Monday, April 23, 2012

CinemArchetype 13: The Skeevy Boyfriend


They turn up less in actual fairy tales and myths, perhaps because they don't translate well to narrative, wherein their skeevy qualities are harder to pin down, contingent as they are on the bridge between mental vision and actuality. Tim Robbins in High Fidelity is one who might look good on paper, around the fire, on the cave wall, or in his own mind, but through our and John Cusak's eyes he's a walking douche chill.

As a viewer we want to see these guys get their comeuppance, willfully blind to the similarity between how the skeevy guy sees himself (as awesome) and how skeevy we ourselves may secretly seem when we look into a mirror under harsh florescent lighting. Part of this is an older sibling revulsion towards the younger, towards traits we long ago excised from ourselves (we hope). The skeevy boyfriend represents these traits come back from the repressed, and if they steal your girl then you know you've lost something vital in yourself along with all the negative stuff you got rid of. The skeevy boyfriend doesn't correspond to the woman's animus or any other significant constellation of traits and symbols, rather he's like the dust that settles when the shelf is too long empty. He wins by default, or worse, because he's genuinely supposed to be the leading man, put there by delusional casting directors.

I like some of the actors below, in roles not listed here, and I think it's a testament to their brave acting ability they can delve so deep into dislikabilty and be convincing and not have it be totally ridiculous that they have friends and maybe even have a shot at the girl. In using the term 'skeevy' here I'm blowing it out to mean anyone in the movies who tries to win the girl meant for Cary Grant, or us; anyone who fails to see the difference between the persona required for social and private acceptance; any dude who buys into the phony promises of the patriarchal sphere, who goes to Bed Bath and Beyond with his girlfriend and doesn't fight with her. The skeeve represents our own frailty, our own insecurity, the danger of ever thinking we can 'pass' as cool leads without first knowing ourselves. They are base humanity's desperate, pleading grin. The girl we like goes out with him almost just to drive us crazy. We could never be like him, could we? Are we? It's the discrepancy of when we see our gorgeous selves in the mirror and then take a picture and suddenly we're all washed out, eyes glazed and beady, jawline weak, a pale washed-out dead beer-soaked wastrel of a self. How on earth did that happen?

I tried to cover an array of ground here which meant leaving out classics of the archetype like Pete Campbell in Mad Men (he's too complex to be all skeeve, though), or the cheating louses of Noah Baumbach films like Jack Black (Margot at the Wedding) and Jeff Daniels (Squid and the Whale). The list is limitless. The question is, are you one of them? Or are you a squid and a whale!?

 1. 3-Way tie: Oscar Shaw in The Cocoanuts (1929) / Jack Buchanan in Monte Carlo (1930), Danny Huston in Birth (2004)

What is it about that weird toothy grin and double-scoop ice cream head that makes all three of these characters so darn creepy? We can tell just from his engagement party speech that Danny Huston's character in Birth is a weird uber-rich bourgeois control freak who subscribes to the tenets of capitalism, and therefore has placed a huge value on Kidman's lack of interest in him. Just seeing Huston onscreen makes the skin crawl even though there's nothing particularly wrong with him; Huston can play anything from romantic charmer to Nordic vampire, so naturally he's versatile (and brave) enough to creep us out via evincing subliminal skeeve. And you later even feel bad for him when this dumb kid tries to horn in on his action.

