Notable Mugs: The Complete Series

What's in a face? We invited ten writers to take part in a statuette-free celebration of what draws us to the people we can't stop watching.

Marion Cotillard

Marion Cotillard

Some faces are most notable for their static, flawless beauty. The statues, if you will. The immutable perfection of their improbable architecture is in and of itself a gift to us, the unwashed, asymmetrical masses. These genetically blessed demigods walk amongst us mortals and we stare at them because we cannot help it. They are hysterical testaments to our own ridiculous biology. They are anatomical art for art’s sake. They mock us.

In the grocery store, on the street, peering out from billboards, and looking down at us from the silver screen, these faces are beautiful, always, no matter how inappropriate the circumstance. But it’s not their fault, and we know it. Oh, how we do adore them, those mobile places of worship in the flesh. They are our Kate Uptons, our Idris Elbas—the Kim Kardashians of the world.

And then there are the faces. Unlike their immutable counterpoints, the faces are never still, always brimming with capabilities and impossible pin-downs. They are all high zygomatic arches and dimpled facial musculature; they are the kind of captivating that launch ships. They are eighteen kinds of disarming plasticity, not the haute remove of gorgeous, peerless plastic. They flit in and out of their forms, each one impossible. And when I think of faces, I think of Marion Cotillard.

Cotillard is unreservedly stunning. She’s got a chin like an ice pick, slicing hard edges into full youthful cheeks flanked on their inviting uppers by cheekbones that arch high into her eyes. Her mouth is small, and her smile is wide; it’s the kind of mouth built to eat baskets of stone fruits in sunny orchards. She presents a kind of smudged flawlessness and forever looks like she is up to no good, and in the most filthy and wholesome way imaginable. But her face is never still; it doesn’t so much beam as it flickers.

Cotillard’s eyes cultivate a sense of recognition, like seeing one’s face reflected in a shallow pail of water. There’s something about being so plainly vulnerable that the actor’s face becomes just as much an external show of self as it does a deliberate blank screen, awaiting the viewer’s projection. Whether or not we are really seeing Cotillard isn’t the point; it’s that, through the alchemical gifts of her beauty and ability to show a face at its most vulgar honest, we believe that we see her. We feel safe in the pale-eyed gaze of her vulnerability, and so we, the insecure and fearful, can look at and feel our emotions through her. Like a beautiful surrogate for our burdensome emotional pregnancies.

It’s a face that’s easy to get lost in, and that she seems so content with being seen only deepens her appeal. That she is such a remarkable chameleon is one thing; that her impractical beauty shines through no matter the state is just fucking rude. Her face is the kind of infectious warmth that kisses you proudly on both cheeks after you’ve just gone in for a handshake and suddenly you’re flushed and stammering and you feel really good and why doesn’t everyone do introductions like this?

I would watch her face watch paint dry.

- Leigh Cowart (illustration by Rebekka Dunlap)

Chris Rock

Chris Rock

Chris Rock used to look like a daggone hillbilly. His words, not mine. Until he replaced his fucked up teeth with a set rumored to have been funded in part by his role in Lethal Weapon 4—which, ironically, counts a scene in a dentist’s office among its most memorable—he walked around with something like a barbed grill in his mouth. "I was on Oprah Winfrey with horrible teeth. You should have pulled me to the side," he told Winfrey back in 2002. He was joking, kind of, but mostly he wasn’t. The teeth had to go.

When he got them sometime in the late ‘90s, the new teeth, pearly and straight, did that thing good teeth do: they freed the rest of his face to be itself, letting other imperfections try their hand at first-string. Now, you’re more likely to notice other things about Chris Rock: the way his eyes dart around a room looking for approval in the form of laughs; the way he nods his head enthusiastically after every punchline; the way his high, supermodel cheekbones make him look like he’s smiling even when he’s doing precisely the opposite; the way his face manages to squeeze and stretch at the same damn time, pulling inwards and disappearing his eyes behind folds of skin.

Aside from the teeth, though, it’s the same face he's always had—a lot to say for someone who has done years of aging in public. Over the three decades his career has spanned, as he has moved fluidly from comic to actor to producer, back to comic and actor and then screenwriter and director, little has changed about Chris Rock’s features other than an occasional new configuration of facial hair—never a full beard, but always a mustache—and the waning and waxing ‘fro that rarely extends beyond a couple of centimetres.

