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Sunday, January 26, 2014


William "Bud" Abbott

William "Bud" Abbott will forever be remembered as half of the comedy duo "Abbott and Costello," whose partnership of slapstick absurdity kept America laughing through the second World War. Bud is often rated lower on the hilarity totem than his partner Lou Costello-- the bashful, ignorant, lovable clown in their many collaborations-- but Bud was just as essential to their wisecracks. As Lou himself would say, a good straight man is hard to find. 

Abbotts's exceptional timing and tyrannical love taps acted as the engineers of Lou's out of control mug train. As a circus kid, Bud learned early all about entertaining the crowd, and he transitioned easily to both performing and producing burlesque and vaudeville shows before he teamed up with his serendipitous partner on the silver screen to made history. Stylish, loud, and annoyed with the charlatans surrounding him, Bud represented the exaggeration of the everyman-- just trying to stay sane in a world filled with fools. Along with his delightful play on words ("Who's on first"), Bud's comic reactions to Lou's mistakes, guffaws, and random acts of crazy were true tokens of his brilliantly instinctual approach to his craft. Lou stepping into a bucket in Hold that Ghost is funny, but Bud putting his ashamed face in his hand is funnier. 

The Abbott & Costello duo brought merriment and mayhem to cinema in One Night in the Tropics, but it was Buck Privates that would put the real fire under their career, and their monster movies would make them legendary. Over the years, the duo "met" Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the Murderer, the Invisible Man, etc, and as such, worked consistently through the mid-fifties. As times changed, their style of comedy began to stale. In addition, Bud and Lou's hot and cold relationship reached a boiling point that ended their partnership. Initially, Lou had insisted that Bud receive the bulk end of a 60/40 cut; later this was altered to 50/50. Then, Lou wanted the marquee to read "Costello and Abbott." In addition, Bud's epilepsy, only exacerbated by his enthusiastic drinking, started effecting his life and livelihood. His gambling debts would result in him having to sell his properties and start from scratch, which he tried to do with a new partner, Candy Candido. But, his failing health would impede his hoped for comeback. He openly admitted that there would never be anyone as good with him as Lou. 

In contrast to his testy character, Bud was a fun-loving, life of the party fellow who spent a little too much of his juice trying to outrun his demons. He succumbed to prostate cancer after suffering at least two strokes at the age of 78. However, as a performer, he knew that with or without him, "the show must go on."

THE REEL REALS: Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff in his The Mummy chair

Boris Karloff: the gentleman killer. That is how we see him, isn't it? The misunderstood Monster, the brokenhearted, asexual beast out for blood, the accidental criminal, the dastardly evil-doer who will slit your throat just as easily as sip a spot of tea... Boris earned his slogan of "Karloff the Uncanny" honestly. The strange combination of his passionate yet cool demeanor and his slim, ever-mutating body seemed destined to accept the torch Lon Chaney left when he passed away. In fact, Chaney was the one who gave Boris the best advice of his life, which was essentially: "be different." Challenge accepted.

Who can forget the first time they watched Frankenstein? The utter anticipation as that long, slender arm began to rise from the table; then the initial, breath-taking reveal of the Monster in three progressive shots: long, medium, and close-up. Boom, boom, boom. And there it is. That face. That haunted, half-dead, half alive, disturbing, frightening, yet pitiful face. In those milliseconds, a star was born, and one unlike any other that would ever live. Karloff's home became that of the Universal monster lot, whether breathing life into another undead hero as Imhotep/Ardeth Bay in the Karl Freund masterpiece The Mummy, playing God in the science fiction classic The Invisible Ray, or giving what I consider to be one of his greatest performances in The Body Snatcher. Boris could be relied upon to deliver, no matter how ridiculous the storyline. The setting could be an insane asylum (Bedlam), a laboratory (The Man with Nine Lives), or a haunted house of secrets (The Old Dark House), but he could pull it off. 

Struggling throughout his thespian career after making the voyage from Britain to American, it took him time to find his place. Timing, good fortune, and a little help from James Whale got the deed done, and Boris remained forever grateful for his success and totally committed to the continued work. He always humbled himself before the character and the project-- even when he knew it was a laugh. His great art was in turning the most outlandish material into something utterly believable with his presence alone. His commitment can be evidenced in the physical pain many of his costumes and make-up concoctions caused him: the length of time to put on and remove his cosmetics was bad enough, but the heat, the skin peeling, and sometimes even the inability to relieve himself, didn't make things any easier! Still, he conquered, just as a cultured ghoul would.