 Oscar Shaw and Jack Buchanan meanwhile--reside in that muddy, hissy and crackly trough between silent and sound cinema; they are both victims of their era's dolty insistence that music hall 'juveniles' should have a big shit-eating grin on their faces at all times. It doesn't help that Buchanan seems quite closeted in Monte Carlo, to the point where every crack he makes about wanting to get 'some' smacks of a vile burlesque of heterosexual masculinity's displays of aggression. As I wrote in 2008:
He (Buchanan) channels his frustrated desire for men into his aggressive pursuit of Jeanette MacDonald and what's the fun in that? When Chevalier leers at MacDonald in her negligee, it's okay, as it comes with the sense of his being much-laid and genuinely into her as a gal. By contrast, to see the way Buchanan looks at her--his ghoulish smile plastered on as if permanently painted--is to see leering at its creepiest. To a 21st century audience with some idea of gay culture, it's fairly easy to see he's taking out his closeted frustrations playing the straight with all the vile aggression he thinks straight girls want, solely to prove himself "a man" to closeted queer pals Tyler Brooke and a doe-eyed hairdresser hunk (John Roche). When this gay threesome sings "Trimmin' the Women" the double entendres become triples, and the fun dissipates. Buchanan's tenacity as MacDonald's wooer rings like the obsessive stalker's, as when Robert Stack crowds in on Bacall in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, staring at her mouth like a deaf actor, seeming as if he might suddenly pounce, Renfield-like, at a fly on her lower lip. Imagine Edward Everett Horton crossed with Nosferatu and there's Buchanan - fine in a horror film, but not so much as a romantic lead. We in the audience might titter occasionally, but we can't relax, anymore than the families of the repressed cowboys in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN can..
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2. Sidney Berger as John Linden in Carnival of Souls (1962)
At the Criterion Contraption, Matthew Dessler writes of Berger:
"His character is a type of person you don't see too much of in film. He's fiercely anti-intellectual, but in kind of a charming way, starts his day off with whiskey in his coffee, and comes on to Mary Henry full speed ahead from the moment he sees her. In fact, his pursuit of Mary Henry is the focus of the middle third of the film, which is kind of strange because it isn't supernatural in the least. In the horror movies I'm used to seeing, by the end of the first act most subplots are subordinated to whatever the main horror of the film is, but this one doesn't intersect with Mary's other problems at all until the end of the second act. It's a strange choice, but actually, the scenes between Berger and Hilligoss are some of the best written and fastest moving in the movie.
 I think that there's a very ingenious reason these scenes are the best written and occur so late, and it's also the reason we recoil from his character: he's unbearably slimy, but he's honest about his intentions and feelings and like our heroine he's utterly alone and creeped out by everything in this nowhere middle American town, including himself; he's like a working class alcoholic version of Pete Campbell in Mad Men. And Candace is terrified to be alone so wants John for protection, but he wont stop hitting on her. He's a one track guy so either/or, and she's stuck on the slash. Haven't we all been there, when we're so damn lonely, drunk and scared of dying that we bed whoever happens to available, even if they still skeeve us out after sixteen whiskeys?

3. John Malkovich - Portrait of a Lady (1993)

After the success of The Piano, which even we in the early 90s ecstasy-popping Wetlands-going, Mud-playing scene saw and talked about endlessly, hopes for Jane Campion's next project were almost as high as we were. Unfortunately Campion went with Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady" and she's never made a great movie since.

What was Campion thinking? We all wanted to see an emancipated Nicole Kidman in cute tight deconstructed purple period dresses but we sure as hell didn't want her to throw her newly-won fortune away on John Malkovich as a manipulative aesthete. Malkovich? Really? Just because Barbara Hershey said so? And bald and way too comfortable in his own oversize blouse? It was like seeing Natalie Portman marry the gollum and use her inheritance to underwrite his trips to Sotheby's ancient ring auctions.

4. Albert Brooks - Taxi Driver (1972)
Travis: [about Tom] I would say he has quite a few problems. His energy seems to go in the wrong places. When I walked in and I saw you two sitting there, I could just tell by the way you were both relating that there was no connection whatsoever. And I felt when I walked in that there was something between us. There was an impulse that we were both following. So that gave me the right to come in and talk to you. Otherwise I never would have felt that I had the right to talk to you or say anything to you. I never would have had the courage to talk to you. And with him I felt there was nothing and I could sense it. When I walked in, I knew I was right. Did you feel that way?
Betsy: I wouldn't be here if I didn't.
Travis: ...That fellow you work with. I don't like him. Not that I don't like him, I just think he's silly. I don't think he respects you.
Brooks [on "Taxi Driver"] After we finished the movie, Schrader [Paul Schrader] came up to me at the cast party and said, 'I want to thank you. That was the only guy in the script I didn't know.' I said to him, 'That's the guy you didn't know? You knew every pimp and murderer, but the guy who gets up and goes to work every day - him you didn't know?'

