Armitage barbatus, or: beard as costume, part 4
[If you didn’t read section III and the supplement, please make certain that you know the definition and rhetorical implications of the term “sprezzatura” by clicking on the link above. And for those who were waiting for the answer to this question: below, the explanation of why this is my favorite picture of Armitage. My heart still beats faster when I see it — perhaps it’s the curve of his nostrils and the slight curl in the side of his lips: those are the two details I almost always end up focusing on in this photo.]
Richard Armitage, BAFTA TV awards, London, June 6, 2010. This photo is a candid attributed to JJ. Source, including JJ’s report: RichardArmitageNet.com
You’re saying to yourself, “no beard,” right? Why did Servetus love this appearance so much? Why is she going on about it a year later? And what does it have to do with the beard?
The answer: sprezzatura.
From an unpublished draft intended for this blog and suppressed out of embarrassment, June 7, 2010:
“What a day the man had. Every picture, every video clip, says exactly the same thing, from the step out of the car to the turn toward the entrance of the theatre: ‘I belong here, I agree to accept this attention with grace and acknowledge it without embarrassment, I own this red carpet.’ Not in an aggressive way, but with a confident energy that won’t let me take my eyes off him. No moments of embarrassment, no awkwardness, just absolute, intense, involvement in being this version of Richard Armitage. Look at the way he positions, displays his legs, as he gets involved in conversations and becomes oblivious to the photographers; look at the ways he positions them when he knows he’s in view. The poses seem unposed; the unposed photos seem architecturally arranged. And the lack of tension in his hands says it all — he’s got it under control, and some of these glances almost border on insouciant — so different from the cool, distanced, or perplexed / mystified Armitage I’ve sometimes seen in other red carpet shots. The energy says, ‘I’m here! Right at your fingertips! Watch out or you might get burned!’ and ‘You’ll never really touch me!’ in the most amused tone, precisely at the same time. And the look on his face in that picture — like he’s surveying a potential empire, ripe for the taking. Makes me think of Keats, as if Armitage were ‘a watcher of the skies / When a new planet slips into his ken,‘ as if he’s just learned something and now he’s going to school us all while he silently calculates his possibilities. Or like the Florentine David, who’s sculpted contemplating Goliath after he’s decided to fight him, but before the attack begins. It’s like something is about to spring out of Armitage here — we’re all just coping with the tension before it does — but the explosion doesn’t come, the excitement just builds and builds. An excited calm, a calm excitement that simmers and stews.
This effect is something you can’t get from trying to be energetic, or ‘masculine’ in the conventional sense; it’s like something’s changed inside and all the barriers have gone down and he’s just radiating a new charisma into the universe. But at the same time, the nonchalance, the charming exterior, makes us think that there’s even more there, it seduces us into thinking that nothing can be so simple, that there’s a deeper, more complex, even more desirable Armitage to be found right below the surface of that pristine shirt front, right behind those deceptively sparkling eyes. I want, I want, I want! — and I reach out my hand to touch and grasp only the merest impression of what I believe has to be there — and I want, and want, and want again! — and reach, and reach, and reach again, but without ever touching anything. The object moves closer into visual range even as the essence recedes from grasp — so tantalizing that I can’t stop thinking about him. The woman widens her nostrils to try to calm her arousal; the teacher says, ‘he is nailing this performance.’ Every time I look at these images I get tears in my eyes.”
(Honestly, compared to the explicitness of some things I’ve written and published since then, that doesn’t seem quite so bad. I’m glad I took the opportunity to revisit it.)
The photo, again, for reference. Richard Armitage, BAFTA TV awards, London, June 6, 2010. This photo is a candid attributed to JJ. Source, including report: RichardArmitageNet.com
You’ll object, reasonably, that better pictures from the event were available, and that technically it’s not a great picture; the photographer’s autofocus seems to have settled on the background rather than on the subject. But that “error” contributes to the effect this photo had on me. Here’s a photo of Richard Armitage on the red carpet at the BAFTAs that’s also, or due to the focus “issue,” even more a photo about the subject as captured by the event himself. If this framework isn’t clear to you, compare the framing structure of the photo above to the one below, to which I referred about two weeks ago, when my concern was how you play the role of John Porter when five people and their obtrusive equipment are inches away from your face:
Richard Armitage as John Porter and film crew filming a scene from Strike Back 1.1. Source: Facebook
It’s simultaneously a photo of Richard Armitage playing John Porter, and a photo of how that process is being mediatized. Clear? In the BAFTAs photo he’s slightly hazy, even losing definition if you look at the supersize version of the photo, even as the process itself comes more strongly into focus. He’s simultaneously being Richard Armitage, and being mediatized as Richard Armitage; he’s figuring out how to play the role of Richard Armitage just as the people who are recording and disseminating that role are feet away from him with their obtrusive equipment. So it shows not only a successful result, i.e., a beautiful picture of Richard Armitage, but even more the process of creating the role. To use the phrase I employed in part 3, here we see the framework that helps us appreciate the artifice. (And this is why, I think, media outlets get such great responses these days to the framing events they stream, like the Captain America premiere.)