Boris was a living legend, freaking people out and endearing them to him at the same time. His work on the stage after his cinematic success would boast of his public appeal, and he triumphed in "Peter Pan" as Captain Hook, "The Lark" as Bishop Cauchon, and of course "Arsenic and Old Lace" as the killer whose faulty plastic surgery as left him looking like... Boris Karloff! (Sadly, he wasn't in the film. Can you imagine seeing that live)?! The adoration for Boris continued long after the peak of his success as the Universal King and the B-horror Godfather. As such, only he could have voice to The Grinch. With a slight lisp and an ancient, crackling, baritone timbre, there was something about even the sound he made that made people adore him. (Ironically, he fought tooth and nail to keep the Monster from speaking in Bride of Frankenstein). His final triumph was Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, which many believe to be his greatest performance. 

This ultimate creeper left us in 1969, when another brand of horror took over-- that all too real and vivid terror of the Manson family. Thus, his dual essence of the hero and villain bookend the era of cinematic history when fear was strangely seductive and somehow safe. He was the martyr that brought our nightmares to life and expurgated them so we may lie peacefully (trembling) in our beds. Without him, the land of horror is much less regal, soulful, and poetic. Luckily, he haunts us still...


Ann-Margret Olsson

Ann-Margret: the woman so nice (to look at), they named her twice! The shy Swede turned American redhead was one of the biggest stars in the '60s and remains one of the greatest sex symbols of all time. After transferring to the states, Ann-Margret Olsson started her artistic education by taking dance classes, and by the time she graduated from high school, she decided to drop out of college, leave Illinois behind, and pursue a career as a singer. With an onstage presence that contrasted her true demeanor, her sensuality and sense of fun, when combined with her out of this world beauty, made her stand out from the pack. George Burns was the first to give her a leg up in the showbiz community, adding her to his own holiday show after witnessing her in action.

Ann wanted to be a singer most of all, and her first professional coup was getting a contract with RCA. She would record many albums and even some popular singles, but it would be the camera that loved her best. Small parts in State Fair and Pocketful of Miracles did not prepare the world, nor herself, for the cataclysm of sexual power she would unearth in Bye Bye Birdie. Twenty-two upon the film's release-- a mockery of the effect of Elvis Presley on civilization, and their reaction to his entry into war-- Ann possessed an incredibly mature sexuality and feral aggression that separated her from the other cookie-cutter, apple pie girls on the silver screen. She was a friendly femme fatale. Mixed with her touches of vulnerability and still present innocence-- however valiantly her character "Kim McAfee" tried to ignore her youth-- Ann was immediately likable, desirable, and incomparable. Labeled the female Elvis, it only made sense that she be partnered in a film with him, Viva Las Vegas, which led to a classic, swingin' sixties film, a torrid romance, and a lifelong friendship.

Ann's career had its ups and downs, as she was obviously typecast for her bountiful physical features more than her depth, but any stalls in her career were combatted by her passion and willingness to take chances. Thus, the hottest ticket in Hollywood who turned heads in The Cincinnati Kid, later re-emerged as a complicated leading lady, using the strengths of her sexual allure to reveal the complicated nature underlying a pretty girl's facade, particularly as that beauty faded with age. Her work in the iconic Tommy as well as that in Carnal Knowledge had a shocking effect on a public who still held onto an image of her sex-kitten persona, one that she fearlessly broke down before them. One of her greatest triumphs was appearing opposite the two comic greats Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men and its sequel, playing the aged but still vibrant object of desire to two weathered oafs lives. 

Throughout her 7 decades on this earth, Ann has maintained her beauty, her vivacity, and her charm. The shade of her hair may be false, but the firecracker of her spirit is one-hundred percent authentic. It still illuminates our world and shakes things up. Viva la femme!

THE REEL REALS: Alec Guinness

Alec Guinness gets in character.

Alec Guinness has the quality that many actors wish they possessed but fail to understand. He had control. This distinctive attribute is what made his performances so sincere, no matter how outlandish, theatrical, or even absurd they may have been. He was a stone-cold fox: cemented, locked in, and certain, right down to his very core. As such, his communication with the camera or audience, his interactions with other actors, are always believable, if only for the unbelievably graceful and almost hypnotic tone of his deep voice. "This is the truth, I'm speaking," it seemed to say. His surrender to and thus envelopment within his roles made him quite the "force" to be reckoned with. 

Perhaps the reason for his unbelievable physical and psychological articulation in his roles-- in which he metamorphosed seamlessly from creature to creature-- was his clear-headedness as a man. While palpably passionate about his craft, he wasn't an unbridled beast. This made him more threatening. He was calculating. He seemed to house all of the answers to the universe in his head. What this means, in laymen's terms, is that he was able to cut through the bullsh*t, the façade, the mere presentation and get at the truth. He knew what mattered, in his work and in his life. His work was work: a job to be conscientiously well done. One can say with certainty that he applied the same dedication and attention to detail in his early work in advertising. However, by the age of twenty, he had received his call to an even more artistic profession. Still, it didn't own him. He was devoted but unabsorbed. The fame or wealth that is often associated with movie stardom was of no interest. Treading the boards of the Old Vic for an honest day's work was enough. His sense of reality grounded his every day life so that when venturing on the flights of fancy and all out fantasy in his work, his spirit may have been in the clouds but his head was not, and his feet remained solidly on the earth. 