5. British boyfriend in Repulsion (1959)
With a few laddish sneers, a shaving razor dumped rudely into Catherine Deneuve's bathroom toothpaste rinsing glass, a general attitude of entitlement and gross physical presence, this goofus all but leaves a choking musky aftershave smell over the sisters' flat you can feel through Deneuve's rarefied nostrils for days. Imagine Blanche Dubois cranked to eleven via your morbid acuteness of the senses and Stanley Kowalski with his animal magnetism swapped out for some garish sideburns and you have an idea of some of what poor Deneuve goes through at the beginning of Polanski's classic. Though we barely even see him he's a classic exhibit A in the defining of the skeevy beau archetype--his masculine entitlement and unconscious bullying make him ready to appear on Mad Men--but Polanski does more to illustrate how these guys choke the beauty out of birds than the entire MM season (5) so far...

6. Monroe Owsley (in everything)
Forever typecast as the drunken son in HOLIDAY, Monroe Owsley (pictured with Thelma Todd in a still from CALL HER SAVAGE) will be familiar to any pre-code enthusiast as the “swine” who seduces naive heroines, impregnating and abandoning, blackmailing and tom-catting, social climbing and dragging innocent girls down with him on his fall, all with a plastered sneer as he leans forward with his weird nose just begging to be punched. He makes Tom Cruise seem humble, makes Richard Gere seem like the Buddha. He’s cast to make the other guy’s gentle dull decency seem sexy by contrast. He’d do well on match.com! But Owsley died young in a car accident and manipulative jerks like his characters became less popular as time went on. There was no time for cowards when WW2 rolled around, and afterwards, Breen’s code made sure girls were protected from tomcat tricks, and by the 1960s there was birth control so no one cared... until lately. Nowadays he'd be that hypocrite senator who preaches abstinence and then fires his assistant for rejecting his married advances.


 7. Charlie Ruggles, Roland Young, Charles Butterworth, and Tyler Brooke
For all its wonders, being a pre-code cinema fan means a good part of your life is spent watching Young or Butterworth or Ruggles bust moves and flatter away and get nowhere with beautiful, usually taller women. It’s never funny (at least to me), but it seems to be necessary as reassurance and/or shading, to highlight the good qualities of the hero by having a schmuck around to bear all the odious ones. Sometimes these guys do get the girl (Young and Ruggles do all right, and all have a chance with Zasu Pitts or Billie Burke should either be around), but we learn by seeing, and kids like me grow up thinking it’s okay to have short people hit on your wife, because hey, you’re tall and so what? They're no threat, haw haw. And short people learn that they’re meant to be terse and klutzy, insecure and bald and uncouth and never get the girl. Movies teach us that short people are meant to squirm with longing and gradually turn venomous, after which their Napoleonic codes get so complex that Stanley Kowalski must sometimes be sent in. (Short People Got - 3/11/08 -BLAD)

 8.  Ralph Bellamy
Hey - he's not skeevy per se, nor are many of the actors here, but he's a genius at being the 'safe, sensible' code-sanctioned choice when a bride is wary of Cary Grant or Gary Cooper. We all can imagine a happy and romantic life with either of those two, but thinking about a honeymoon with Bellamy, and a lifetime of darning his socks while his live-in mother henpecks and suffocates with doilies under every heirloom lamp, I can't breathe just writing about it. His earnest aw shucksiness is the sort of thing Algonquin wits like Ben Hecht can't resist hurling barbs at ("a home with mother... in Albany, too!") At the root of it all is the danger of a husband never straying from under mom's thumb, and so marrying him just means you're conscripted into his mother's roster of browbeaten subjects. Bellamy remains then stuck in the past era's morality, along with his small-town ma, exhibit A of the importance of leaving home and rebelling against mater asap, in all things, and for the slightest of reasons.

