Mirror, Mirror: When Movie Characters Look Back at Themselves by Sheila O’Malley
By Yasmina Tawil
“I always feel it behind me. It’s myself. And I follow me. In silence. But I can hear it. Yes, sometimes it’s like I’m chasing myself. I want to escape from myself. But I can’t!” —Peter Lorre as child-murderer, M (1931)
There was a period in the ‘60s and ‘70s when you could barely call yourself a male movie star if you didn’t do a scene where you stared at yourself in the mirror, doing various “private” things. The device shows up before then, too, but the floodgates opened in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Meryl Streep has observed, “Often the scenes that are the most exciting, and most illuminating in film, are the ones with no dialogue…where a character is doing something alone, where the deepest most private self is revealed or explored. Exposed.”
Mirrors have multiple thematic uses (as well as the obvious directorial choice to add visual interest to the frame). But if a character is inarticulate, then seeing him “deal with” his reflection can fill in some gaps. It’s a great storytelling shortcut. If the character has a firm public “mask,” a “mirror scene” can let us see who he is when no one is watching. We all lie, to some degree, out there in the world (or on social media). We construct a “self” and a mirror scene allows the character to strip that away.
Speaking stereotypically (or, in archetypes), what is expected of male characters in terms of public persona is different from the pressures on female characters. Not better or worse, just different. Crying, showing uncertainty, weakness, vulnerability … can be a minefield. This is why the glut of male mirror scenes in the 70s makes a kind of sense: as the women’s movement rose, men began to wonder about their place, as well as buck against some of the gender norms imposed on them (or, in some cases, re-entrench said gender norms, Travis Bickle’s “You talkin’ to me” the most classic example).
Shakespeare’s use of the soliloquy—in particular for Kings and prospective Kings—could be seen as mirror scenes, with the audience as the mirror. A man goes into a private space, showing the audience things he cannot show on the battlefield or in the court. Hamlet, one of the most introverted of Shakespeare’s characters, showing non-gender-norm qualities of uncertainty and sensitivity, has a massive six soliloquies. (“O that this too too solid flesh would melt”, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I”, “To be or not to be”, “Tis now the very witching time of night”, “Now might I do it pat” and “How all occasions do inform against me.”) It is impossible to imagine the play—or Hamlet—without them. In Richard II, after Richard is forced to surrender his crown, what is the first thing he does? Like a true narcissist, he calls for a mirror. As he stares at himself, he wonders,
“Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men?”
and throws the mirror on the ground.
Mirrors are powerful and mysterious symbols. The doubling-up can mean all kinds of things. Alice steps through the looking glass into another world. Goethe’s Faust looks into the witch’s mirror and sees a beautiful woman staring back. Dorian Gray takes a mirror to compare his face with the one in the attic portrait. (Like Richard III, Dorian smashes the mirror.) A mirror is crucial in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” where “The Lady” is cursed to view the world only through a mirror. But then Lancelot rides by and she can’t help it, she has to sneak a peek. Maybe the most famous fictional mirror is the Evil Queen’s in “Snow White,” the one she asks every day, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Richard III doesn’t look for a reflection of his beauty. He wonders where his “self” even is, without the crown.
An early male mirror scene—and one of the best—is Peter Lorre’s in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Our first glimpse of Lorre’s face comes without warning. As a handwriting-analyst theorizes in voiceover about the child-killer’s psychology, we see him, staring at himself in the mirror. He pulls at his face, slowly, manipulating his mouth into a smile, trying it on for size, maybe seeing what it looks like to the children he seduces. He bugs his eyes out, turning this way, that, a maniacal presence, almost like a shark rolling its eyes backwards as it attacks. He has no sense of what human beings feel like, of what he looks like, of how to even make a facial expression. It’s one of the most chilling private moments in cinema.