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JACK MATHEWS

Kiss And Tell On Today's Leading Men

June 23, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

It's time to admit it. Arnold Schwarzenegger is (gulp!) a movie star. A big one. Marquee hunkus maximus. Mr. Vorld is now Mr. Hollyvood.

You can look it up on the box-office chart. "Predator," a Schwarzenegger action adventure that prompted critics to turn thumbs down and noses up, has grossed more than $20 million in its first 10 days in release. If you have seen any of 20th Century Fox's ubiquitous television commercials, hinting that Arnold's enemy is a supernatural bipedal lizard, you know it isn't the writing that's packing them in.

No, it's Arnold--stronger than Christopher Reeve, smarter than Hulk Hogan, prettier than Lou Ferrigno--who has muscled his way into the hearts and minds of American moviegoers. Pass the whole wheat Fig Newtons and lecithin; it's never too late to get into shape.

But wait. Not all of the current box-office champions are mesomorphs. Witness the punies, Michael J. Fox and Pee-wee Herman. Eddie Murphy is a relative runt. So is Mel Gibson. Tom Cruise has more teeth than a Ferrari transmission, but he couldn't bench-press Arnold's toothbrush. Andrew McCarthy could crawl up and go to sleep in one of the big guy's sweat socks, and have room left for Danny DeVito.

When you consider the box-office grosses from their last movies--which is the only measure of a star's magnitude these days--those Munchkins are among the brightest of Hollywood's current stock of male stars.

Pity the modern casting agent. Forty years ago, finding leading men was a cinch. If a candidate looked remotely like Robert Taylor, you signed him to a seven-year contract and changed his name to Rock. If he didn't, you sent him to the carpentry shop and told him to ask for Joe. Most of today's stars wouldn't have got past security.

Some Hollywood observers believe that it is no coincidence that the fall of the leading man has paralleled the rise in nuclear technology. They theorize that fission knocked the world and its cultural tastes a few sprocket holes out of sync and, as proof, point to the fact that Jerry Lewis became popular at precisely the moment A-bomb testing peaked in Nevada.

It is hard to argue with that kind of evidence. But there may be an even simpler explanation. The standards for leading men changed when film makers--freed to explore more provocative themes--began to ignore the Big Screen Kiss.

If you're not going to have lip-smashing close-ups of leading men and leading women, if you're going to patronize your audience with special effects, graphic violence and explicit sex, who cares how anyone looks?

Old Hollywood would never have asked a leading lady to play a love scene with someone who looked like Rodney Dangerfield. There was parity. Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power. Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. These days, the leading lady and the leading man may not even be asked to work the same days.

Screen romance is dead. Just look around.

Paul Newman, still sexy as a sexagenarian (he's 62), won his first Oscar for "The Color of Money" and even though he gave co-star Helen Shaver a couple of wet pecks in the movie, his character was a whole lot prouder of the omelet (with sour cream and caviar) that he'd cooked up for her on their last date.

William Hurt won the Oscar two years ago for his performance in "The Kiss of the Spider Woman." But don't let the title fool you. He kissed Raul Julia!

Considering who has been winning Oscars lately, the limited love scene has been a blessing. Which of the following--Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Ben Kingsley, Robert De Niro, F. Murray Abraham--are you dying to see make love on camera? (Leading ladies aren't what they used to be, either. De Niro did have a love scene with Meryl Streep in "Falling in Love," but it was about as hot as watching Jim and Tammy Faye go at it.)

The Oscars, of course, are intended to honor achievements in acting rather than achievements at the box office, where H. L. Mencken's cynical maxim--"No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence (or taste) of the American people"--is regularly reaffirmed.

It is there where Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris--guys who would have been lugging props in Louis B. Mayer's day--have become modern heroes. Between them, there isn't enough sex appeal to fill a Vitamin E capsule, but their ability to fold, spindle and mutilate the faceless hordes is turning somebody on.

What of the others, you ask. Didn't Tom Cruise kiss Kelly McGillis until her lips were wrinkled in "Top Gun"? Yes, but it was in a scene that producers Simpson and Bruckheimer ordered after the film was finished. Can you imagine David O. Selznick doing a love scene as an afterthought ?

Leading men have changed because movies have changed because times have changed. It used to be that a woman who was married to Dagwood Bumstead could slip into a theater and pretend she was with Rhett Butler for a few hours. And Dagwood could pretend he was Rhett.

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