Touch me — if you can. Richard Armitage at the 2010 BAFTA TV awards, June 6, 2010, London, England. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
So what is the artifice involved? Because the man is oozing effortless mastery of the situation — he’s an advertisement for how to create sprezzatura. It’s precisely because you don’t see artifice in most of the photos that the framework photos are interesting; it’s because you say “he looks so natural” that you know something is going on. Let’s follow for a moment the argument that I would have endorsed at the time: that the artifice stemmed from the clothing.
The suit that wore Armitage: Richard Armitage at the 2007 BAFTA TV awards, London. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
At his first BAFTA TV awards red carpet, in 2007, he seemed to me like a kid in a rented suit for prom (U.S. definition of that word) — you could say he was endearing, and lots of people fell and are still falling for the sound byte about Nigella Lawson — but even laying aside the impact of the Guy of Gisborne hair he had to maintain for the role he was filming at the time, the suit he had on was wearing him. He was “natural” in the sense of being sweet, and to some extent you could say the appearance was effortless, but the actual effortlessness meant that he attained nothing like a personal mastery over his own appearance. He could be the real Richard Armitage here, making no attempt to play himself as a role, but the unperformed Armitage was in such severe conflict with his atmosphere — the red carpet being all about performance — that the result was jarring — almost naïve in a bad way. A performance of naïveté in a context of sophistication almost always has to be ironic; actual naïveté in such settings just seems uninformed, clueless, sophomoric. The appearance illustrates the first point about sprezzatura (from Part III): no performer dares eschew or reject the enactment of effortless mastery, not even in the name of sincerity, or out of ignorance. Not making an effort simply makes him appear even more out of place because he appears to be struggling, whether he is or not, and the struggle distracts the audience from enjoyment of the performance.
Remote, chilly, his energy trapped behind his eyes: Richard Armitage at the 2009 BAFTA TV awards, London, England. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
At the second BAFTA TV awards red carpet, in 2009, he’d clearly corrected the most problematic aspects of the earlier appearance, but it was an overcorrection, one that erased everything that felt like the Armitage one knew from his interviews from the pictures — with of course the exception of his familiar visage. But the expressions on it were all too remote and occasionally appeared icy. His smiles often seemed forced, his jaw clenched, his eyes absent. The most effective moments of the appearance were when he was actually performing and seemed to realize it, i.e., interacting with his co-presenter and announcing the award. In viewing these images, I felt like he overshot the mark, appearing stiff and more ironic in an out-of-character way than I found attractive (though some people preferred this appearance just for the sheet formal elegance of it all — I think this was Natalie‘s favorite look). This appearance illustrates the second point about sprezzatura (from the supplement to Part III): that no one style of enacting effortless mastery works for every performer. Certain cultural norms apply — we expect a man to wear a well-tailored suit at a red carpet appearance, for instance — but they are mainly guidelines. Following the rules too rigidly can get you into just as much trouble as ignoring them completely, because it seems like you have no individual taste and are simply following the crowd. The way that one embodies or enacts sprezzatura cannot simply adhere to a prefab norm, but instead has to fit with the gender, physiognomy, physiology, personality, and aura of the performer. The suit was not especially well-fitting here, but it conformed his appearance more effectively to the black tie norm than his previous year’s choice and it took one obvious and particular category of criticism (naiveté) out of the arsenal, but by making him look in charge of the situation, it made the mastery again look contrived and less than effortless. The problem was, once again, that the suit wore Armitage, lending him a vibe of irony, snobbishness, even remoteness that was clearly at odds with his own energy.
