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Of Ice And Men

There's a macho meltdown going on. `Blades of Glory' is giving it the latest spin.

March 25, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

THE images in "Blades of Glory" are provocative: Will Ferrell, as a rough-and-tumble macho, and Jon Heder, as the pastel-wearing girlie man, feign romance on the ice as a figure skating pair. They lock legs and hold hands, bump and grind and plant their faces in each other's crotch. It's hilarious and unsettling: The joke, which deftly avoids gay baiting, is on straight men.

Straight men and male bonding, it turns out, make for far richer comic ground these days. "Blades of Glory," which opens Friday, may start with a predictable setup: The male pair in the operatic world of figure skating must be gay! But the humor is more nuanced than that. Homosexuality is noted, but only in passing. Ferrell's Chazz Michael Michaels and Heder's Jimmy MacElroy are ultimately lonely guys and sworn rivals who bond as brothers when forced together. Their performances are inherently homoerotic. But they bicker and fight like adolescents, killing much of the potential for innuendo.

There was a time, as impossibly long ago as it now seems, when two straight American men could go skinny-dipping or even share a bed without having to rip out their chest hair or yell like Tarzan afterward. But today, as deciphering someone's sexual orientation becomes a national pastime and acceptance of homosexuality reaches an all-time high, images of straight guys acting "gay" abound in movies, TV and advertising.

Of course, the straight guy and the gay innuendo is an ancient gag. Every generation gives it a try, from the antics of Laurel and Hardy to Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon to that passionate kiss shared by Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott in "Dude, Where's My Car?"

The difference now is the context. Sexual identity is more of a public and political issue than it's ever been with the gay marriage movement and the stream of images of gay men kissing that have accompanied it. At a time of war, we see images of traditional masculine heroes, and yet there's the whole "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" aesthetic that confounds straight guys at every turn. Hence, the absurdity in Ferrell's "Blades" character -- a metrosexual if there ever was one. He's a straight "sex addict" who parades around bare-chested in a turban and leopard print towel and religiously brushes his hair 100 times each night with a $12,000 handmade brush.

Another sendup in a series

FERRELL has spent his career riffing on macho stereotypes, including NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby in "Talladega Nights" and TV news anchor Ron Burgundy in "Anchorman." In the upcoming "Semi-Pro," he plays a professional basketball player/coach/team owner in a 1970s-era American Basketball Assn. who refuses to acknowledge that his wife is sleeping with the entire league.

"He sort of embodies the false solution, but he does it with a nudge and a wink, ever since he was the male cheerleader on 'Saturday Night Live,' " said "Manhood in America" author Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook. "He plays the feckless ne'er-do-well who can't quite get it together. Then he becomes hyper-masculine and aggressive, and that's even more ridiculous. And finally he finds some balance in the middle."

Filmmakers and actors depicting these scenes say the punch line isn't rooted in the gay man -- it's the straight American male struggling with intimacy and emotion while stuck in some retro notion of manliness.

"I still think that we're very much dealing with the whole macho thing," said Ferrell. "That's why I think it's so easy to make fun of. I don't think we're really that evolved."

If audience reactions can be believed, there's nothing more laughable or downright discomfiting than watching "manly" men cringe and squirm after an encounter with their soft side. And the examples grow more ridiculous by the moment. They wrestle nude ("Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan") or rub backsides and sing about "Guy Love" (NBC's "Scrubs") or accidentally kiss (Super Bowl Snickers ad) or snuggle up on an air mattress ("Wild Hogs").

All this comes in the aftermath of the women's movement, which so discombobulated men that for a time, great hordes of them escaped to the woods to beat their chests and share their feelings. Today, two straight men can't even share a bottle of wine at a restaurant alone without the act itself being declared some sort of Zeitgeist. Straight men! Dining as a pair! But then, masculine identity has been in transition for a while now -- since the Industrial Revolution, according to some historians.

"Homophobia is to straight men in America what sexism was to us 20 years ago," said author Kimmel. "It's the thing we're bumping up against everywhere we look. We've gotten used to women in the soccer field, in the press room, in the locker room, every profession. Now it's kind of made us look at why we want to be around each other so much. I think something's up."

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