His filmography is nothing to be sniffed at. While "Darth Vader" remains the iconic, albeit masked, face of Star Wars, "Obi Wan" remains its soul. Alec's performance as the guru Jedi master remained potently felt throughout the first three movies, though his character died in the first (reputedly his idea), and it is almost solely due to his performance that a sense of gravity was given to what could have become an absolutely ridiculous "space movie." He never actually said, "May the force be with you," but fans of the film attributed this quote to him, because that was the feeling he bestowed upon them. However, he is much more than this film, though it nearly eclipsed his entire preceding career. In addition to all of his many celebrated performances on the stage, opposite other English greats like Laurence Olivier, Alec contributed to Oliver Twist, The Lavendar Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, The Swan, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. All characters were intricately detailed in both an emotional and physical sense. All different, yet all real. Conviction. Alec had conviction. As such, it seems that nearly all films in which he starred have stood the test of time. Integrity is timeless, as is honesty. Thus, Mr. Guinness still has us in his trance.

Friday, January 24, 2014

THE REEL REALS: Barry Fitzgerald

Barry Fitzgerald with his Oscar

Barry Fitzgerald is "the bomb." Outshining even the extremely hot chemistry between Duke Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in his drunken, comedic turn as the town matchmaker in "The Quiet Man," Barry also shared Oscar glory with Bing Crosby in the surprise success "Going My Way." An honest Dubliner, born and raised, part of Barry's appeal was his thick, Irish accent and his likeable, unpredictable actions and reactions. Whether playing the increasingly confused and slightly mad groundskeeper in "Bringing Up Baby" or making a cameo appearance in "Duffy's Tavern," there was no telling what the lovable leprechaun would say or do next. All one could do was sit, wait, and most likely, laugh.

Getting a late start in the acting profession, Barry wouldn't grace the screen until he was nearly forty. Both he and, later, his younger, nationalist brother Arthur Shields would journey to America and find success working with director John Ford, who immediately took a liking to the sprightly Barry in particular. From a civil servant to an unexpected film star, Barry would enjoy over thirty years performing on the silver screen before passing away in his early seventies back in Dublin. In addition to his lovable Irish brogue, Barry had an irreplaceable, unmatched persona that made viewers adore him-- there is no actor that could have outperformed or improved upon his characterizations in any of his given film. This, one could say, is the mark of the finest of actors.

THE REEL REALS: Blanche Sweet

Blanche Sweet

Blanche Sweet was a powerhouse female player in the silent era of cinema, whose onscreen nature seemed in perfect keeping with her name-- which was not an invention, apart from the fact that Blanche was her middle name. Her great beauty and graceful demeanor made the camera immediately fall in love with her, and the American public would follow suit. Her talent as an actress had been long cultivated by treading the boards from her very infancy as an actress and dancer. This in conjunction with her iron guts and angelic presence made her a shoe-in for Biograph and its leading director: D.W. Griffith.

While younger than some of Griffith's other leading ladies-- Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish among them-- Blanche's startling maturity often led to her being cast in more mature roles. While a fairly petite woman, Blanche always came across as large, filling the screen with her charisma and poignant emotional articulation. She was, therefore, not one of Griffith's standard little-girl women but a woman full stop. Perhaps this is why, after participating in many of his poetic shorts, she was selected to star in his first feature-length film, "Judith of Bethulia" (1914). Blanche would migrate to Paramount and continue her successful career working with other big time directors like Cecil B. DeMille ("The Warrens of Virginia") and Marshall Neilan ("Tess of the D'Urbervilles,")-- with whom she would enjoy a scandalous affair, which led to marriage, which led to divorce. (God love him, "Mickey" was never one for moderation, in drink or in women).

Blanche would make a triumphant transfer into the Talkies, particularly with her highly praised performance in "Show Girl in Hollywood," but she surprisingly retired from the screen to return to theatre, later doing some work on Radio and even Television. However, her post-silent career was not as successful, and she allegedly had to take a job at a department store at one point, her days in the idol sun forgotten by the world that had once adored her. Luckily, with the rediscovery of her films and the advent of TV and home video, Blanche's power once again holds sway over those blessed enough to witness her Sweet talent.