In the last handful of years, he has gradually built distance from the awkward, skinny, high-pitched weirdo of yore, settling more comfortably into his biology like a teenager hitting puberty a couple of decades late. A black actor without the facial symmetry and sexual energy of Denzel or the family-friendly charm of Will Smith, he was destined, in Hollywood, anyway, to be a sidekick. But as demographics change and chip away at long-standing industry structures, a confident, broader-chested Chris Rock has shown up ready for more screen time, eager to be taken seriously as an actor and a legitimate love interest. His role opposite Rosario Dawson in last year’s Top Five may have been the first time the idea of a Chris Rock sex scene was believable and even almost pleasant.

At 50, when many of his peers may be starting to age out of certain roles, he is finally becoming the leading man he never was in his youth. The middle-aged weight gain that’s a pest for others has, by something akin to a genetic lottery, worked in his favor; Chris Rock keeps getting more and more handsome. His face is fuller, his eyes sparkle with kindness, his greys carry the wisdom of a life lived. He is living proof that, as he would likely tell you himself, black don’t crack.

- Rawiya Kameir (illustration by Cameron Nicholson)

Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise’s face is a national anthem. Think about it: for years, decades, if you wanted to sum up Hollywood, Scientology, glamor, you could just flash an image of Cruise, grinning like he knew something you didn’t, and nothing more had to be said. In that face, the white teeth like bleached bricks, the narrow eyes that squint when he smiles, the ball-peen hammer chin, that aerodynamic nose, was a whole system of fame, one that, if it didn’t start and end with Cruise, certainly hinged on him.

In 2015, Cruise is a fallen state, his once-sterling rep offed by the same stuff that made him intoxicating. It’s a pity, because he might be more intriguing now than he’s been since Eyes Wide Shut. No small part of his resurgence, at least in the eyes of film folks, has to do with 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, which puts him in a familiar role: shit-eating military officer, on the surface a gold star, underneath a bit of a jerk. Cruise plays the part like he’s in a beauty contest, vamping, his eyes doing that thing they do where they vanish into his face. We saw the first traces of it in Risky Business, where it was cut with fawn-like naïveté; we saw it in full splendor with Jerry Maguire, one of our culture’s greatest case-studies in raw charisma. The premise of Edge of Tomorrow is that when Cruise’s character dies, he comes back to life at the beginning of the same day, and, rebirth after rebirth, must puzzle his way through the aliens attacking Earth. Cruise plays out his repeated death and resurrection wearing the look that Moses must’ve had on when God popped up in the burning bush: eyes lamp-like, lips spread like a jet engine.

When looking at Tom Cruise, it’s important to remember that this is one of the cultural touchstones you most have in common with the rest of the world. His face is a universal language, developed over dozens of movies, tweaked in tabloids and photographs. Once a thing has taken on that much symbolism, the substance of it becomes an afterthought. But each movie is a lesson in what we, the platonic Viewer, want from not only this man, but man in general. In Mission: Impossible, that was, and still is, zealot resolve, with humor as a twist, and none of the fussy British colonialism that comes with Bond, thank you—what even is a martini? In Born on the Fourth of July, it was the miscarriage of beauty that comes from war and its sicknesses. In Rain Man, it’s a goddamn masterpiece of hair, like something Picasso would’ve drawn as the mane of a horse, and also conceitedness boiled down into something like empathy, or at least a certain tolerance.

If Cruise’s face means less now, it’s only thanks to the attrition of time, the shifting winds of taste and fashion—nothing that you and I can’t comprehend. The difference is, you and I will die, and Tom Cruise’s face will live forever, immortalized in more places than you can count, born again and again and again and again and again.

- Kevin Lincoln (illustration by Alex Schubert)

Marisa Tomei

Marisa Tomei

Twenty-three years ago, Marisa Tomei stomped her foot on a porch in rural Alabama and declared in a thick New York accent, “My biological clock is ticking like THIS and the way this case is going I ain’t never gettin married!” Crimped with Tomei’s signature high-pitched squeak and her talent for making any fight look like a duet, that scene from My Cousin Vinny is classic. Classic in that Tomei knocks us dead with her flared-up attitude, her clomping heels—Stomp! Stomp! Stomp!–and her floral-print cat suit that brings to mind your grandmother’s Laura Ashley sectional. Classic too in that Tomei’s character, the chatty but razor-sharp Mona Lisa Vito, picks the worst moments to go off and deploy her frustrations at her fiancée (Joe Pesci), a hapless lawyer struggling to win his first case. “Alls I know is that you’re screwing up and I can’t help,” she yells. “I’m watching you go down in flames and you’re bringing me with you!” Tomei’s face melts through the motions of anger and tapers into apology, only partly ceding, as if her entire self were a half-meant curtsy. When she looks Pesci straight in the eye and says, “I hate to bring it up but,” that slight pivot is cautionary, sure—but … Stomp! Stomp! Stomp!—it does however sum up Tomei’s tenacious command of every second she is on screen. The way she inches towards enormity without overreaching, the crisp appeal of her comic timing, and her sparring temper that dodges any Sandra Bullock-type sweetheart likeness.

