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Cracking the Secret Code of 'Social Network's' Brilliant Acting

The Social Network
Merrick Morton/Columbia Tristar

Harvey Weinstein brilliantly sold The King's Speech as an acting triumph, scoring SAG and Oscar victories. But Social Network's great acting is subtler: It's all in the eyes.

"We owe The King's Speech nominations to our ensemble of amazing actors," Weinstein said when Oscar noms were announced Jan. 25, "who gave career performances under Tom Hooper's masterful direction." He could have said anything he wanted: It’s a great uplifiting story about overcoming adversity, yada yada. Instead, he made a concerted pitch to the populous actors branch. So he's setting up a replay of Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain, where Brokeback had the critics and most of the guild awards, but then Crash won at the end. Partially, speculation went, older members of the Academy were uncomfortable with the gay stuff -- as they may be uncomfortable with Social Network's techno-nerds -- and the actors carried the day and swept in Crash.

Weinstein's talking points hardened into conventional wisdom: The King's Speech equals The Actors' Movie. But the underpublicized truth is that The Social Network is also an acting tour de force. It's just much more tricky and difficult. As Hooper told The Hollywood Reporter, he built the film on Geoffrey Rush's mime-schooled broad body language, shaping Colin Firth's imploding-personality peformance physically to contrast with it. The Social Network's hero makes Firth's Bertie look like Donald O'Connor doing "Make 'Em Laugh."

"It's like he's wearing a suit of armor," Jesse Eisenberg told me Monday of his brilliant creation, Mark Zuckerberg -- who, as we know from SNL and many articles, is distinct from the real Zuckerberg. On SNL, Eisenberg explained his Zuckerberg acting method: "I speak in short, clipped sentences, and I keep my head very still." But that's not all. "In a suit of armor, the eyes are the only thing that peeks out," Eisenberg explained to me.

The eyes have it, and in the film they are speaking in code. Microsoft movie expert-turned-Roger Ebert webmaster Jim Emerson explicates the tech-world social codes in play with great clips, and David Bordwell explicates the precise physical side of Eisenberg's acting triumph in a post on "Faces Behind Facebook." He quotes director David Fincher, who I'm still betting will beat the King's sweep and take best director from Hooper: “It was really a movie about kids’ faces. ... What’s cinematic are the performances. ... What their eyes are doing as they’re trying to grasp what the other person is telling them.”

Bordwell illustrates his points with detailed images of Eisenberg's and Andrew Garfield's faces doing some of the most precise acting seen this season, and how each nuanced look jibes with the celebrated dialog. He illuminates it with insights from Darwin and modern science. "What researchers into face perception call the informational triangle -- the two eye regions tapering down to the mouth -- creates a package of social and psychological signals," Bordwell writes. "It’s this whole ensemble, the most informative parts of the face working together, that guides us in making sense of other people, or of film acting."

There's more than one kind of ensemble, and more than one kind of acting greatness. This aspect of the Oscar contest has been undertold and undersold. Bordwell quotes an apt bottom line, what John Ford said when somebody asked what the audience should watch for in a movie.

"Look at the eyes."

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