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What does it mean to have an "iPhone face"?

It's about movies, not smartphones

What does it mean to have an iPhone face? It's about movies, not smartphones

Have you ever had the feeling that an actor didn't belong to the historical fiction of a movie? While in the past this phenomenon was quite rare (think of Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love or Angelina Jolie in Alexander), today the frequency with which extremely modern faces appear in historical films has greatly increased, so much so that for some years now the term "iPhone face" or "smartphone face" has entered internet slang to refer to all those actors who seem out of place in the past, or whose modern makeup and hair create a jarring note in the film. The first case that can be traced back to and on which several online sources agree is in 2019, when a Twitter user said that Timothée Chalamet and Lily Rose-Depp were miscast for the historical film The King, set in the Middle Ages, precisely because both had faces that seemed aware of what an iPhone was. Over time, the expression has also been used for Dakota Johnson in Emma, Florence Pugh in Little Women (in the same film, Chalamet instead seemed very much in place), but also Millie Bobbie Brown in Enola Holmes and Damsel, Nicole Kidman in The Northman, Matt Damon in The Last Duel, or the entire cast of Rings of Power. The conversation has recently resurfaced thanks to the success of the indie comedy The Holdovers and the rapid rise of its young star, Dominic Sessa, who has won over everyone and of whom Paul Giamatti said: «Look at this kid’s face. He looks like he’s from 1972». The entire cast of the film, which received a collective award at the BAFTAs, is considered the antithesis of this type of too modern faces – but where does the impression that a face in the cinema is "too modern" come from?

The question is interesting, and indeed many have asked it in Reddit and Quora forums. The general consensus, considering the various opinions of the users, mainly concerns cosmetics: eyebrows too thin, makeup too sophisticated or poorly concealed, modern hairstyles or at least light-years away from the styles of the time, perfect or overly whitened teeth, anachronistic hair dyes, traces of fillers and plastic surgery, but also excessive cleanliness. In some cases, even height and physical build come into play: if recently actors like Jacob Elordi have managed to break the convention that wanted actors of very average height in the cast of the same film, not only making him "become" Elvis for the recent film by Priscilla required a readjustment of the entire set (Elordi was 14cm taller than Elvis), but giving him a 19th or 17th-century look, in case he starred in a historical film, would make him look downright bizarre. In Elordi's case, however, the expression "iPhone face", that is, of someone who knows what an iPhone is, turns into "Instagram face", which is a related concept and means that face, physique, and general air that too closely resemble an Instagram influencer that all look alike. Just as in the case of "iPhone face", the debate about the increasing resemblance between "professionally beautiful" Instagrammers began in 2019, but already in 2013 it was read in the magazine The Daily News: «Teeth whitening, plastic surgery, body piercings, weight training, healthful eating and yoga have made it a challenge to find the perfect period performer. Add the unforgiving nature of high-definition video on which more movies are made and seen and the emergence of visually savvy audiences, and you often have a recipe for historical dissonance».

@curiouslymedia Is smartphone face a real thing? #smartphoneface #bellaramsey #daisyjones #tvseries original sound - Curiously

Whichever way you look at the issue, however, there seems to have been a rupture between the level of attractiveness that the industry requires of its actors, who now practically work as much on social media as they do outside of it, and the need for realism that instead comes from a chronically online audience and that begins to show, perhaps unintentionally, the fatigue resulting from seeing the same idealized features spread throughout one's feed. The key to everything seems to be on one side makeup and hairstyling, and on the other the artistic willingness to take the risk of a realistic but potentially off-putting representation. Once, in fact, there was the category of "character actors", that is, actors endowed with a particular physiognomy who served precisely to balance the unreality of the perfect looks of the protagonists. But today those actors are practically not found anymore. Many of the cases of "inaccurate" films we mentioned at the beginning, in fact, belong to that historical-teen trend which includes series like Reign, The White Queen or Dickinson in which a fatal recipe of budget allocation, willingness to capitalize on the physical beauty of the protagonists, and also a certain level of carelessness of the production really create the effect of an historical play in modern prom costumes. Probably, the modernity of the looks of many protagonists is also part of the "digestibility" of the product by the public: would we really want to see a dirty and toothless Timothèe Chalamet in a film about the Middle Ages, or would we prefer to sacrifice historical truth in the name of aesthetics? The question is burning – but after all, perhaps even the one we photograph every day in our selfies is an "iPhone face".