Friday, January 10, 2014

HISTORY LESSON: Man Enough? Part 3 - Method to Modern Times

Continued from Part One - The Silents and Part Two - The Studio Era

The Wild One was not a fantastic film all considered, but it remains interesting
for its incite into the angst of the youth culture in the 1950s. Brando's line in this
scene summed it all up. As he beats on the juke box, with a contemptuous
eye fixed on his surroundings, he's asked, "Hey, Johnny... What are you
rebelling against?" He replies: "Whaddya got?" Gold.
Guttural actors of passion, guts, and loins have been acting their hearts out in cinema since from its very advent. However, something different started happening as the 1940s transitioned to the 1950s. With World War II over, another battle was inevitable. Mercifully and mercilessly, this one would be “Cold.” Broken by the horrifying glimpse into man’s darkest chasms—the Holocaust, the Devil and/is Adolf Hitler, the American boys coming home in coffins—the United States lost its trust, and the word “united” stopped being aptly descriptive of the nation. The country would be divided, not between North and South, Republican from Democrat, or Caucasian from all others, but instead everyone from everything. This new paranoia naturally led to the red scare—the obsession regarding an impending war that was only theoretical. We sought to identify villains, weed them out, and destroy them before they could strike. Less focus was given to the “Commie Bastards” building missiles on the other side of the globe than to the silent threat hiding among us: the radicals, the divergents, and those threatening the sanctity of our fictional impenetrability. A skeptical eye was turned on every neighbor, and the witch hunts began.
The movies followed, both before and behind the scenes. As the Hollywood Ten were called before the bench of public opinion and hypocrisy, celebrities of the past were forced to confront the HUAC tribunal—The Father (Joseph McCarthy), The Son (Paranoia), and the Scapegoat. Those too proud to beg (Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole) or those too petrified to argue (Elia Kazan, Robert Taylor), became the sacrificial lambs in the nation’s shamefully unfolding history. Most kept their heads down and stayed "polite" and non-political (Gary Cooper), some were scolded for their resistance and then silenced (Humphrey Bogart), but others flew into a rage of protest (John Huston, Gene Kelly), the same vigor within them that had drawn them to art hastening them to protect humanity. This created conflict on the screen; film noir grew even darker and the heightened paranoia punched up storylines. In the meantime, while Hollywood would continue to produce films starring the greats of the past, these men were aging. Audiences held onto them as necessities, guys indivisible from the very name America, but our hold on them was loosening. 

John Garfield, the wronged man in They
Made Me a Criminal.
New actors with fresh perspectives started to emerge. These guys came with a contrasting conscience to their macho forbears. John Garfield is often credited with paving the way for the method actors to come, his art being his lack of art. He was not a superhero, a cowboy, a villain, or a martyr. He was just a man, and he presented himself as such. He mumbled with streetwise, apathetic articulation, and his movements were natural and un-mannered. His prototype of masculine authenticity became a game-changer: each man is his own sinner and saint. Your worst enemy is not he at whom you point your judgmental finger, but the voice you hear in your head-- the one you are often too weak to combat. So, Garfield fell prey to both greed and his desire for Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, played the underdog as the desperate boxer turned puppet in Body and Soul, and represented the wronged minority as the Jewish Dave Goldman in Gentleman’s Agreement.
Kirk Douglas as the unconscionable reporter in Billy Wilder's 
Ace in the Hole, one of his many shades of gray
morality pieces.
Film had always asked moral questions, but it had never penetrated the gauze of hypocrisy that simplified black and white philosophy to ask truly social questions. The distinction was no longer that of "Is this right or is this wrong," but "What does this say about us? What if there is no hero? What if there is no solution?" Hollywood doesn’t like open endings, sad endings, nor any package that is not cleanly wrapped. So, while the monarchs of the past—Gable, Wayne, Cooper—carried the torch of vintage Americana, actors like Garfield, Burt Lancaster, and Kirk Douglas acted as progressive, envelope-pushing phenoms of male complexity and rebellion, slowly paving the way for those others reacting to a changing world. Confinement is not acceptable to the male animal, and while some stayed behind, others would mature with their world, working to untie the knots that they had seen formed even in their own lifetime. Yet, the tug-of-war between the past (a lost era that can never be revisited) and the future (a horrifying but necessary prospect) would begin and end in one word: “Stella!”
Brando's Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named
. His macrocosm of machismo would
knock the socks off Hollywood.
Marlon Brando killed Tinsel Town. After he ripped off her crown, it was no longer possible for the public to ignore her lies. Every new generation of man has a need to discover the world for himself, and such evolution necessitates demolishing the old images we had once so relied upon. The New Kids, those of the Stanislavsky or the Strasberg or whatever school, lashed out at their parents as all children do. They translated the world as they saw it, maturing into ungovernable, multifaceted anti-heroes performing only accidental heroics. Brando’s appearance as the cave man of humanity’s past in A Streetcar Named Desire unleashed a horridly brutal portrait of those theories of manhood that we had once held sacrosanct. He was a man unmannerly, primitively sexual, alcoholic, abusive, and even sadistic, all of these qualities simultaneously enclosing a scared boy desperately clinging to/rejecting his mother’s breast-- exemplified in the mother of his own child, Stella (Kim Stanley). He desires and is addicted to her earthy appeal, even supplicating himself before it, while shunning the pretense of the past, mercilessly raping false Hollywood’s personification in Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh). He makes her antiquity a joke. It was a savage way to bring us into a new era, but it worked.
Working alongside him were Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Ben Gazzara, James Dean, and Dennis Hopper. These artists in the early method days were like a jolt of adrenaline in the arm of America. While Hollywood tried to package them, they rebuffed the shackles of the star system by doing something different with their performances. They weren't playing to their audiences; they were playing their audiences. Neither enunciation nor dialogue were as important as internal and thus physical authenticity. Brando mumbled and tossed lines away. Clift spoke with his eyes and his body. Dean went to another planet, playing hide and seek with the camera, giving it the proverbial finger while making his audiences search for him and the truth. Newman defied his good looks by wearing a chip on his shoulder and letting his guts hang inside out-- the only man in known history to eat "fifty eggs" to prove a point. Actors suddenly weren't actors, they were people. In a return to the "every man" appeal of the silent days, stars were replaced with standard, every day guys, albeit with a little artistic elevation. 

