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16 March 2015

The Man of a Thousand Faces

von Philharmonie Luxemburg

I'd like to tell you how great Lon Chaney is in The Phantom of the Opera. The problem is: you may have no idea who he is because, as he once stated, "[his] whole career [was] devoted to keeping people from knowing [him].» How so un-Hollywood of him.

Some actors get stuck with a character for their whole careers, willingly (Charlie Chaplin) or not (Michael Keaton). This certainly doesn't hold for Lon Chaney as for him, "the art of acting was the art of continual transformation." Chaney was a master of pantomime, which was extremely convenient on stage and in silent films. But what really set him apart on the Hollywood scene was his makeup skills. It is said that he could have acted two parts in the same movie and that no spectator wouldn't have been any the wiser.

In The Phantom of the Opera the Phantom's face is described as that of a living skull. Chaney achieved just that by using using wax, false teeth, greasepaint and by the careful placements of highlights and shadows on every area of his face. The result is utterly repellant - as it should be.

However, Chaney wanted his characters to generate empathy as well. In 1925 he wrote: "I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do."

For the physical transformations he endured and for his makeup skills Lon Chaney is known as the Man of a Thousand Faces. Coincidentally, it is the title of a documentary by British film historian Kevin Brownlow that will be shown at the Cinémathèque de la Ville de Luxembourg this Wednesday (March 18th) at 18:30.

And if you're still on the fence about coming to our Live Cinema this weekend, I leave you with Carl Davis.

--- Julie