9. Bruce Dern - Coming Home (1978)and The Trip (1967)
He's pretty creepy as the 'guide' who messes with Peter Fonda's mind in THE TRIP. If you've been there you know the sort, masking what we expect are unseemly come-ons with hippy drippage about touch and closeness. Hippy or no, Dern is frequently a little skeevy, even if he's not treating his girls like tripping children, babying and belittling and humoring until they are yellow-wallpaper-driven to madness. Fonda's acid trip really doesn't pick up until he escapes Dern's crazy pad and heads off into la L.A. nocturne. If Dern had his way, god knows where Peter Fonda would have ended up. It sure as well wouldn't have been in bed with Salli Sachs.


In Ashby's undervalued classic, Coming Home, Dern is married to Peter's sister Jane, and a Vietnam officer too asinine to question the validity of his morals. In not doing so he embodies the Beatles' lyric heard in the film: "Living is easy with eyes closed..." His attitude of snickering, unconscious entitlement reminds me of every boorish moron I ever met while crashing frat parties. His character eventually loses out to Voight and goes for "the long swim" but if only he'd hung around awhile of course, he wouldn't have to worry-- the summer of love Jon Voights of the world lost out to the banal conformity and narrow sloppy drives of the Derns by 1981. All you need is love, but for the Derns of the world love is just another word for orgasm and instead of reciprocating going out to high five with the boys as soon as possible.

10. Herbert Marshall in Blonde Venus (1933)
I mention Marshall to illustrate the array of actors who can be skeevy one film then not skeevy the next (Marshall was the lead in Lubitsch's lovely Trouble in Paradise the same year). His character doesn't really to deserve, necessarily, to be on this list. He is after all the father of Marlene's tiresomely cute tyke in the film but Dietrich was never meant for the soapy martyr picture. Her ability to wash her child with Teutonic harshness while doing eight other things equally harshly is very very German, but too terrifying to seem truly maternal. And JVS ignores the bulk of the soapy genre's accredited angst in favor of long tracking shots through night clubs and along departing and arriving boatloads of passengers from and to Europe, where Marshall is sent for radium poisoning treatments thanks to cuckoldin' Cary Grant's generosity.

Who wouldn't rather see Grant and Dietrich together than see her go home to Marshall and that sticky-sweet home life situation? But the bitter formula must be served, even if you warm it first with pre-code smarts and glitzy gorilla suits. And man, Grant and Dietrich together... why didn't it happen more often? Sternberg definitely finds a darker, more abstract side of Grant, keeping him shrouded in dark shadow and frozen in arty cigarette ad poses. He merges and blends into Von Sternberg's dream-like maze of masks with perfect posture and elan. Marshall should be grateful for such a man's cuckoldry not to mention financial support, but he then tersely threatens to shoot him... dead. Hmm, that's not very cricket, Herbert. Your character in Trouble in Paradise would never be so... how you say.... uncouth?  I've always hated the guy who tried to whine and bully his way back into an old love's heart for, as the later era-Lou Reed song goes, "I'm a NYC man / blink your eyes and I'll be gone."

11. David Gurian as Harris - in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
While nosing around for 'Fugitive Kind' shots in my last post I found a great comment comparing Russ Meyer and Williams, since both were of the mind that a man is a failure if he can't satisfy his woman and it's her right to seek a stronger specimen and to keep seeking until she's satisfied. Amen, and that quote would have been perfect for Harris here. In my mind he's the truer villain of the film, Z-Man's anti-lesbian homicidal crack-up aside (which I think was inserted just to answer the demand for misogynistic violence by Ebert's under-laid, tormented imagination).  Just look at that unassuming twinkle in his eyes (above).. he's just not ready for the fast track insanity of the Valley. Hell, he can't even satisfy the unquenchable Ashley St. Ives. And so to teach them all a lesson he hurls himself from the lighting rigs during a live taping. And somehow in Ebert's twisted fecund mind that kind of behavior should be rewarded!