Monty Clift, post-crash.
With an enthusiasm for the art that eclipsed the drive for celebrity, these actors seemed to resent themselves. Most openly admitted to an embarrassment over their chosen profession. A real man would be the men they pretended to be instead of being imitations. Their ego was hurt by society's definition of them as "pansies." Perhaps their reaction to this was a result of the fact that they were being more emotionally open than actors of the past. Yet, in their unapologetic tears and vulnerability, there was an aggression, a naked abandon, a sense of dissatisfaction and fear, which often revealed itself in moments of poetry. They were flawed men, and as such, they were relatable men. But, they were still men for other men to look up to. They took movie star status and brought it back down to earth. The polish was gone; the anger was still there. Clift perhaps embodied this best, as his great beauty and "movie star looks" were corrupted by his fatal crash. His life as his art, most specifically in A Place in the Sun, thus visually revealed what many instinctively felt-- that the American Dream was broken, and they were left the sons of its still perjuring manipulations. 

McQueen on the move in Bullitt.
Men were not portrayed as valiant fighters of the Flynn or Wayne variety. They were only accidental heroes. Brando's conflicted and bitter character in On the Waterfront had no desire for social glory. His own feelings of social rejection-- the boxer who didn't make it-- have made him disinterested in its salvation, until he finally stands up to the "the Man," Lee J. Cobb, to reclaim his integrity-- the only real thing a man has to hold onto. In keeping, Dean's Jett Rink in Giant starts out a buffoon chasing "the dream" and ends a ruined, despicable tycoon. An audience that understood his desperate rise and fall never withdrew its sympathy. McQueen did everything fast and hard, barely stopping for breath, sleeping his way through every beautiful woman's bed in every movie, rejecting his responsibility to them all in the desperate attempt to make The Great Escape from America's uncertain cobweb. No matter the struggle or his characters' flaws, the existential discontentment that followed him from film to film always made him a victim of circumstance. As in Papillon, he never stops trying to break from imprisonment. 

People needed this carnality. Men particularly were desperate to make such carnal howls. As young men were called to serve in the Vietnam War, their drafts arriving like preordered toe tags, there was plenty to scream about. As women grew more independent and feminism started taking a more assertive stand, the male position in the generally accepted patriarchy started to crumble. As society endured race riots, police brutality, the push toward desegregation, the arrival of the hippie, the metamorphosis of sock-hop rock 'n' roll to the Kinks early premonitions of Heavy Metal, the world seemed to be moving faster than it had since the 1920s without the nonchalance. Men onscreen began to inhabit all facets of the male human conundrum. His desire for love, and his desire to dominate; his quest for order and peace of mind, and his desire to escape the roots of his father. His brute force was supercharged but tempered with an increasing attraction to knowledge. A child of communal hysteria, he questioned the world around him. He defied it, and fell prey to it. The jig was up, and a new game was set: there is no peace on earth. Life is War is Hell, From Here to Eternity.
While Poitier's character in The Defiant Ones
still had to inevitably take a fall for "the
white man,"
Curtis, he also presented a
man morally superior and more
sympathetic than his partner
in crime.
Along with the surprising sensitivity these guys allowed to manifest in their performances-- Clift's jaw dropping and soulful performance in Lonelyhearts, Wallach's vengeful complexity in Baby Doll-- bigger issues were taking place than man's internal conflict. The camera turned outward as the actors turned inward. The world became the stage and its changing geography was mirrored on the screen. There suddenly emerged the minority voice in the person of Sidney Poitier. With the black man’s definition of masculinity on film as yet undefined-- previously only viewed as the segregated, submissive dog to the true, Caucasian male authority figure-- his windy path to absolution on film was yet to come. Sidney’s intelligence, poise, and natural command made him a worthy and acceptable vessel for all audience members to follow, and this initiated their Voyage Out of the deep dark forest of bigotry.  His instant charisma made him likable; the fact that he had the air of a gentleman and spoke in sophisticated "white man's speak" made him nonthreatening. His work-- The Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess, Raisin in the Sun, Lilies of the Field, Patch of Blue, In the Heat of the Night-- presented him not as a cliche but as a man. While his skin color played a significant part in each role, it was not viewed as an unfortunate handicap that was to be pitied nor one that deserved condescension. He was an American trying to "make it" like any other citizen-- his biology so inconsequential that it made those who tried to use it against him the sorriest of villains. 

