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the '90s, part one:
the fall of the manly man

10.31.99


The '90s are just about over -- and I'll be ruminating in future columns about '90s movies in general -- but one trend in particular seems to have reared its ugly head lately, not just in movies but all across the media. An alien arriving here today and sampling some of the American entertainment of the last couple of years would have to conclude two things: (A) We're a pretty fucked-up species; (B) men are extremely fucked up.

Well, duh. Many women have been saying that for decades, even centuries. War, rape, gun violence, genocide, contact sports, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue -- yep, those are all male contributions to the species. No need to thank us; we did what we could to make the world interesting.

Now, though, men are having a Crisis. It's in the air; Susan Faludi's sympathetic if probably simplistic book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male talks about how men are lost and unhappy, without the spiritual center that women, in their role as the underdog, have taken solace in. There are dozens upon dozens of nurturing, reassuring pop-psych books for women, most of which boil down to "Feel good about yourself" (even Gloria Steinem penned one of these); there aren't very many books, or any other media, out there helping guys to feel good about themselves. (Actually here I should amend that to "white heterosexual guys." Gay men and nonwhite men also can take some solace in their underdog status, take comfort in the idea that, as the oppressed, they are more noble than their oppressors -- who are traditionally white heterosexual males.) The implicit message is that men shouldn't feel good about themselves: We're inherently evil, we don't deserve comfort, and we have no business even having low self-esteem in the first place. And besides, the entire phallocentric culture enables men in their prolonged immaturity and domination games. Or does it? Perhaps not so much any more.

It's lonely at the top: WHMs have called the shots for centuries, but in the last decade or so they've started to lose it. Belated fallout from the '60s, when women, gays, and civil rights groups rose up? Possibly. And that's a good thing in the long run. It's also good for American movies, one of the few things I actually pay attention to, and the trend away from WHM domination in plexes has been severe and obvious.

Machismo is essentially dead at the movies, at least in America. Nobody pays to see Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal any more. Schwarzenegger has been hit-and-miss throughout the '90s. Bruce Willis is a puzzlement: He went macho in Armageddon and packed them in, but nobody was interested in him in The Jackal, Mercury Rising, or The Siege. (I think the bigger draw for The Sixth Sense was the little kid whispering "I see dead people" -- that was the real hook. You'll notice the sensitive Bruce in The Story of Us hasn't gone over big, either.) And Sylvester Stallone, once the king of the world, fell off the radar in a massive way in the '90s -- even when he tried a turnaround in Cop Land, which was supposed to do for him what Pulp Fiction did for Travolta and Willis, few moviegoers took the bait. The movie did okay, but it didn't put Stallone back on top, and he can be heard in Faludi's new book bemoaning his "driftwood" status in Hollywood. The Rambo association is still too strong, even when he packs on forty pounds and plays an ineffectual wimp.

Stallone might have taken a page from Clint Eastwood, who spent years working up to Unforgiven -- he didn't just do The Rookie and then Unforgiven, although he did do those movies back-to-back. Clint had prepared for the transition for years, with such oddball and unmacho films as Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man (two of his best unsung movies, by the way), while continuing to make action cheese to keep his hand in the international market. By alternating shitty popular stuff with lesser-seen good stuff (like White Hunter, Black Heart), Eastwood gradually reinvented his career when nobody was really looking; by 1992, Unforgiven was received as an honest atonement for the macho sleaze he'd made his name with. He got his Oscars; he was forgiven. Stallone and Seagal and the rest of the manly boys are the real unforgiven.

The trend now is not confident, aggressive manhood but screwed-up, unformed adolescence or downright psychosis. Gone is the swaggering John Wayne icon, replaced by the heirs of Woody Allen and Travis Bickle. This seems to go in cycles: In the '70s, movies redefined manhood, though Eastwood's Dirty Harry movies were still going strong. In the '80s, under Reagan/Bush, we saw an orgasmic return of the primal male, best exemplified by Rambo, or at least the cocky and confident winner as seen in Beverly Hills Cop or Top Gun. The '90s, it could be argued, kicked off with a raft of films that explored the nightside of masculinity: Scorsese's GoodFellas, David Lynch's Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks, Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, Eastwood's Unforgiven, culminating in the early '90s with Tarantino's two heavily homoerotic, poison valentines to the action genre, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

The avatar of the uneasy masculinity of the '90s has been Michael Douglas, hands down. He began this journey in the late '80s, in 1987's Fatal Attraction, which explored the disastrous possibilities when a man cheats on his wife with an unstable mistress. It wasn't much of a movie, but Douglas (and Glenn Close, both rejuvenating her career and dooming herself to a lot of bitch roles from then on) carried it; he also put himself on the map as the movies' chief ambassador of white male anxiety. He won his Oscar for another performance in '87, Wall Street, in which his Gordon Gekko ("Greed is good. Greed works") summed up the decade and autopsied it at the same time. From there, his career has been a lab experiment in psychosexual or just plain psycho manhood, from his baffled exertions in Basic Instinct ("She knows where I live and breathe") to the bitter, laid-off white-collar sociopath in Falling Down to the reverse-harassment angst of Disclosure to the hollow men of power in The Game and A Perfect Murder. (His brass-cojones role in The Ghost and the Darkness might seem an aberration; however, he also didn't make it all the way through that movie. Shows what brass cojones get you.) Michael Douglas is the white heterosexual male of '90s movies. Past fifty now, he's even nabbed himself the WHM dream date: Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Men are always eager to regress, and regression has been a key theme in '90s cinema -- especially late-'90s. How else to explain the runaway successes of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler? Or the grassroots popularity of American Beauty and Fight Club, which address two different forms of regression? It could be said that American Beauty has tapped into the despair of baby-boomer males, while Fight Club has touched on the consumerist emptiness of Gen-X males: the guys who like those movies really like them. Yet, though American Beauty has done quite well relative to its cost and modest distribution, neither film has been a big hit on the order of, say, Thelma & Louise or The First Wives Club -- two films that addressed female frustrations, albeit in very different ways. (Interestingly, both were also directed by men.) This, along with the surprise success of movies like Double Jeopardy (credited to strong female turnout) and the general failure of macho action films (with exceptions like Armageddon that manage to appeal -- or are marketed -- to both genders), would seem to suggest that women increasingly call the shots at the plexes, too.

