Go ahead, keep it up…it’ll stay that way! Remember those dire warnings you would get from adults whenever you made a funny face as a kid? Never stopped any of us from contorting our features into the goofiest of expressions…but movie stars are lucky enough to have it both ways. Not only can they always return their faces to their normally magnificent positions, but their funny faces will live forever–as long as film fans choose to look back and remember those charming, classic movie moments. Which are the strangest? Which are the most surprising? The most amusing? No doubt you’ll have your own picks, but here are five of my favorite funny faces in the movies:
5. Cary Grant, Charade
It’s not that stars of the Golden Age never made goofy faces in their films; but it certainly seems to me like it was a rarer thing to witness…perhaps because we didn’t often see big-name actors appear in the kinds of flamboyant satire where the craziest of facial expressions would feel right at home. (I’m thinking here primarily of George Clooney, say, and his delightful ongoing association with the Coen Brothers) While it was tempting to cite Humphrey Bogart’s jolly hippo impression from The African Queen (see above), I’m going to get with this daffy moment from Charade. Cary Grant spends the entire movie keeping Audrey Hepburn on edge about who he really is; this comic moment seals the greatness of director Stanley Donen’s witty, cosmopolitan thriller with a tone-twisting gesture of pure, unadulterated silliness.
4. Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws
I think I’ve said it before; I can probably wedge Jaws, the classic I routinely name as my favorite movie of all time, into nearly any list of “favorites” or “greats” you might care to suggest—and this list will be no exception. Dreyfuss’ nerdy and courageous character Matt Hooper hasn’t been at sea so very long with Great White Fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) when he’s pushed past his limits by the salty sea dog’s condescending taunts—leading to this riotous bit of pantomime he executes while Quint’s back is turned. If there’s a runner-up “funny face” moment in this film—if way more subtle—it would have to be Chief Brody’s (Roy Scheider) Buster Keaton-esque stone face of fear after Bruce the Shark makes his first terrifying appearance in close-up (“Come on down here and chum some of this sh*t!”). First we’re screaming, and a second later, we’re laughing.
3. Tommy Davidson & Savion Glover, Bamboozled
Spike Lee takes a pinch of The Producers and a dash of Network (OK, maybe a jug of Network) to give us this way-underrated satire that sheds light on the dehumanizing way African-Americans were presented in popular entertainment back in the “good old days,” and how the impulse to endorse prejudice can be readily exploited today. Back when black characters were routinely portrayed as chiefly frightening, submissive, or just plain simple-minded, a sure source of comedy would be to have a character (be they authentically African-American, or a white actor in blackface) bulge their eyes, purse their lips or drop their jaws, and mug for the camera.
In Bamboozled, the live-recorded pilot episode of “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” is a true show-stopper. We see a supposedly well-heeled, modern-day crowd first shocked to the core by the virulent racism on display, and then—shockingly to us, hopefully—lulled into thinking no, nothing to see here, this stuff really is funny; it’s really OK for me to be laughing! Haw Haw! One incredible tap dance later, and the nation is howling with delight at “The Dusky Duo,” donning phony afros and putting on cheap plastic minstrel masks that make the studio audience resemble that Being John Malkovich poster, only made up of a sea of Al Jolsons.
Well that’s just the way it was. Doesn’t make it right, pops.
2. Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God
Yes! A great “funny face” moment can also belong to a much more serious film, as well as to an Oscar-winning performance. Based on Mark Medoff’s Tony Award-winning play, Children of a Lesser God takes a unique place in this listicle for being a film all about the challenges of communication—whether that communication is taking place using speech, hand gesture, facial expression, or the most intimate bonding between lovers. Here, Matlin’s character Sarah Norman, a deaf young woman working as a janitor at a New England school for the deaf, has just been dragged into the classroom of the speech pathologist played by William Hurt. She has no interest whatsoever in learning how to speak rather than sign, but Hurt has persuaded the school’s principal (a longtime mentor-of-sorts, played by Philip Bosco) to relieve her of her duties long enough to spend an hour’s time with Hurt in his class. Bosco condescendingly asks her: You’re really looking forward to this, aren’t you, Sarah? Her priceless reaction is this mocking face. Yes, pant pant, I’m your dog.
Children of a Lesser God is one of the more beautiful stories about empathy ever filmed, dramatizing how truly difficult it can be to relocate your perspective to better identify with another’s. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a well-chosen funny face to illustrate how out of touch even well-meaning people can be.
1. Harpo Marx, The Gookie
The funniest face in the movies, full stop. Most fans probably already know that Harpo Marx’s famous nutter of an expression originated from time he spent in his youth observing a neighborhood cigar roller, who would scrunch up his visage into something resembling this baroque and vaguely painful-looking creation. Hard to believe this is exactly what any human being would do “naturally” when absorbed in any menial task, but there you have it; it’s a well-established part of the Marx legend. Harpo “tosses a Gookie” (the name is a variation on Gehrke, the cigar roller’s name) all the time in the Brothers’ films, so it’s pretty hard to pick a favorite. If pressed, I might choose the gookie from Duck Soup (the first Marx film I saw), which he brings forth during an elaborately choreographed confrontation he and Chico get into with peanut vendor Edgar Kennedy. That’s not the one pictured here; bonus points if you can name this particular gookie.
Now stop making those funny faces to yourself because I left out your favorite funny face in the movies. Instead, add to my roster of unforgettably humorous expressions in the comments!