Spencer Tracy defends Darwin in
Inherit the Wind.
As this progress was made, the old school veterans tried to keep up.
Spencer Tracy, always an actor with conscience-- a quality that haunted him in his private life-- approached groundbreaking material with his token respectful humility and uncanny intuition into the altercation of man's eternal maturation. In his films, he not only kept up with but outdid the rebel boys riding his coattails in Judgment at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the first of which he acted opposite Clift, the last Poitier. Meanwhile, John Wayne entered darker territory, and as his conservative politics found resistance with the changing world, his characterizations became even more multifaceted than before. He went from tough on the outside, to tough through and through. His work in True Grit and The Shootist did two things. One was to reveal his depths as an actor, which echoed the secret personal frustrations and bitterness as insecurity followed him into old age. The second was to reveal the lingering public need for icons-- the ones who had never let the world down during their Hollywood reign. Society sought that certainty, particularly the older generations, as the world around them became a thing they didn't recognize. Never was there such a clean split between age and beauty on the screen.  

Peck and Mitchum represent exaggerations of
two versions of the battling American male:
the Apple Pie man of morality vs. the
inner, untamed beast. 
As such,
Clark Gable continued drawing fans to theaters to see his work in Mogambo and his wizened, vulnerable, and raw performance in The Misfits. Gary Cooper brought his usual understated pathos to High Noon, then shied away from provocative material to uphold his Mr. Deeds image. Mitchum always worked-- when he wasn't fishing, that is-- all the way into the '90s, performing in everything from The Night of the Hunter (1955) to Dead Man (1995). Gregory Peck held the badge of the eternal man of conscience, representing the soul of what America at least stood for-- or hoped to-- as Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, and wrote his own cinematic doctrine by performing in topical or controversial pieces like On the Beach and The Boys from Brazil. He then proved his merit by pulling off a transition to horror in The Omen-- only a solid man of common sense as trusted as he could pull off the conflict of a reasonable man who comes to fear God through the acceptance of the Devil.
As these heroes died, retired, or were forgotten, the turmoil didn't cease. Men were left without giants and forced to reckon with themselves as cinema delved even deeper into the disturbances of the human psyche, his condition, and the complications of the world around him. The Kent State shootings, Patty Hearst and the SLA, Watergate, the Munich Massacre, Korea, Ted Bundy, the death of Morrison, the death of Hendrix, the death of Joplin, the death of Elvis... All these monumental crises chewed up the "glory, Hallelujah" of life and left man to reinterpret it's National Anthem as one big con. 

The Godfather opens with Vito Corleone almost immediately asking
for his son Michael. "Where's Michael?" He doesn't even share words 
with his son at his his daughter's wedding. Mistrustful of his eldest son 
Sonny,  he seeks the true family anchor to carry on his heavy burdens. 
These actors do not  have a genuine scene together until Pacino comes 
to Brando in the hospital and names him as his father,  stating, 
"I'm with you now."  Inheritance accepted. POETRY.
With the now absolutely dominant presence of television and the quickening informational capacity of the media, America was shrouded in mistrust and was Hell-bent on dismantling any still perpetuated delusions of grandeur. We are men; we are monsters. The method trend continued in two strains-- still real guys-- as activists or anarchists. Thus we witnessed the emergence of Dustin Hoffman's feminism in Tootsie and Kramer vs. Kramer and Robert De Niro's anti-christ in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Heroes were villains as they hadn't been since the '30s, and all were political. Who better to usher in these angst-ridden young men, seeking in vain to establish their misshapen identity than the Don himself-- he who had paved their way? Brando passed the torch to Al Pacino in The Godfather, and what followed on film was a new breed of man, violently tearing himself and his society down so he can build himself, and it, up again.

This anger began to dissipate in the hands of
Ronald Reagan's 1980s optimism. America, in between battles for a time,  was determined to enjoy the economic boom and continue the progress of the '60s and '70s by turning itself into a big enough threat to keep all further mutinies, attacks, and depressions at bay. From the spring-board of the Jewish and Italian actors who populated the masculine screen in the last decade, Captain America was due to return-- our arrogance transforming itself into the muscular, one man heroes that only needed a gun to save the world (a trend started by Charles Bronson in Death Wish, and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, the bridge films to a new era). 