Women are surprising, though. They don't all despise the bloody, strenuous atavism of Fight Club -- I've seen several reactions along the lines of "I'm a woman and I loved Fight Club." I also know women who loved Bad Lieutenant, another portrait of embattled manhood in extremis, and it probably wasn't just because Harvey showed his keitel. (A female friend of mine who admired Bad Lieutenant was lukewarm towards the heavily feminist The Piano, which also featured an appearance by Little Harvey.) I think some women enjoy seeing men stripped bare of civility, struggling, suffering, admitting they don't have all the answers. Other women, I presume, have seen quite enough examples of fucked-up male behavior in real life, thanks very much, and don't care to see it on the screen.

Yet a lot of women love Adam Sandler, because no matter how crude and socially retarded his characters are, he turns rather sweet and shy around women, and he never pretends he's anything other than what he is: an overgrown boy who sits on the couch a lot, watching hockey and eating pizza. I think it's his lack of pretense -- "Look, I'm not gonna make myself out as a sophisticated or sensitive guy just to get into your pants; this is who I am" -- that some women find refreshing. Even if other women in the audience don't find him funny or attractive, at least they know he isn't full of shit.

Vince Vaughn has become another female favorite for the same reason. In Swingers, he presented himself as a cheerful cad who knew -- or pretended to know -- all the rules for scoring with "babies." The flip side of Vaughn's Trent in Swingers is Aaron Eckhart's Chad in In the Company of Men, who decidedly did not appeal to women -- indeed, poor Eckhart has reported being slammed by a lot of women who equated him with his vicious character. Both Trent and Chad are about manipulation, but Trent's is more of a game, a playful challenge to himself and his prey, whereas Chad has an appetite for destruction. Women know they can see through Trent, and they can choose to hang out with him for a while and then laugh about it with their girlfriends later; they know he's harmless. Chad, on the other hand, is a wolf in sheep's clothing -- he poses as a sensitive guy and stabs you when your guard is down.

Many of the '90s WHM movies have been about the mistrustful and paranoid dance between men and women, so it's not surprising that cult favorites like Reservoir Dogs (and Fight Club, which may become a cult movie) hardly notice women at all. These all-guy movies have interesting ways to sublimate sexual tension. No white hetero male fan of Reservoir Dogs really likes to discuss the obvious crypto-gay relationship between Mr. White (Keitel again) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) -- the gentle scene in which Keitel fusses over the bleeding Roth and combs his hair, for instance. And homoeroticism runs rampant throughout Fight Club: If you didn't get it during the scene where Brad Pitt plants a juicy lye kiss on Edward Norton's hand, you could hardly miss it when Pitt (lounging naked in a tub) tells Norton, in argument against getting married, "We're a generation of men raised by women. I wonder if another woman is really what we need." Then, of course, in both these movies (and, by extension, most action films) there are phallic, explosive, ejaculatory ways of dominating other men: the gun, the fist -- have any Fight Club fans considered that fisting is a popular act in the gay S&M subculture? -- the well-timed explosions toppling those big-dick corporate towers, rendering them flaccid forever.

And we're not even done with the '90s yet. Just released this week was Being John Malkovich, which looks to be the strangest identity-crisis fantasia since Brazil (and the title isn't Being Sylvester Stallone). Forthcoming are The Bone Collector, with Denzel Washington powerless below the neck while Angelina Jolie risks her ass; Man on the Moon, with Jim Carrey as the madman genius Andy Kaufman; Flawless, wherein homophobic stroke victim Robert De Niro learns to speak again with the aid of drag queen/aspiring transsexual Philip Seymour Hoffman; The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which Matt Damon loves Jude Law so much he kills him and assumes his identity; The Green Mile, which promises to be another expertly done prison weepie on the order of Frank Darabont's previous movie, The Shawshank Redemption; Ron Shelton's Play It to the Bone, with Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas as dimwit boxers; Kevin Smith's Dogma, which proposes, among other things, a female messiah and two evil guy angels; Michael Mann's The Insider, in which Al Pacino and Russell Crowe bark at each other in service of the Truth; and the return of two box-office übermenschen -- Pierce Brosnan's 007 in The World Is Not Enough and Arnie battling Satan in End of Days. (Sounds like a bad Dana Carvey skit combining Hans and Franz and the Church Lady.)

Except for the last two, none of the above films would seem to cast a terribly flattering light on modern manhood. The message is clear: The old rules no longer apply, and the new rules are not yet defined. They may never be defined. Perhaps that's the key to the men's movies of the '90s: We are a species in transition, and a lot of these films have been about male (and female, which I'll explore next week) confusion in this transitional era when old boundaries are removed and people begin to realize that new boundaries are not necessary. Millennial unease? Identity crisis in the wake of the Information Era, which has removed the need for traditional male exertions? Whatever the cause, the effect has been a seismic shift in male roles in life and at the movies. It'll be interesting to see where both are headed as we approach the new millennium.


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