Simon Cowell Fake-Smiles While Susan Boyle Sings
April 15, 2009 12 Comments
Talking about wish-fulfillment and how movies model response, I want to spend a moment on Britain’s Got Talent and the way they packaged Susan Boyle.
It pains me—truly—to bring cynicism to her triumph, but it doesn’t tarnish her accomplishment any to point out the fakery around her. She was the only genuine thing in the room. And the exhaustingly teeth-whitened, hyper-coiffed, fish-eyed panel of judges—not to mention the exuberant clowns pointing at the camera screaming “You didn’t expect that, did you?”—were her foil.
The video of her triumph, clearly modeled on a hundred underdog movies, is packed with reaction shots. Our response is constantly modeled for us, first by the crowd, then by the blond judge, then Piers. And then comes the climax: Simon Cowell, elbows on the table, hands holding his head. Like a child, gazing raptly, apparently entranced. Then, suddenly—and not for any obviously musical reason—his expression of total absorption gives way to a blinding smile.
To give credit where credit’s due: it was a fine idea. Oh, we were meant to think. Look at how even this, the harshest of all critics, is moved! It’s that sublime moment in films when true merit and real desert win over the antihero’s chief rival.
Except that Simon Cowell is a godawful actor, and no one who has ever been really moved by a piece of music has let a smile spread slowly, theatrically, across his or her face. Faces do weird things when they’re moved. They contort and wriggle. They tear up and flush. My father watched this video today. He gulped back sobs. His chin trembled. It was inelegant.
For someone who judges performances, Simon might—if he insists on stage-managing this sort of narrative—spend a minute or two working on his own. Paul Ekman, the facial-muscles microexpression analyst, could use him as a case study. And in this case it was sheer bad taste. It was embarrassing. It was actually offensive, in that it distracted from a moment that should not have relied on his response.
Which brings me to my next point: while it’s brilliant for the show to grab her story and behave like it “discovered” her—creating the impression that she existed in a hamlet for decades, unappreciated and unknown—she’s clearly a trained singer. You don’t manufacture that kind of polish on unkissed middle-aged gumption and sass. Talk about myths of instant mastery! This is the ultimate reduction of years of effort.
Here’s what the “discipline”/training film version of Boyes’ life would be: hours upon hours practicing, perhaps performing in churches, honing, refining—knowing her life would likely remain a size small and finding satisfaction, not despair, in the solitary intimacy that a musician develops for her instrument—here, her voice. What if this BGT thing wasn’t the crowning moment of her life? What if it was just One More Thing?
That’s a movie I’d wanna see.
Lastly, I can’t have been the only one for whom this woman, even before she sang, offered something pure, a sheer visual relief. I’m not talking about aesthetics. I’m talking about her carriage, her insouciance, her self-consciousness and her deployment of it. She was so charming, so alive, so apparently unstudied and unsullied by the oppressively defined (and homogenized) features that are the work of Hollywood cosmetologists. She was a face! A delight.
And a much better performer than Simon. Mr. Cowell, next time you want us to believe in your transcendent moment, stop mugging long enough to have one.
PS–Speaking of makeup, what did you think of the “makeupless” and unPhotoshopped French Elle?