Arnold goes Commando; America is secure.
Regular guys with chips on their shoulders disappeared behind muscular Gods from Mt. Olympus. Stallone: the broken, underdog poet on a mission. Willis: the clown having "a very bad day." Gibson: the loose cannon, crazy enough to do anything. Cruise: the miniature but cocky pretty-boy whose belief in his own invincibility worked better than any firearm. And Schwarzenegger... Where did this human treasure come from? His Austrian accent only enhanced his status as a mythological creature: Conan the American. His unprecedented reign in everything from action to science fiction to comedy made him an unparalleled force in the industry. People loved him. Utterly. His gravity as a performer was never exactly earth-shattering, but his unabashed commitment to whatever battle he was fighting was. Say what you will about the guy-- he always went for it. America was safe under Arnold's watch. He had our back, and we knew we could trust him every time he uttered those eternal words, "I'll be back," and he always did come back again... Up until the new millennium we he found politics and we found iPhones.

Our heroes aged, only reappearing to mock their image or play on their past mammoth status-- mostly thanks to Stallone's still active imagination and business savvy, as evidenced in The Expendables. At the same time, the world was intruded by the world wide web. As the increasing technological forces at our fingertips became our new heroes, our fascination with human representatives diminished. Our art, our introspection, slowly lost its way while we personally downsized to smaller screens in separate universes, wherein we became our own idols. (For more on that subject, visit my past article YouTube Killed the Movie Star). 

Now we find ourselves in search of "men." As a reflection of society at large, where gender equality between men and women has become (arguably) more balanced, more negative/competitive attention is given to the "other-genders": the homosexuals, the transvestites, the transsexuals, and even living dolls. The emergence of these different strains of manhood and the slow acceptance of them has split the previously more "predictable sex" completely asunder. A Man is a Man isn't a Man anymore. Men are expected to be more emotionally mature, to be more participatory and open in relationships, and to make room for women, who have invaded and irreparably altered the work place, changing all pre-programmed existential strategy. Wife, baby, house: they no longer apply. Your girlfriend is working, she's not ready to have kids, and who the Hell can afford a house in this economy?!?!

This economic slight is perhaps the worst. The depression has made our men depressed. The inability of a man to be a provider is the greatest wound to his ego. A provider is the one thing that he historically must be and which has been consistently represented throughout his path on film. A man must earn-- legally or illegally. Now, men are either out of work or working at jobs that torture them at breakneck speeds for far too little compensation. This, in conjunction with media saturation and our current obsession with surface over substance, pressures him to be a body-conscious metro-sexual with a sweet car, (that he can't afford). 

Man is showcased as presentation-- hiding behind cool specs and wearing skinny jeans, because he doesn't know what else to do. At least, that is the way he is portrayed in advertisements or by the baby-faced, interchangeable pseudo-stars of today. "Men" are Zac Efron, Channing Tatum, singer turned "actor" Justin Timberlake, or that other guy from the inexplicable tragedy of Magic Mike... hold on, I have to look up his name... Alex Pettyfer? Whatever. He's so boring that I would rather watch two retarded hippos have sex than see anything he's in. Pretty, pretty presentations... Some of them try so hard to act, to come across with actual guts, but most of them are just nice guys who are nice looking and that's it. When they imitate the strong men they grew up with, it comes across as insincere and a little pathetic. We're far too cynical to take any of them seriously. As such, they have replaced 1940s wartime pin-ups to become our modern bimbos, a total sexism boomerang effect.

Instinctively, contemporary men reject their actors as physical embodiments of their threatened emasculation, and are consequently left without what they deem to be true representatives, which is why they reject the options placed before them. There are some standouts. 
Ryan Gosling gets away with what he does due to his taste for intriguing material and his tendency to keep quiet and underplay. (Is it minimalism, or is it just not acting? At least he keeps things interesting). Ryan Reynolds and Bradley Cooper have genuine chops, but they aren't taken seriously enough to be idols. DiCaprio keeps killing it due to his genuine talent and eagerness to take risks. Still, while men respect him, no one man-crushes on him like they once did Cruise. Mark Wahlberg will always be Marky Mark, with or without his funky bunch. Even Brad Pitt's Fight Club sheen has tarnished behind the public campaign he always seems to be waging to be "Look, I'm the Nicest Guy EVER!"

The amped up versions of masculinity presented in the sorry excuses for action films over the last decade-- which are so nondescript and cliched that I can't really think of one right now-- aren't authentic. We rely on Willis to reappear with Die Hard sequels, or Stallone to pull another Rambo or Rocky out of his back pocket. Yet, today's men aren't bodybuilders, because they are expected to be lean-- and not fighting machines, but sex objects. They also can't relate to Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson or Vin Diesel because they are beefy doofuses. In truth, audiences can only tolerate an action hero when he's a superhero, because these are mutants and real men don't feel that they are capable of superhero-dom right now-- not after what happened to us on 9/11. Real guys walking through fire or being shot to Hell and surviving don't make sense after witnessing bodies dropping from the Twin Towers and subsequently watching the economy bleed. Such fictions insult our intelligence. As such, when good looking guys with empty heads put on the cape (Superman Returns, 2006) we don't care. When an actor with actual ability does and the material is darker, we are more apt to get on board (Man of Steel, 2013). 

