Stanislavsky, the Russian theatre director whose System has been the inspiration for the dominant theories of American acting since the 1950s, railed against "the static." For him, the truth of a performance resided in physical actions that embody emotion. But when Ellen Barkin plays the matriarch in the TV sitcom The New Normal, there is no action. Her stilled face means the range of possible reactions is tiny; she can project only coldness.

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Jessica Lange, in the TV series American Horror Story, seems to know this, and she over-compensates, like a silent-screen actress who can't use her voice. She flaps and swings, making up for the fact that she can't move above the neck. It becomes camp: Charlie Chaplin in body, Charlie McCarthy in face.

The face matters. It pulls us in. A 1975 study in the Pediatrics journal showed that even a nine-minute-old baby prefers to look upon a face rather than a blank image. But maybe we're losing faces. Certainly, it's possible to see fewer and fewer of them in daily life; we interact through the fuzzy lens of Skype, and work remotely, having professional relationships with people we've never seen.

But we know what we are missing. It's why we go to the movies and watch TV – to connect, and revel in the human face that we're forgetting.

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