12.  Elliott Reid Detective Malone in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
A detective prone to smarmy moral high ground posturing, "the human ferret" just wants the brunette to admit the blonde he's hired to catch compromised is foul. When Jane says "I think I'm in love with that poor slob" and means Malone you really have no idea why. Just look at his smarmy grin in the pic above. At least Gus, the other moron male--the one chasing after Marilyn-- is inoffensive, a kind of Franklin Pangborn Jr. with owl glasses that fog up when Monroe kisses him--but Reid is unbearably smug and is the sole reason this film isn't one of my top ten favorite Hawks' films.

13. Max Von Sydow - Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Max von Sydow's relentless physicality and come-ons with his insane wife seems like both the cause and cure of her malady. At what point does horny husbandly affection turn vile? Certainly he seems his usual Sydow self in the film's other scenes, but when she's onscreen he starts right back up driving her over the edge with his needy come-ons. Bergman's made lots of slow but absorbing chamber pieces on his crazy island Faro and they're all classics that get better with each new viewing, but what keeps me away from seeing this a second time is the memory of my man Max suddenly reduced to one of those horny joes who keeps everyone awake at group slumber parties.

8 comments:

  1. I just wanted to stop in again and say that I always enjoy reading your articles (and lists). They're always very well put together and fascinating, not to mention enjoyable. You are one strange Brainiac.

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  2. Re: British Boyfriend in REPULSION; For as much of a self entitled skeeve as he came across, at the end of the movie, when all the apartment dwellers are taking in the results of Catherine Deneuve's break from reality and leering over her catatonic body, he was the one who picked her up off the floor as gently as a father picking up his sleeping daughter.

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  3. Shaw, Buchanan, Ruggles, Butterworth, Marshall, especially Young, and all-consumingly Owsley... tread lightly for you tread on my idols.

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  4. thanks Johnny, good point about his final gesture of humanity. And Matthew, sorry I don't mean to tread on your idols... but Owsley? Really? Owsley? The man who defines skeevy in the world of pre-code cinema? I included one of my own idols, Max von Sydow, to show you it's not the man but the role - if an actor's cast in a skeevy role he either becomes skeevy or is unworthy of idolhood.

    And thank you so much, Erik (Drunketh) - you give me strength to trudge onwards.

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  5. Yeah, I don't know what my point about that was, except it was a surprise. I just watched it last week for the first time (I am sure to see it again) and that ending was like, "I am unfiltered, but not a bad person, and we all go off our nut sometimes," he just seemed like a take action guy. That movie was such a predecessor to Eraserhead! What a surprise that was. And can Danny Huston NOT be a skeeve? He's just diabolical! I am really enjoying getting caught up on your writings.

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  6. I'd always leant towards atheism for Darwinian reasons, but it was when I'd heard Owsley died so young that I knew for sure I was right.

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  7. Anonymous14 May, 2012

    I found your site and I have to say thank-you , I have been burned out and jaded towards movies and now I'm actually looking forward to finding these movies to watch and actually enjoy ! You nailed it with Albert Brooks in Taxi never have I been more irritated with a character than him . I have to say I've always thought Lester Diamond/James Woods to be the skeeviest everyone who has ever pined away for an unobtainable girl or guy has met Lester Diamond in some form or other who has this stupid magnetic hold on someone who deserves better (like me! ;0) but they just cannot shake him/her loose ! I don't get it and I never will !

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  8. Thanks Anon! you are so right, I forgot Lester. He should be numero uno. then again, De Niro's casino boss is pretty skeevy as well.

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