Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Have we got a tough guy here? Have we got a tough guy from the streets?

In this hipster overrun time of ours, we've been slowly losing our dangerous man persona, ever since THE GRADUATE made it hip to be sullen. Men of earlier decades were real, complex, intelligent and tough: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, James Caan, Brando,  Lee Marvin, Sinatra, Bronson, Bogart... badasses not afraid to show intellect and wit, to pick fights and help others with their brains, fists and--when needed--guns.

We've still got some tough guys today, but most of them are pretty boys with glazed eyes. They toughen themselves up with military haircuts and grimy armor and CGI high contrast. For lack of a better all-around representative of this style, I'm using Channing Tatum, who I like a lot, actually, as far as this kind of new male goes. In all fair prejudice,  I'm looking at movie star males who are a whole generation younger than me, a generation that's grown up neck-deep in real war (Iraq and Afghanistan) video game war (too many to name, but most recently TOUR OF DUTY IV) and online fantasy war (W.O.W.). They celebrate the new sincerity and new virginity, and it scares me to death. Theirs is a bizarro-world, more conservative than their great grand-parents in the 1950s! At least the grandparents smoked cigarettes and had unprotected sex in drunken blackouts... for awhile..."cough"


At least Tatum has a fairly deep voice, but look at his baby face and his brow furrowed with dopey concentration, the kind of blank face that helps smart kids fit in, which is fine considering the callow war heroes he specializes in, but now, dear reader, now let's think of real tough guys, and how they don't have to pretend they're not witty, crazy and full of venom and vinegar. Imagine the original STAR WARS if there was NO Harrison Ford to add a real 'dangerous man' energy to the role. Instead, imagine if Hayden Christensen played Solo, or Freddie Prinze Jr. You have fallen asleep!? Welcome to the 10s! 
Just to prove it's got nothing to do with face and hair color (i.e., apple-cheeked and fair-haired callow) check out Angelina Jolie's dad (below left) in an old photo. He's got a baby face too, but take a deep look into those eyes. Even squinted shut you can tell there's a man in there, he'll fuck you up and not need to call for back-up and body armor before he does it. 

What you get with Tatum is more like a male model --a mix of tough guy posing, bedroom twinkle and the vacancy of a kid whose used to being stuck in classrooms and churches and not fathoming a word the teacher or preacher is saying and no one cares because there are kids worse off and louder.
Also, you have a kind of military professionalism. In the absence of actual fathers in the home, these kids have adopted military ethics and leadership as the de-facto non du pere (or "no of the father" - the prohibition of enjoyment that constitutes acceptance into the social order, away from the realm of the mother). 

That's all well and good until you remember just how dangerous, how far outside the box, our stars used to be. Our men used to be so dangerous that Harvey Keitel was the callow pretty boy (below). Now of course his hair and eyelashes are longer than Tatum's, but why is that? WHY oh WHY does every young thug-lite now have this awful mix of 50s crewcut and 80s gel hair? Oh, don't get me wrong, the actors of old could still bring the danger with no hair or even a self-inflicted Mohawk. Just look at De Niro's eyes (left) and you get a chill right down your spine.

I've been getting into The Dog Whisperer and I think he would call this trend an example of "bad leadership skills" or lack of assertiveness. A passive little boy lostness has infected our young men due to a crisis of fathering that's been getting worse since the dawn of the industrial age, and which they can't shake no matter how many CGI buildings they demolish...

As a final illustration, let's compare the new 3-D CLASH OF THE TITANS hero's look (GLADIATOR/300-style) with the original Harry Hamlin (whom I originally hated even seeing it in theaters as a kid back in 1983, for being also too smarmy). But compared with the harsh nihilism of the near-bald mercenary version of Perseus at left, freakin' Hamlin's a small miracle.

That said, we know where the Hamlin look comes from, and the first "tough guy pretty boy" from which the title of this blog entry comes (Randy Newman's "Pretty Boy" from 1979's Born Again) but it launched a thousand seamy/sexy NYC youth ships, and made glazed-eyed, pouty-lipped mono-syllabic working class boyhood into a sexual commodity that still sells today, even though the original is all but forgotten. I refer of course to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977).

P.S. for an antidote and return to full cool toughness, I recommend Kim Morgan's Dangerous Soulful Sexy Deep Freeze: Lee Marvin.


  1. Of course, compared to Tatum, Travolta might as well be Lee Marvin. And unlike Tatum, Travolta could (can?) act and starred in some pretty decent films early on (BLOW OUT). But you're right on the money re: Tatum - he's a non-threatening pretty boy who tries to act tough but fails miserably. Vintage tough guy actors just have it but this whole new crop tries too hard and forces it. Same goes with Tom Cruise... look at him trying oh-so hard in films like FAR AND AWAY or TOP GUN to look and act all badass... laughable! It took someone like Michael Mann to finally transform him into a convincing tough guy with COLLATERAL.

    I think one of the last films to feature a decent collection of truly badass tough guys was Walter Hill's EXTREME PREJUDICE with the likes of Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, William Forsythe, Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown AND Rip Torn. Amazing!

  2. You make good points...I'd go farther and say that, for the past three decades, we've been raising generations of pussies. Not only raising, but encouraging, them to take out their anger, not by kicking the shit outta each other, but by retreating to Facebook. There's no room for actors who don't need bodyguards anymore. It makes me sad...

  3. Thanks Simon, you're right, though they still may kick the shit out of each other (as in NEVER BACK DOWN which I wrote about here)

    And JD, thanks for mentioning Walter Hill! I had a Warrior analogy in this entry originally, how Tatum was trying to be Ajax but all he could do was a Swann.

  4. There have always been Cagneys and Rooneys. They coexist. Stop looking for patterns of decline. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Suck it up, boys.

  5. But I love looking for patterns of decline! Of course then I saw John Belushi, in old man make-up, ranting almost my exact statements in this regard, on a 1974 episode of SNL, and I realized I remembered seeing it live, as a faux-savvy 9 year old, and laughing hysterically. Ask not for whom the pattern declines...

    But it's true we've always had Rooneys but not true we have any Cagneys now. Where are they? They have to imported from Australia and the UK. I blame it on the lack of good old-fashioned shelling. Kids today in Iraq don't get shelled for days on end like they did in world war two and Korea. It makes a whole generation tougher.

  6. fantastic! thanks for writing what I've been trying to articulate for a long time. Leo is my age exactly - & c'mon, I'm going grey now & he still looks like he's playing dress up. where are the real men!?


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