Tomei went on to win an Oscar for her role in My Cousin Vinny, and while accepting her gold statuette, she bubbled happily through her thank yous, biting her bottom lip in disbelief. But what was more striking was how Tomei paused mid-speech simply to smile, as if any doubts she had were temporarily met with the thrill and real-life luster of feeling like you deserve something. It’s an energy she has imparted to her roles over the years; an energy that time and again makes us root for her. Like when she played Rita, the rehab runaway in Slums of Beverly Hills, who moves in with her uncle and his three kids, and enlists her teenage cousin, Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) to help navigate the madcap messes she invariably finds herself in. Together they speak in a secret made-up Jibberish, letting loose and dancing one night in Rita’s bedroom, tossing her vibrator back and forth and singing into it as if it were a microphone. Tomei plays distracted with focus. She plays pent-up women so well because she wears zaniness not as a disguise but as a quality that attends to what pains us. In more dramatic roles like In the Bedroom, or in Nick Cassavetes’ Unhook the Stars, where she portrayed a single mom with bottle blonde hair and a penchant for guys who mistreat her, her mouse-like features are obscured by how she stormily overshares during introductions, or how she says screw him chin-raised while applying pink lip gloss in a dive bar bathroom, or how her strong-willed belief that things will get better means that when she gives hugs they’re big and when she cries she goes red in the face. Even in more supporting parts, Tomei’s depiction of all-in women who advocate for themselves has been a defining element of her career, enriching the screen with female characters who approach life and all its many stunts with an unflinching and personable power.

- Durga Chew-Bose (illustration by Kris Mukai)

Michael K. Williams

Michael K. Williams

The slash is a line. A demarcation, a division, and in some cases, a boundary. In the face of Michael K. Williams, it tells the story of a razor in a bar fight. As with the character of Omar Little of The Wire, there are personalities demarcated as though by a line, a slash. His character is described as “contradictory,” but who isn’t? The complexity of Williams’s face is a map that guides us into each character. I want to know his face and history. The slash defines as much as it obscures.

(How do we not talk about a scar)

His face, even when his body is clothed in a matching blue silk robe and pajama pants, without a gun, is enough to clear the neighborhood (warning cries of Omar! Omar!) and initiate voluntary drug drops.

(I’m drawn to scars/I’m drawn to homosexual thugs)

As Omar, Williams’s face is one that other characters react to, with a mouth that delivers pith and wisdom. A mouth that can form snarls around words. Do you want to see him smile or do you want to see him glower or do you want to see him whistle? Williams’s Boardwalk Empire character, Chalky White, and Omar Little have few reasons to smile, but have other reasons to show teeth between words.

As Omar, he is gay slash a feared gangster. He robs dealers slash is considered a hero. A moral code guides his behavior. Slash. He is, like many, motivated by “inner demons.”

These demons are ones Williams has said he worked out in the character of Omar Little, though his character took over so much that he began living a “double-life,” as it would be described in 2012 when he revealed he’d been using cocaine and the name “Omar” in the streets during the filming of The Wire.

As Chalky White, he is a family man/gangster. He is a leader of the black community. He is illiterate in an educated upper-class family. He is part of and separate from. His character crosses lines.

The scar on Williams’s face will always make us imagine the story of origin of every character he plays. This is the observer’s covert entrance to the character. This is how we imagine our way in.

There’s a photo on Williams’s website where he holds his face with his two hands, as though he’s holding himself together. This face animates characters as much as the reverse—I want to believe that characters are written/will be written for such a face. The characters he inhabits often live in violence while maintaining a foot in another world. There is something sublime in what is defined and not defined by these lines, how they become embodied in the one line we take in on his face. These characters will never really die for us, his audience. They merely cross over to another side, live on in our heads, until the next one comes to life.

