1 April 2009

Is there an open-mouthed school of acting?

When I was a child, I remember being told that it wasn’t a good idea to walk about with my mouth open, or even partially open – advice that sometimes came with dire warnings about the dangers of allowing oral access to flies and other marauding insects.

Now I don’t know if it’s just me (and the small, unrepresentative sample of people I’ve consulted on it so far), but it does seem that film and television actresses are spending more and more time with their mouths open – both when there’s no dialogue and when they’re listening to one of the other actors saying something – than used to be the case.

Nor are those of us who’ve noticed it particularly impressed by it.

For one thing, once you’ve spotted someone doing it early on in a film, it becomes a big distraction - because you go on noticing the same actor doing it again and again. For another, it can be quite confusing trying to work out just what emotions and feelings all these open mouths are supposed to be conveying

So here are five questions on which I'd welcome feedback:

1. Has anyone else noticed it?
2. Is it a recent trend?
3. Am I alone in finding it irritating/distracting?
4. Is open-mouthed acting being taught in drama schools?
5. If so, why?

And, if your answer to Q1 is 'No', have a look at these clips of Keira Knightley in action, as she'd surely be the odds-on favourite to win if there were an Oscar for this style of acting.

P.S. Since first posting this, I've had this supporting email from a friend, who also happens to be a professional actress:

"Yes! I too have observed the (female) open-mouth school of acting. KK is the main offender who’s come to my notice, but I remember Scarlett Johansson adopted it in Girl With a Pearl Earring. Mind you, the girl in the painting by Vermeer is doing the same thing – I’ve just checked!

"The other perpetrator is Andrea Riseborough, she whom you admired so much in The Devil’s Whore! I think it’s considered sexy by the young actresses. Or, possibly, the (male) film directors encourage it for the same reason. To me it says ‘vacuous’, which is a shame, as I believe Johansson and Riseborough are both intelligent young women."

Her point about it being considered sexy by young actresses and male directors may be getting to it, as I've just typed 'Brigitte Bardot' into Google Images and noticed that most of the shots of the young Bardot (on the first two pages) show her with her mouth open!


Anonymous said...

Hmm, interesting point Max. Never noticed it.

Clear speculation from my side - maybe indicating more exitement, more breathe in/out ... ?

Curious if you figure something out ...


Max Atkinson said...

Anon - an answer may be on its way, as you'll see from the P.S. just added to the posting.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, when we go in direction it is considered sexy, then we have to ask, what is sexy about it? Or opposite, why is it more sexy than closed mouth?


Anonymous said...

I notice that 'Top-shelf' models routinely use the open mouth pose in scantily clad shots.

I think it is seen as alluring and mysterious in contrast to the other top-shelf staple pose: the more obvious (and therefore less arty?) wide and welcoming smile.

Actresses are as exposed to this kind of media language in the same way as the rest of us, therefore probably reason that:
open mouth = smouldering sexuality.

Interesting that many of us see: open mouth = sign of complete idiot.

Iris said...

I noticed and I hate it!!!

Interesting that many of us see: open mouth = sign of complete idiot. [2] !!!

Keith Davis said...

Hi Max
Can't say that I had noticed it... but now that you've mentioned it!

Never actually considered if we have our mouths open or closed when we listen

Mark Bowden said...

I’ve been training actresses and models for 20 years in both in UK and US and now work as a consultant in area around nonverbal persuasion and influence.

The lips parted can give a signal of sexual availability.

It may look off-putting to some depending on, consciously and unconsciously, how they value that person (or who that person may represent to them) positively or negatively as a sexually available female. However, if the look is executed well the majority of the audience that the look is aimed at will unconsciously and sometimes consciously like it, think it is hot and perhaps tell their friends to see the film, or they may buy the product the model or actress is associated with.

To check this; think about what demographic you fall into and if the films with Kiera Knightly in are predominantly produced as a business proposition for your demographic or not. Play a moment from the film where Knightly gives the display and think “do I find her hot?” Or find someone who falls into Knightly’s market and ask “would you or a potential partner of yours find her hot?” An answer of yes on either put her into a category of potential mate or potential competitor to a mate, either of which your unconscious mind should pay close attention to by buying magazines with her in and watching any media including her.

Why is it sexy? Amongst other reasons, the softness in the top lip means no aggression—in fact it suggests pleasure. But out of context with the other nonverbal indicators in the rest of the body that draw further the conclusion of sexual availability, it could look dumb, because isolated in "still-shot"it may make no sense--having no other data around it. One gesture does not so often make a clear communication and can look stupid. Look at a great model giving the pose and wonder if all that she is doing is relaxing her lips and letting the jaw fall open about a fingers width, or are there other indicators in the shot that make a sexy image to the right audience for that product.