Another photo of Richard Armitage from the BAFTA TV awards, London, June 6, 2010, that I particularly loved. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
What a contrast, then, to his appearance in 2010, where everything was right and the energy he showed us was stunning, bowling-us-over charisma. For the first time at a red carpet, he wasn’t either ignoring himself or wearing something that fought with the attributes of his body and his energy. For once (reference Part I, where I argued that the Thorin face works because it plays to the striking qualities of Armitage’s facial features), he was wearing clothing that was designed to play up his positive attributes and camouflage or at least accommodate gracefully the places where his body did not fit the typical menswear silhouette, as I noted at the time. I recorded my analytical responses to his clothing at this appearance at the time here. The ensemble included sleeveheads and a shoulder construction that properly fit his shoulders and allowed him to move his chest effectively without bunching or gaping; a collar and shirt that fit well across his collarbones; a nipped-in waist, located at the right point, that wasn’t structured to make a concession to his relatively wide hips; the tailoring of the skirt of the jacket to accommodate his hips and posterior; and slacks that were cut just right (if a bit narrowly for my taste) across his dancer / action-man thighs, with a perfect trouser break. The suit was not traditional black tie, although the tie he wore gestured in that direction; for one thing, it had pinstripes — a feature that we frequently see Armitage sporting, as in the North & South interview, and may deduce that he finds especially attractive or representative of himself. And (referring back to supplement to Part III), he made the look his own with the addition of some extremely stylish shoes that were not the traditional oxfords that go with black tie. Wearing this suite, he found the means to be effortless in a way that combined both the generic elements that we expect to see at a red carpet function, and his own energy — and the synergy was overpowering. This was the same suit that he’d worn to the Strike Back premiere a month earlier, with a more dressed down shirt for a more casual look, and one suspects that one reason he chose it for the BAFTAs was that he had gotten positive feedback on it then.
Sprezzatura foreshadowed. Andrew Lincoln and Richard Armitage at the Strike Back premiere, London, England, April 15, 2010. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
First, he looked like he felt good in those clothes, not uncomfortable, or surprised at the attention, or even indifferent, as he sometimes did in very early appearances. Second, because of the previous try-out of the outfit, he knew other people responded well to him as Richard Armitage while he was wearing them. The clothes thus expressed both a positive energy built within his identity, and a positive reflection of that identity mirrored in the eyes of those around him. They thus fulfilled two main axes of identity formation: who we know ourselves to be, and who others understand us to be. In that sense, they were the perfect costume in which Richard Armitage could perform the role of Richard Armitage. In other words, now going back to the argument I made in Part II: I concluded that for once, the clothing Richard Armitage was putting on for an activity about which he has expressed a strong distaste did not feel like a costume. The 2010 suit did not “mar the creation of [his] character.” The clothes served as a medium for his self-presentation rather than an obstacle to it — as much to him himself as for us. They were not a costume for the performance of Richard Armitage — they were the clothing of the performed Richard Armitage.
Key here is that I’m not arguing that BAFTA 2010 was his most “natural” appearance, that this was the “real” Richard Armitage in contrast to “fake” ones we’d seen before. Neither am I asserting that the BAFTA 2010 appearance was his least “natural” appearance, that he was faking a Richard Armitage for the purposes of that particular event. Instead, I am arguing that the BAFTA 2010 was the appearance that seemed the most natural, because he was performing a particular version of himself in the most effective way I’d seen it up until then.
To use the language of this series the BAFTA 2010 performance of Richard Armitage had the most sprezzatura. In it, he showed the most effortless mastery of a situation that he has stated repeatedly that he finds alienating that he’d managed to date. We’ve always seen a strong sprezzatura in the performances of his roles — so that we forget about Armitage in relationship to Guy of Gisborne or Lucas North, for example, and see only those roles and not Armitage. His success at that is what makes watching his interviews such an interesting experience — whether you find that affirming or jarring I leave up to you. I was jarred by the North & South interview, which I saw after seeing North & South for the first time; I couldn’t believe this rather clumsy interviewee was the same man who’d just electrified me as Thornton. But I know many people found what they saw as the sweetness of the Armitage of that interview immediately endearing. At the BAFTA TV awards I saw an energy in his performance of himself that I hadn’t ever really seen in that completeness before in places where he was appearing as Richard Armitage. It wasn’t nervous or tense, it wasn’t giggly, it wasn’t partially closed off, it wasn’t quietly or sweetly polite; it wasn’t preoccupied with the theme he was discussing to the extent of closing off a self-presentation beyond the unintended, a problem that he has occasionally — he has a harder time speaking about acting than acting. In contrast, to these appearances, the BAFTA 2010 event was energetic and energizing to watch. Signs were available that things had been changing before that, as with his effective use of equilibrium in the Fall 2009 publicity run-up to the Spooks premiere. But this was a star performance.
