Sixteen: Hannibal, Scary Makeup, and Hiding in Plain Sight

“I like hiding. It’s always been a thing with me,” Gary Oldman said during a 2018 BAFTA interview. “I don’t want to be me.” It sounds a little depressing, but Oldman is pretty matter-of-fact about the sentiment. This is not unusual for actors who take craft seriously, but few seem to vanish into an entirely different type of human with the regularity that Oldman does. By the aughts, his professional reputation rested on his eagerness (or at least willingness) to play often extreme characters on an equally extreme scale of diversity. These were often back-to-back roles.

I kind of get it. It’s nice to go unnoticed, it’s probably even better to receive attention (in a role) while evading personal scrutiny. I haven’t been onstage since college (which wasn’t greaaat), but I imagine that there’s also a sense of self-satisfaction for a performer when they are rendered unrecognizable. But offstage, in life, hiding gets… trickier. The real-world application of that kind of vanishing act translates, at least to me, to adaptable performativity, which is something that I’m pretty sure everyone is guilty of to some extent. We like to call it “code-switching,” which is more or less behaving in a way appropriate for different crowds and settings.

How I feel after a long day of code-switching.

Like most people (I assume), I pick up slang, tics, and other isms from people I spend time with, but I was always weirdly wired for this, and I don’t really love that fact. It makes me feel disingenuous. When I was a kid, my mom liked to say that she could always tell which one of my friends I had been hanging out with because I’d return home mimicking them. When I was a teen, it became a more intentional habit– I’d actually watch people that I admired for one reason or other and try to replicate how they handled themselves. Now that I’m old(er), I’d much rather be myself, but adulthood requires sooo many more forms of performative behavior, and no matter how “real” one desires to be, there will be times where faking niceties, or enthusiasm, or even competence is non-negotiable. It’s hard to say what’s worse– feeling untrue to oneself, or when someone dares to call out your (my) performativity. It sucks to be exposed as a phony when you think of yourself as the opposite.

IT PUTS THE LOTION ON ITS SKIN or else it gets reallly dry thanks to all that makeup.

When adaptation is in tension with actual self like that, after awhile the prospect of hiding just sounds nice– just give yourself up and meld on into whatever the situation calls for; avoid personal accountability. Anyway, whatever it was that motivates Oldman to hide (and more speculation on that to come in future), Gary seemed to long for invisibility more than ever in the 2000’s, a decade that saw him committing to roles in some of his strangest films. Many of them required him to visually alter his appearance and physicality to a dramatic extent (along with his trademark tendency to play with accents and voices). Retrospectively, some critics have even commented that his work from this period almost comes off as self parody, that the challenges he took up were too distracting and the roles just too kooky. While I think this was probably a rough patch for Oldman, it’s maybe my favorite era to study, because I think he’s always giving 110%. Beyond that, I’m curious about how engaging in something (in this case, becoming someone) on the opposite spectrum affects how we perceive ourselves. Enter 2001’s Hannibal!

It always does, Gary.

Note: This post is part of an ongoing project, the goal of which is to watch and contemplate every movie in which actor Gary Oldman has appeared (there are many, the man likes to work). Posts tend to contain reviews but are not excluded to that sort of framework– much like Gary’s career, I’m wildly unpredictable!

As with all MYWG entries, the following will probably contain spoilers!

  • Hannibal’s ranking on the Oldometer: 3/10
  • Gary Oldman character quality: Mason Verger is real freaky, but it’s hard to look away, especially when Oldman is having such fun “disappearing.” For some it’s an over-the-top performance, but I think Mason is actually quite subtle for such an over-the-top character, so I quite like what GO is up to here. He’s got a dialed down drawl (inspired by author Thomas Harris himself, according to Gary) which is made more distinctive by the required prosthetics, and Mason is both frustrated by his lack of mobility and gleeful in his evil deeds. And Verger is way evil– it takes a lot of icky to threaten Hannibal Lecter, the scariest villain of all time.
  • Does Gary die in this one? Yep. And that’s why you never belittle your caretakers, kids, even when they’re non-committal about your homicidal revenge plots.

It has its fans, but Hannibal is pretty sucky. The novel is an outrageous departure from Thomas Harris’s previous books, and a huge slap in the face to fans of the Lecterverse– mainly, it betrays the integrity of Clarice Starling, one of the coolest characters in contemporary literature, and tarnishes the rich and grounded characterization of both Starling and Lecter that had been established in Harris’s Silence of the Lambs and its iconic film adaptation. The Hannibal film is actually an improvement on Harris’s trolling sequel tome, oddly enough, and it regards its subjects with a modicum of respect at least, but, in my humble opinion, it just shouldn’t exist.

Ah, but it does. The best way to watch Hannibal is to disregard the world as established by Jonathan Demme in Silence and just hang on for Ridley Scott’s bonkers carnival ride. Unfortunately, even when judged on the basis of its own merit, Hannibal is still not great; it continuously drops the ball on its more interesting plot points and themes. On my recent rewatch of the film, I was disappointed to notice that not even Anthony Hopkins seems to be having much fun here. Even though everyone’s favorite cannibal is free and on the prowl, Hannibal himself seems pretty bored. Plenty of critics have weighed in on this, so I’d rather just focus on the Gary of It All.

Prior to the face-eating incident, Mason Verger was Wes Anderson’s style inspiration.

