The Silent Film Star Remembers a World Where Faces Mattered
Her forte is the eyelash flutter, her cupid bow’s mouth open in surprise while her leading man sweeps her off her feet, pulls her in close for a kiss. Everyone agrees she is better than all the rest. She has it, that special something, bright lights haloing her. The directors swoop in, begging her to work for them. Flower bouquets and fan mail piles up in her dressing room. She develops a scrolly signature, one she can complete without lifting her hand off the page. Her suitors learn fast, know she’ll kick them to the curb if they’re not ready to help her put on her coat once it’s time to leave.
Mostly, she adores her audience. Of course, there are always the ones who go too far: the besotted men who imprint their lips on the inside of her wrists. Then there’s the young women, the ones who sneak into her dressing room, pretending to be her daughter or her niece. They like to sit in her chair, settle her mink coat around their shoulders, wrap her fox stole around their throats, spritz her signature perfume on their wrists, flowers crushed against them as they gaze at their reflections in her dressing room mirror. As if by playing pretend, they can shed their ordinary human skin and become her. When caught, their gazes are never remorseful but openly defiant, as if they are saying, you did it. Why can’t I?
They don’t notice how she always carries a handkerchief, muffling a cough that won’t go away. Soon, however, a threat more dangerous than her adoring fans or failing health comes: the talkies. She’s all wrong for the part. During screen tests, her movements are too dramatic, her voice too soft. No one can hear her. They do not inhabit a world where faces mattered, when voices were like set design, when the actress herself was the main attraction. They do not appreciate the chiaroscuro of her face or the silky shine of her hair, her sinuous body, her eyes that are always luminous with half-spilled tears.
Her face, once always present in the newspapers, slowly disappears. She studies an old photograph of herself: the crimped smile, the small hand pressed against her hip, pearly nails gleaming.
She goes for walks late at night. She pretends she is on set and the people huddling in corners are actors. The street does not echo with a woman’s raucous laughter, the honk of a car horn, the insistent whisper of two lovers. The movements of their bodies and the arrangement of their faces becomes poetry that transcends sound.