In contrast to Bruce Wayne, the Joker dives into
the chaos, as this is what has made him what
he is. His indulgence in it is his antipathy for it,
a fact many could certainly relate to.
In truth, the superhero marathon we're still lazily championing has another effect. Thanks mostly to
Christopher Nolan's work in the latest Batman franchise, the fantasy world of these masked crusaders has become more interesting. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne is kind of an asshole in reality. He's self-obsessed. He loses the girl. His life is a self-inflicted curse... He has money, but what good does it do him? He consistently has to get out there and fight to defend his honor and save Gotham City, just as men put on their suits or khakis everyday and get out there and try to make a living and save the country from itself. Life sucks. Perhaps that is why people responded to Heath Ledger's joker with such passion... Being a hero isn't glamorous. It stinks. Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man could die at any moment, because of his defunct heart. The Hulk is the biggest loser ever and a bona fide freak. Thor lives on a boring planet that I wouldn't visit on my worst day. 

What is interesting about these films, aside from Captain America-- which didn't catch on because of the pretty boy problem-- is that the commendable acting when mixed with the machismo is what made all of its stars acceptable. Bale was an actor's actor before. People knew him as the guy from American Psycho. He puts on a cape, and suddenly he's the man. Downey became the comeback kid when he got clean and became Iron Man, going from public enemy number one to everyone's favorite movie star. If it weren't for Thor, there would be no Chris Hemsworth. He would have been one of the vanilla, interchangeable, revolving-door-duds on the cover of whatever constitutes today's internet "Tiger Beat." Similarly, everyone thought Matt Damon was a "pussy" until he became Jason Bourne. Men need the personifications of their complexities with a little flexing of muscle. They may not be he-men, but they're still men after all. Whatever "men" means these days...

Zach Galifianakis: modern hero lampooning
the superficiality of an industry that normally
wouldn't have him. Thank God for tough
In truth, the biggest and most celebrated stars of today are the comedians-- coming full circle back to the silent comic days. Their modus operandi is different-- more vulgar and uncouth-- but losers who make us laugh are definitely on top in the industry game. Their masculine ineptitude gives men a cathartic sigh of relief from the pressures of contemporary narcissism and equally gives them permission to be a little screwed up right now. It's nice for them to see dudes just being "dudes." 
The appeal of the "Frat Pack" of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and the Wilson brothers may have died down, but one of the most iconic, oft-quoted, and beloved characters of the current generation is Will Ferrell's Anchorman, Ron Burgandy. Zac Galifianakis is cleaning up with his pot-bellied, pot-smoking, supporting characters-- who coincidentally look like they rarely bathe and sound like they didn't pass the second grade. The new bro-from-another-ho-team of Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and James Franco scored box office gold last year with This is the End

This does feel like the end, doesn't it? Everyone feels totally screwed, and seeing actors playing losers, degenerates, selfish bastards, and social retards reflects the feelings of total disorder that mankind experiences on a daily basis. Every day is like The Hangover. "What happened last night? What happened yesterday morning? The day before? What's happening now?! Where did my life go?!?!" The picket fence, the pie in the sky, the childhood home you grew up in, are all relics of a nonexistent society. The most we can do... is laugh. 

With the return of our modernized Tramps to the forefront, the masculine onscreen presence is as cryptic as it has ever been. The absence of movie stars with the instant accessibility of Netflix streaming has also done some damage, as there is no hugely adored prototype of Americana to latch onto and label as the new "He." We have gifted actors like
Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix who do compelling work every once in awhile; we have Hugh Jackman trying to be Wolverine and Russell Crowe trying to hang tough, but neither pull it off, because we heard them both sing. And "sing."

Jon Hamm has won an equally adoring male and female audience through his
performance as the mysterious and conflicted Don Draper on the "Mad
television series-- TV being much more influential than cinema these days. 
Of course, his character exists in another time, which brings the fascination 
into question. What does the "business man" really look like today? 
Are our working men no better than those portrayed in 
The Wolf of Wall Street?

As man searches for his masculinity in modernity, trying to find that balance between personal, emotional security, intellectual stimulation, and faith in his government, we may be at a point where we have outgrown such distinctive representations of Manliness. We live in a world of big box-office flops and unique, unpopular independent films, which present many interesting stories about the struggle to just hang on. With so many voices trying to be heard, there may be no need for fictional, pinnacle male models to do the heavy lifting for their living brothers. As our world opens up, it too disconnects us. We are all introverts living on Instagram. Our films, therefore, present a myriad of faces and slices of life: individuals not communities. It's a strange sort of limbo. Where it will lead artistically, I don't know. But wherever humanity goes, the cinematic male archetype is certain to follow.