Why Buster Keaton is today’s most influential actor

The second person is Ariane Labed, a Greek-French actress for whom dance is a recurring feature: she was cast as a synchronised swimmer in the 2020 TV series Trigonometry, had the best moves in The Lobster’s silent disco, and schools us in the art of synchronised gesture during Attenberg’s semi-dance sequences. The director of the latter film, Athina Rachel Tsangari, unsurprisingly singled Keaton out, in an interview with Culture Whisper, as an inspiring “composer of human movement”.

In Annette, there is a pivotal scene onboard a ship in which the narrative reaches an emotional crescendo. There is a storm brewing, and a drunken Henry (Driver) attempts to waltz with his wife Ann (played by Marion Cotillard) across the stern. Driver’s body now mirrors Keaton’s in its perpetual motion. Despite their difference in stature they are both industrious and powerful, and more than just the specificity of their movement, its effect is such that you are never quite sure what will happen next, or what they’re capable of. Moreover, they exert their physicality in a way that displays a tendency towards possessiveness and machismo. In The Cameraman (1928), Keaton kicks another man into a swimming pool for talking to his date. This anticipates a scene in which Henry wrestles a man known only as The Accompanist into his pool, having had suspicions that he posed a threat to the titular baby Annette.

The other aspect of physicality that Keaton and Driver share is their sex appeal. Returning to the words of Benayoun, he observes a sense of “the sublime in Keaton… He’s glamorous. He’s gorgeous. [He has a] sculptural sexiness”. Not to gush too freely, but Driver is another such sublime specimen; a figure of extreme masculinity and muscularity. And what could be more glamorous than Henry McHenry riding his motorcycle, before kissing Ann with his helmet still on? Keaton and Driver have a commanding presence in common, and when they are on screen, you simply cannot take your eyes off them.

Keaton’s performance style is known for its deadpan execution. No matter the ridiculousness of the gag – he liked a banana skin as much as any comedian – his face remains a picture of steadfast seriousness. As Smith points out, it is this contrast between his “deadpan serenity [and] his body constantly [being] subjected to all these indignities [that is] the essence of him as a performer”.

Filmmaker and comedian Richard Ayoade frequently channels Keatons deadpan-ness, and often cites him as a point of reference when working with actors. In a 2014 interview, Ayoade reveals that he had Jesse Eisenberg watch Buster Keaton’s films before starring in his sophomore feature The Double, feeling that they could demonstrate a “sense of someone acknowledging that everything bad that happens to them shouldn’t come as a surprise”.

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