So why be excited about this appearance if no beard was involved? Because it was the first time I think we saw Armitage embracing a particular kind of costuming as a means to performing the self in a really effective way.
In closing, a defense of my position against potential misunderstandings and two reflections that lead up to the final three posts in this series.
First, when I talk about “beard as costume,” this is the sense in which I am thinking of it — the beard, like this particular suit, as something that Richard Armitage puts on in order to perform a particular version of Richard Armitage. In other words, and to get back to the original issue of how I feel about the beard, my reactions to him are not so much related to beard vs. no beard, or even to my aesthetic evaluation of the beard, which I happen to like, but rather to what a particular costume, like an especially well-tailored suit or the beard, allows him to do with himself. This process is obscured when we’re watching him in a role; he’s so good at being all of these other people that we forget about Richard Armitage, and that’s as it should be. But the problem arises again when we see Richard Armitage appearing as himself, a role in which he has actually been much less performatively consistent over the years than in his acting jobs. What he can do with the beard is the topic of the next post, Part V, an interpretation of what was going on at February’s Hobbit press conference.
Second, I know there are readers here who love the interviews in which he seems giggly, nervous, sweet, or naïve, and that the argument made above might be read as a criticism of him when he performs that Richard Armitage. With what I argue above, I do not mean to assert that he is unattractive in those guises, or ineffective, or unsuccessful, or that he has some character defect. I’m not saying it’s wrong to allow himself, or to choose to be, sweet or naïve or a little confused or preoccupied with his roles over his performance of self. I’m not even saying that he has any obligation to appear in public as himself or to do anything at all in particular when he does so. He can, and should, do whatever he wants when he’s in public and I emphatically support his right to pick his nose on screen during interviews if that’s what he’d prefer to do. It’s just that, for me, being Richard Armitage and performing Richard Armitage are two separate activities that merge in specific ways for the actor, and that, on the whole, public appearances demand the latter activity take the forefront. Because the structure of sprezzatura as a rhetorical activity demands our awareness of the framing of artifice, however, it is also clear that the “sweet” Armitage (which many viewers associate with the clean-shaven one) will need to persist and appear from time to time. For various reasons, though, I think it cannot remain the dominant self-performance of Richard Armitage. The discontents, but also the necessity of at least a rhetorical or metaphorical performance of “clean-shaven” and “floppy haired,” are the topic for part VI.
Finally, for me the Strike Back and BAFTA 2010 appearances suggested to me that something was strongly changing in Armitage’s decisions about his public persona and his related self-descriptions. For most of his career up until that point — starting with the first thing he ever said on the BBC discussion board and going on to all his statements about his reclusiveness, his shyness, his nerdy DIY guy preferences, his limited sense of style, his inability to see himself as a sex symbol, and the sweetness of the North & South interview in which he laughs about horse poo and mentions that kissing Daniela Denby-Ashe was “a nice way to spend an afternoon,” leaving the main impression of “why are you making all this fuss about me?” — much of his public persona had seemed to counter the apparent sprezzatura of his performances. “I am not what I seem to be on screen,” he appeared to be insisting. He emphatically rejected the enactment of effortless mastery as a piece of his public performance; he was saying “no” to sprezzatura. He still gives us that message, most recently this weekend. At the same time, however, the Hobbit press conference and his red carpet appearance in Los Angeles seemed to suggest that he’s taking a different stance on that fundamental position — maybe we should say, executing his conviction differently — than he did at the beginning of his career. There’s a clear sprezzatura to his appearances as Richard Armitage that seems unlikely to go away now. It appeared first in 2010 and developed more fully during 2011 and the beard is a central component of it. Thus, the beard seems to signal a change not only of role (from Lucas North to Thorin Oakenshield), but a change in the rules that Armitage’s set up for self-performances. Is Armitage changing? And if he is, is he still “our” Armitage? Part VII looks at the future of the beard as a costume.