Oldman steps into the vacuum left by the terrifying Buffalo Bill killer from the previous film as Hannibal‘s main villain, wealthy livestock/slaughterhouse heir Mason Verger. Like most aspects of this sequel, Verger is cartoonishly grotesque– unlike Harris’s monster murderers in previous stories, Verger lacks the grounding element of being inspired by a real-life killer. But that’s okay, because Gary Oldman– even with one of his eyes glued open, even without the allowance of moving more than his right hand– is having a (eye)ball playing Verger under all those layers of latex. For someone who likes to hide, it was probably a dream come true– Mason Verger doesn’t even have a face.

Eye-deas for Verger’s autobiography? Ok, eye’ll socket to you: FACE/OFF. Eye without a face. Eye must ask you a question (about Hannibal Lecter). Beware the Eye of Mason. Cold as Eye. Eye noes what happened to my face last summer.

[More suggestions welcome, but only partially seen.]

Verger is an incredibly revolting character, but not because of his lewk. He’s also a sadistic sexual deviant who, before encountering Lecter, preyed on children and starved animals for funsies. In the novel, he flavors his martinis with the TEARS from the kids he’s tortured. As the story goes, Verger was apprehended for some of his crimes, but escaped punishment thanks to his family’s wealth and standing. Instead of prison, Verger was assigned therapy to be conducted by none other than Lecter, back when the good doctor was practicing while keeping his cannibalism on the down-low (his whole timeline is very foggy). After observing the scope of Verger’s monstrousness, Lecter offered the pervert a crazy hallucinogen (my LORD that took me longer than it should to figure out how to spell) and convinced Mason to cut his own face off and feed it to his famished rescue dogs (who rescued who, indeed). He gouged out his own eye, and was even persuaded to eat his own nose. Once that deed was done, Hannibal snapped Verger’s neck, paralyzing him. So now Verger’s outsides mirror his insides, and the protective power of his money is ironically juxtaposed by his total lack of physical power.

A weird lack of handicap ramps at the Verger mansion = one of many details that Ridley Scott is NOT about. That, and a reasonable plot, but nevermind.

He’s still got moves, though. When Clarice stops by to interview him, he tries to unnerve her by dialing up the light on his mangled non-face while she leans in close to attach a microphone. She’s unflappable, so he proceeds to callously tell her the tale of his misdeeds and history of child molestation — different tact, same goal of scaring her with his factual hideousness (this flaps her a little). His goal isn’t a killing spree, though, he’s already had his criminal heyday, he just wants Lecter. He wants Lecter to pay for his crimes the way Verger was tricked into paying for his: by being fed to ravenous animals (in this case, a stockyard full of ridiculous, flesh-hungry pig hybrids).

These are not the donuts you’re looking for. Move along.

So in Gary-context, there’s an interesting little circular thing happening here: actor puts on the grotesque Verger facade to vanish, but in so doing he inhabits the guy whose (nasty) soul is fully exposed. Not only is Oldman playing someone far from his own reality (I… hope), he’s also engaging in a portrayal of a monster who can’t pretend he’s anything other than what he is. He’s the opposite of Red Dragon‘s Tooth Fairy and Silence‘s Bill, who each favored a (deluded) narrative of transformation– Verger ain’t got time for that. He hasn’t even got enough working digits for that. While those guys gussied up scares through their attempts at disguise, Verger just wants revenge for being turned inside out.

Was it a discomfort, I wonder, to play someone like this? Despite Oldman’s desire for actorly anonymity (his name is withheld from Hannibal‘s opening credits), was it frightening to face up (pun unintended, as usual) to the idea of being trapped with yourself? Mason Verger is a weirdly honest villain- he’s a complete sicko, but he has no choice but to confront that. He chooses to– ahem– roll with it, even sort of getting off on the truth, which is just as scary as anything in the Hannibal Lecter stories.

Hmm, I think this one needs a splash more Tears of Child, if you please.

In the best scene of the damn movie, which I would argue is also the height of Hannibal‘s ridiculousness as well as Oldman’s hammy delight, Mason dons the signature Hannibal muzzle (an item he has purchased in an auction) and speculates about his cannibal nemesis. While the accessory heightens the fright factor when attached to Hannibal, the muzzle is hilarious on Verger because, again, he has no face to hide! His natural state is far more spine-tingling, and Verger irritably requests that his caretaker remove the mask ’cause he knows it– and also, in an interesting touch, his facial wounds make it so that the mask restricts his breathing. Once again, he just doesn’t have the ability to masquerade, even when he’s trying to get into another’s headspace.

Sorry, Miss Jackson, I. AM. FOR. REAL.

As we get closer to Halloween this week, Verger seems like a fitting subject for the season. There’s always potential for waxing poetic about the masks we wear in life vs. the masks we celebrate on Halloween, blah blah blah. But it’s a fact: we all like to vanish. On some level, it’s a nice vacation from being ourselves. But, for many of us, the whole costume thing is just an extension or a tangible demonstration of the personas we have to take on every day. Unfortunately, much of that everyday code-switching is necessary to function in work and relationships, but what if you didn’t have that choice? If you had to live the rest of your life inside out, how would you feel about having your true self on display 24/7?

I dunno, SPF seems like the least of your problems, man.

I know I wouldn’t like it. It’s a scary thought. But it’s healthy to perform genuine examination and self-honesty– after all, some day hiding may no longer be an option. It’s possible.

Halloween is okay, though. Halloween’s fine.

2 thoughts on “Sixteen: Hannibal, Scary Makeup, and Hiding in Plain Sight

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