Mark Bowden
Author of Winning Body Language

Edward said...

I'm thinking it's evocative of 'reaction'. I'd want to see more context, but we open our mouths for inbreaths and outbreaths. So 'doing surprise' is done with the mouth slightly open and 'doing reacting' the same, but with some outbreath rather than inbreath.

And I'd have to disagree with the prior comment, claims to sexual availability based on an open mouth cuts against occam's razor in instances like these as I see it.
There may be some sexuality involved in the construction of the imagery, but I fail to see it's linkage to an open mouth when reacting. There's some scholarly work I'd dearly like to cite here, but it's underway and I've been asked not to so at very least I'll say that I find it unlikely.

Edward said...

Although I might add that the very Market of training attractive actresses to 'do sexy' with an open mouth may have constructed such an image. My argument would be that that such a thing is a way of doing sexy in and on the media, not in everyday life.

GorillaDog continues the Yap said...

I could not read all the comments so lets hope no one pointed this one out yet..the guy, Will from Sanctuary not only uses OPEN mouthed acting but only shows his lower teeth..its bad enough to watch at ordinary moments but when he has to fight or grunt, my god you would think his intestines are abandoning him! he is so irritating i can't watch the show and there is NO sexual component here because this guy is not appealing in any way. thank you for bringing this up. I thought i was the only one who noticed the gaping maws of this generation.

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Anonymous said...

I also noticed this, I think it is because it is different from normal behaviour, something similar to wearing high hills shoose.

Anonymous said...

My sentiments exactly. Irritating to no end. I thought I was only one who noticed. Since you've written this, it appears they all do it. Add that to the sing song voices, and women jumping up on the men and wrapping their legs around them as welcome, . . . . too much!

Anonymous said...

great to see other people noticed it as well,i was botjhered by it already for years and this is why i googled on the subject and ended up here.
its not just the actresses mentioned here, this days its just in every goddamn series or movie, once noticed its very distracting.

i all understand the sexuality thing as it is indeed open lips in real life suggest availability with a woman,however if you just look around you in real life, most people absolutely do not stare as regular with an open mouth as in this movies depicted.
in so many cases you just look more retarded and silly in sted of sexy

Spocky said...

I am just watching True Blood 7x06 and the beautiful female actress kepps her mouth open all the time. First, I thought to show off her perfect teeth but I think Mark Bowden is right about his comment.

Anonymous said...

Yes I've noticed it and it's incredibly annoying! Ruth Wilson in The Affair NEVER closes her Marg Simpson mouth. Please, for once, just close it. I think it makes an actress look idiotic! Like "duh" is written all over their face. Not to mention the also ever so annoying lip licking. Are the sets too dry?

Anonymous said...

Bellamy Young in "Scandal" (Mellie), how she just shows her top teeth all the time making her look like a chipmunk. Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris in Breaking Bad, just bottom teeth this time, look like idiots. I am soo distracted by this idiocy.

KitschWitch said...

Men do this just as much as women and I find it irritating in both.

I remember in an acting course I did 20 years old, we were told to keep our mouths open when acting as it (somehow) allows people to connect with you more--something about having your feelings open to them rather than being closed off.

Anonymous said...

It is an epidemic at this point and I completely agree with you. It's incredibly distracting and annoying once noticed. I've stopped watching shows on this basis alone. I agree there is a belief that it is sexy, arising from an imitation of porn performers. I truly wish female actresses would take a stand against this trend. It is detrimental and furthering the erosion of gender perceptions.

Charmaine Sims said...

I have to agree with the anonymous poster who said it is epidemic at this point! I notice it far more often with actresses than actors, although it is done by both. My impression is that they are supposed to appear more sexy, although I appreciate Max pointing out it may signal availability (other than sexual), similar to if you stand with your arms crossed. Although you may not intend to nonverbally communicate being closed, or to back off, some may interpret it that way, and the open mouth may be meant to be viewed as the open arms. Nevertheless, I think it looks ridiculous, and is highly annoying! Now I would never SLAP anyone, but seeing this frequent open mouth on so many, makes the thought cross my mind of slapping the actress, and saying "Shut your stupid mouth!" Two of them that do it frequently and absolutely irritate me are Tea Leoni in Madame Secretary, and Sami Gayle in Blue Bloods. But of course, they are not alone, and just part of this annoying epidemic.