- Wendy C. Ortiz (illustration by Anuj Shrestha)

Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan

Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan

For most of its history, Indian art has never had much time for verisimilitude. One can forget that, here in the West, our obsession with realism is less an inevitability or an achievement than a choice. Most Bollywood viewers don’t leave the cinema saying, "Yes, but the way the scene shifted to the Swiss Alps mid-song didn't feel quite authentic to me."

What does it mean, then, that Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan's face has never seemed particularly real, either? The visage of the ubiquitous Bollywood actress and Miss World winner was, from the start, uncannily like the fanciful faces in Indian painting: the eyes, lined, almost absurdly large and unexpectedly blue, her entire presence seeming hyperreal in its symmetry and—by some definitions, anyway—its doll-like perfection.

But the fact that Aishwarya is beautiful was never quite the point. Which female celebrity isn't? It is, instead, the half-cartoonish, half-sublime nature of her beauty—that she is so conventionally beautiful it almost seems a little wrong, as if it is an effect of trickery or deception. Or, to deliberately push the absurdity of the claim in the right direction: it's that her hyperreal face is more beautiful than all the others. She, the Indian woman par excellence, is the most beautiful woman in all the world. “She won Miss World,” millions of Indians said. “We have proof of our worthiness. We are desirable. “

It matters that Aishwarya is so beautiful not because—surprise—here is another impossibly pretty Bollywood starlet with fair skin and milk-bowl eyes; it matters because it gave the burgeoning cause of modern Indian nationalism its ideal mother/whore figure. As in the early Indian novel Anandamath, in which patriotic warriors pay obeisance to India cast as both map and mother, Aish was both synecdoche and sex symbol, metaphor and mater.

I use the past tense, however, because after literally becoming a mother—having married, seemingly inevitably, the sonof India's most famous actor—Mrs. Rai-Bachchan did what many women do: gained weight. That flawless face became more human. To India, however, it meant the illusion of her impossible perfection was shattered. Reality crept in, and the excoriation Aish received in the Indian press and online was a riot of misogyny, schadenfreude, and cruelty.

Taken one way, it was run of the mill sexism, just another famous woman held to impossible standards. Yet, in another sense, perhaps it is fitting that this image of twentieth-century perfection forced a certain kind of realism on the country that adored her: for a brief time, too many Indians were lost in the dream that their land had “become fully modern,” forgetting the corruption, the lagging infrastructure, the millions still in poverty—but also whose definition of modern to which they were actually aspiring.

Now, even though Aish is set to make a comeback, Indian film too is inching its way toward a new, different "reality". Once-forbidden kissing is making its way into mainstream cinema, as are not-so-gentle insinuations of one-night stands, pre-marital sex, drugs, and drinking—and maybe most importantly, individualism. The image of a modernizing India is not only the tech worker in Bangalore, or the stylish clubber in Mumbai, but is also found in things like the films of Maneesh Sharma, whose work is full of young, independent people struggling with growing up outside the familiar structures of family and faith. Instead of Aish’s angelic, self-negating flawlessness in Guzaarish, there is the complicated, troubled love like that in Sharma’s Shuddh Desi Romance.

Can reality impinging on the fetishized face of a relentlessly objectified movie star connote a nation's lost innocence? Of course not. For one, India , like all countries, was never truly innocent. All the same, in the strange sublimity of Aishwarya's countenance was a nation's dream and desire—that it too could take its place on the aspirational horizon of a world that, already, seems to have disappeared behind the opaque veil of the last century.

- Navneet Alang (illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino)

Tracee Ellis Ross

Tracee Ellis Ross

Women are asked to put forward, to a certain extent, a mask. And for black women, that has taken on greater significance, because the standard of beauty has not necessarily had the space for different definitions of beauty. I’m trying to find my own version of what makes me feel beautiful.” - NYT Interview with Tracee Ellis Ross

I can see Tracee Ellis Ross’s windpipe through her eyes, the resonance both diaphragm and vocal cords are all too swift to conjure. I can feel that rise in blood pressure and elevated heart rate sublimating underneath. And then there is the heat. It looks exhausting and essential, a routine equilibrium. Whatever else it may reveal, much of the bewitching in Ross’s face lies in this corneal rendering of larynx and lung. It goes beyond smizing. What one sees in Ross’s eyes is unrelenting laughter, the most incendiary form of nonviolent protest to which a face can aspire. That is to say, even her eyelashes are deafening. Even her blinking. I’m surprised we’ve lasted this long.

