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Masculine Beauty: The Fall From Gable

Substance is absent from our notions of male attractiveness.

February 16, 2001|PETER WHITTLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The King is a hundred years old.

Clark Gable, who would be celebrating his centenary this year, died in 1960, but the King of Hollywood, as the actor was known, continues to cast a long, dark shadow over the movie landscape. The kingdom may well not be what it once was, but the figure of the King is set permanently in our subconscious. Even now, whether we like it or not, in our deconstructed, post-modern era, the image of Gable epitomizes the idea of the tall, dark and handsome leading man, the quintessential movie star, the celluloid symbol of ultimate masculinity. But as the kingdom enters its second century, and if Gable were to saunter on to our sound stages anew, sight unseen, would we once again see in him those innate leading-man qualities? Would we still consider him desirable?

As the New York Times wrote at the time of his death: "Gable was as certain as the sunrise. He was consistently and stubbornly all men." Today's leading men would probably give their right arm for a part that enshrined them so firmly in the popular culture as Rhett Butler. Repeated TV showings of "Gone With the Wind" have ensured that younger movie fans, more used to the current screen diet of Adam Sandler, special effects and masturbatory apple pies, are at least aware of his presence on the landscape, though his style, indeed, his very essence, must strike them as being as alien as Scarlett O'Hara's hoop skirts. In his day however, there was nobody who could touch him. Cliche be damned, women loved him and men wanted to be him. His image was the desired one, and luckily for us it was immortalized forever by some of the greatest glamour photographers of the 20th century.

These portraits are currently on display in a wonderful exhibition marking Gable's centenary at the Cinema Arts Gallery in Beverly Hills. Featuring the work of such masters as Clarence Sinclair Bull, Laszlo Willinger and George Hurrell, the exhibition gives us an excellent sense of what it was that made movie fans swoon in the '30s. It gives us an insight into what constituted a beautiful man--what, indeed, was considered sexy in an era before such a vulgar word was commonly used. And the portraits also raise the question: Could he become, in our current graceful parlance, a sex god for our time?

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On an examination of the current scene, it doesn't look that promising. Male movie stars remain very much the barometer by which we measure our notions of masculine beauty, and looking at the top 10 or so who are considered "box office," a kinship with either the physicality or spirit of Gable is more or less absent. The one exception--much remarked upon particularly since his performance in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"--is George Clooney. In the very basics, there is certainly a resemblance. But he is essentially Gable Lite; with his eager-to-please, slightly coy manner, eyes staring up from under improbably long eyelashes, Clooney is Gable by way of Princess Diana, a soft, feminized version with a suggested passivity that, although in keeping with fashion, runs utterly counter to the all-important unself-consciousness and raffishness that were so attractive in the King.

It's likely that if he were to stroll into a casting agent's office now, Gable would probably be told to go get himself a body, put in some pouting practice and stop acting his age. The current unprecedented era of male body worship has meant that every bit-part player or soap star has to have a body ripped to within an inch of his life, a body that he has to unveil at the drop of the smallest hat. The sultry, sexually suggestive yet nonthreatening male has become one of the dominant cultural images--on billboards and in movies, television and pop music. Open any glossy magazine and you will find women, however alluring, increasingly relegated in the fashion ads to supporting parts, drooped adoringly over the central, glistening male torso. Whether this is a direct response to the supposed changes in the status and subsequent expectations of women in wider society, or whether it is simply due to the growing commodification of all things sexual, is hard to determine. Needless to say, in neither turf would a Gable prosper.

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