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LEADING MEN

Screen test(osterone)

Hollywood's bursting with masculinity again, but it's not all tough hunks and retro smoothies.

December 09, 2007|Peter Rainer | Special to The Times

How many ways can a man be manly in the movies these days? The film historian Robert Sklar once wrote that "each generation exaggerates its own crises of masculinity." If this is true, we must be in a doozy of a crisis right now.

There hasn't been this much industrial-strength machismo, both as cause for celebration and denunciation, since the post-Vietnam Reagan '80s superhero heyday of Rambo and Gordon Gekko. Consider, for starters, that the "Superman" and "Die Hard" franchises, long dormant, were recently revived; a sequel to "Wall Street" is being readied; a new Indiana Jones movie is in the pipeline; and that, come January, Sylvester Stallone, having already revived Rocky, will once again be wearing the Rambo muscle suit. Not one to press his luck, Rambo will be touring Myanmar, not Baghdad.

I don't want to overplay the parallels between the Reagan and George W. Bush years, but might the backwash of a colossally unpopular war have something to do with the fact that so many of our movies are -- how can I say this politely? -- atavistic?

On the far side of the blood-and-biceps "Beowulf," consider the gallery of actors today who represent throwbacks to a relatively uncomplicated male mystique. When Russell Crowe or George Clooney are talked about or written about, the tone is often almost strenuously adulatory, as if they stood for an old-style Hollywood machismo that must be preserved at all costs. Crowe was on the cover of "Men's Journal" last month as "Our favorite S.O.B." A new Colorado magazine called Shine featured Clooney on its inaugural cover and inside announced that he "embodies the courageous John Wayne spirit of the Westerns" (which is probably the last thing Clooney wants to hear).

Still, it can be deeply satisfying to watch these actors preen. A little masculine confidence goes a long way in the movies and, in the right roles, these men remind you of what you loved about, say, Bogart or Mitchum or McQueen. Crowe can be sluggish and inchoate in a Depression-era retread like "Cinderella Man," he can be thuddingly heroic in "Gladiator," but at his best, in "L.A. Confidential" and "3:10 to Yuma" and, to a much lesser extent, in "American Gangster," he has the bully-boy insolence of male privilege down pat.

Clooney, in particular, is associated in the public imagination with Golden Age Hollywood icons. In his self-deprecating savoir-faire he is seen as a burlier version of Cary Grant, while his Danny Ocean routine has some of the Sinatra finesse. In films such as "Syriana" and "Michael Clayton," he plays the standard Bogart cynic turned do-gooder. It's easy to imagine Clooney fitting into any number of Hollywood classics, from "Casablanca" on down. (Clooney is a godsend to all those women who, during the pre-"Departed" reign of Leonardo DiCaprio, despaired of ever seeing a leading man on the screen who looked to be past the point of his first shave.)

But a retro-ness clings to Clooney that, especially for a younger generation, may ultimately work against him. He's a new movie star in an old mold as opposed to, say, Johnny Depp, who has a satyr's pansexual appeal and the shape-shifty genius to fully inhabit, even unify, mind scapes as disparate as Tim Burton's and Jerry Bruckheimer's. Depp is the most original male presence in the movies in large part because he is the most original sexual presence.

By comparison, actors such as Clooney and Crowe, or Denzel Washington, rarely get to play out their sexual dynamism. Is it because Hollywood thinks there are no women who are their match? Despite their high whammo quotients these men have starred in alarmingly few erotic dramas, let alone romances, and that's a deprivation for us all. The Golden Age icons may have been men's men, but they were overwhelmingly defined by their maddening/ornery/blissful relations with women. The sullen gravitas of Clooney, Crowe and Washington in "Michael Clayton" and "American Gangster" represents an overvaluation of the strong-and-silent mystique, and it reminds me of what Gore Vidal once wrote about the humorlessness of American society: "What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?"

Muscle men

If atavism is truly your meat, you'll find it most blatantly on view in the brawnfest "300," where Spartan beefcake enthusiastically disembowels wounded Iranians -- oops, Persians -- before expiring valorously at Thermopylae. It's there in "Beowulf," where, thanks to motion-capture technology, the hulky, ovoid Ray Winstone is transformed into a warrior with miracle abs. Brad Pitt must be wondering why he spent all those months buffing up to play Achilles in "Troy." No more is it necessary for an actor to put in quality time with a personal trainer. In the future, all the personal trainers in Hollywood will be CGI technicians.

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