Within the past decades, the mask to which Ross refers has experienced more freedom than that which frames it. This is one reason why so much attention has been paid to the increase in black women leads with natural hair on prime time television. Ross is often vocal about the importance of her physical identity. “I'm very conscious of how I wear my hair on the show, and yet it's the way I wear my hair as Tracee,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “You hire me, you hire my hair and you hire my ass. It's all coming with me.” Ross’s curls are clearly an extension of herself—something she lives in, not with. She is insistent that others have the opportunity to see themselves represented in more than compromised fragments. At her recent NAACP Image Awards acceptance speech, Ross exclaimed, “I am more than my parts, and we all are. And we all as women need to continue to change our gaze from how we are seen to how we are seeing.”

I would like to know more about how Ross is seeing; I want to know what fuels the blaze and if it’s changed without our noticing. If the wide mouth with the red lip is doing more work or less; if it’s struggling to keep up with the top half; if it hungers for the cinematic; where the gums will show; what the teeth will carry by the nape; if the eyebrows will be thick; if the brow will be hidden; if the furrowing will lend itself to a mathematics of black assertion; what molting, if any, is bound to take place. I want to know. Because for now, it feels as though Ross’s gaze is trained beyond the camera, beyond the present, and squarely on viewers who will someday live among enough public acceptance to take her efforts for granted. I can see the silent staccato in every photograph she takes. I am eager to see what it pierces.

- Rahawa Haile (illustration by Jeremy Sorese)

Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix

I find Joaquin Phoenix almost unbearably, intestine-shrivellingly handsome. Probably the most prominent feature of Joaquin’s face—the way those eyes stare back with some unspoken kind of intimacy, I feel like I’m allowed to call him Joaquin—is the scar on his lip, a little tug on the left side of his Cupid’s bow. That scar (not a cleft lip, so I’ve learned, but apparently something closer to a birth mark) is a reminder that he’s just a guy and not, say, a bored show husky I also want to have sex with. Joaquin is handsome, there’s no way around that, but that small scar serves as some kind of disruption.

I saw him for the first time when I was nine, in Gladiator. My mom was busy marvelling at Russell Crowe’s round nose and sad eyes, but I was distracted by Joaquin’s irritated prep-schooler looks. He came off like a moody jerk, angry and stewing. These were affectations of his character, sure, but there was something about the slope of that nose, that brow like an awning. His bright green-blue eyes darkened when he frowned, his thick brows shaded the rest of his face. He just looked mean, the kind of mean you can’t wring out of a person. The kind that oozes from their hair and pores, like cigarette smoke.

There is a too-clean version of Joaquin, and it makes me anxious. I get to see too much of his face in Walk the Line or the first half of The Master, with his slicked-back hair and shaved chin. What I find there is almost too dark to bear. I prefer to watch him hiding behind himself at his most sickly, with eyes sunk deep into his head and hair matted against his cheeks. I hated Inherent Vice—I’m no film buff, but that movie was about 90 minutes too long and you cannot convince me otherwise—but Joaquin’s weary, zonked-out face, fuzzy and sweaty and sunburned, made it easier for me to keep my eyes open throughout the whole thing. The bags under his eyes were an inch thick, and he somehow managed to appear both bearded and shaven at the same time.

I like it when he looks a little scared, because it makes me feel less scared. I like my men messy and older, because, too clean, they can be intimidating. Too young, they are impish and unmanageable. Messy and older feels comforting. These days, Joaquin looks more like someone who used to be very handsome and is letting the world wear down his face. As he ages, his face is firmly that of an adult. Or, maybe more than that: it’s the fact of a man getting old. He’s getting tired, and leaning into it, and, somehow, looking a little kinder in the process.

Messy Joaquin, like his scar, is a disruption: attractive and interesting and striking, but not exactly perfect.

- Scaachi Koul (illustration by Dustin Harbin)

Anjelica Huston

Anjelica Huston

Anjelica Huston’s face announces itself with her nose four sheets to the wind. It is a feature better described as a prow. A proud nose is an ancestral inheritance, a bony outcropping preceding one into the world, a tribal marker of strength. While Huston’s expressive eyes, her cheekbones and the wrinkles gathering like so many good stories around the contours of her face contribute to the alchemy that makes her inherently, almost instinctively, expressive, it is her nose which truly announces her power. In The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner identifies a particularly unpleasant character by her swelling snout, which has absorbed years of bad habits. I imagine Huston’s nose as the other side of this concept, distilling strength from the blood of rightfully vanquished enemies. (That her nose has morphed through experience is true. In 2013, Huston told The New York Times that in her youth, she resisted advice to get a nose job, but later broke her nose in a car crash.)

Huston’s is a face that makes you wonder what she is thinking. It is a face that tells a story and inspires one. Anjelica Huston holds a gun and looks at the camera dead-on and her stare seems more potent than the weapon. She’s the girl you follow out of the party because the action is going wherever she does. When that face walks out the door, the room deflates—suddenly, everyone is looking around, wishing they had somewhere more interesting to be.

Seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal is famous for saying that human history would be different if Cleopatra had a shorter nose. He was speaking of the causes of love, suggesting they expose human frivolity. But we only attribute frivolity to those social signifiers we have no power to shape in an attempt to keep ourselves safe from them. Our physical features influence who we are because they determine how and why others are drawn to us. If it is silly to imbue a specific feature on someone’s face with mythical meaning, than the history of human attraction, that most powerful and unpredictable of forces, is indeed frivolous. But its frivolity makes it no less true. Is fixation on a face belittling? I don’t think it is. Within my superficial reaction I can trace a nebula of meaning: Anjelica’s dark features, her sharp bones, her eyes, remind me of my mother. In her I see a public declaration of my mother’s private strength and magnetism.

Pascal’s analysis has a misogynist undertone: Cleopatra shaped history, but only by virtue of how she was perceived by powerful men. Actors and models gain power from the perception of others. Working with a director or photographer, they manipulate that perception using themselves as a tool. An early New York Times review of Anjelica’s work described her as both plain and “immensely appealing.” That reviewer is trying to find a logic to the human face that transcends emotional reaction, to explain to himself why he might be drawn to her despite the fact that her face flouts an arbitrary construct of appeal. This is silly.

Huston grew up in Ireland, and there’s an old Irish myth that an itchy nose means you’re about to have an argument with someone. Our features, as much as we may like to believe otherwise, are used by others as a divining rod. Certainly there is power in those biological accidents we cannot control, but we can control what it means. Our features broadcast power, but its how we wield them that shapes the course of history.

- Haley Cullingham (illustration by Roman Muradov)

Gabourey Sidibe

Gabourey Sidibe

I've seen Precious only as gifs. I’ve torrented American Horror Stories Coven and Freak Show, but never made it past the first few episodes of either. I once drunkenly set a reminder titled Big C. I’ll give Empire.s1e1.720p.HDTV.x264-DIMENSION.mkv a fair shake, I swear. This time will be different.

I bring my viewing habits into focus, erratic as they are, because there’s enough here to wildly trip over a few conclusions: One, I do not finish content; two, but I always try if it means catching a glimpse of actress Gabourey Sidibe (Hi, Gabby) (Hiii); and three, I’ve only seen her on a screen no larger than a pack of smokes.

Maybe it’s the power a screen has to warp space and time. One minute you’re at a bus stop, age curling around you, and the next you’re lost in a face. Her face.

I’ve been drawn to Sidibe since her Oscar nominated turn invited the world to her existence, some would say by design, but I think it’s because her features are... familiar. I’ve seen that face before, across my desk in high school homeroom, across people I’ve dated, and as our celebrities look more and more like PS4s, that familiarity is almost comforting.

I could go on about her cheeks, proud and buoyant—there was that stunning cover in V Magazine back in 2010—or the ease with which she unlocks a smile. But I’d like to talk, instead, about Sidibe’s eyes.

You must understand, they were replaced some time ago with jewels, liquid and deliberate—onyx, maybe, something crystalline. Behind those eyelashes, they have the effect of louvered light, the kind that sweeps a space, or narrows, by the angle of some unknown and distant sun.

All of this is framed by her eyebrows—those cheeks—and the choreography of micromuscles below, for what I’ve always admired is the emotive depth of Sidibe’s gaze. Disbelief and insouciance, terror and DGAF—so much is felt, and said, in a flash.

Think of all of us who have convulsed in laughter barely able to stand up, or suffered news so horrible we crack and hiss at the seams; our bodies act out the brunt of our emotions, but our eyes, the narrowing of our brows, all those muscles, like hers, do the difficult work of translating them into a message that can pierce across a room, across time, across the aperture of a tiny screen on a three-year-old phone.

Or perhaps I feel this way because she is familiar. Closer to any experience I’ve ever known.

I know how plain this must sound; I’m celebrating a kind of authenticity when that’s just another word for scarcity in our time of abundance, but we’re talking stars here and Sidibe is a constellation, lit from some interminable distance, projected outward against smoked glass.

- Anshuman Iddamsetty (illustration by Eleanor Davis)