THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Real men don't star in movies

That is, unless they’re George Clooney, or Australian, or older than 55. Can Hollywood fill the manliness gap?

'Gone With the Wind' (New Line Cinema; Photo Illustration by Jane Martin/Globe Staff) Who from among the current Hollywood pantheon of American leading men could replace Clark Gable opposite Vivien Leigh in "Gone With the Wind"?
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 13, 2009

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A couple of months ago, three women were driving with their movie critic friend. He mentioned that he’d noticed something peculiar. He couldn’t name a major American film actor under 40 who could be seriously described as manly. Clay pigeons were launched, then shot at: Matt Damon? Excellent actor, adult boy. Johnny Depp? 46 and no stature. Will Smith? Almost, but also over 40. Christian Bale? A foreigner and a cyborg. Brad Pitt? Mannequin. Leonardo DiCaprio? See Matt Damon.

Even after raising the age requirement by a decade, the consensus choices were still promptly disqualified. Clive Owen is English. As is Daniel Craig. Russell Crowe is from Australia. Gerard Butler, useless a star as he is, hails from Scotland. Denzel Washington is almost 55. And, at the moment, James Gandolfini is not a major film actor.

“What about that guy from ‘The Wire’ and whatever that stalker-from-hell Beyoncé movie was?’’ someone asked. That would be Idris Elba. Manly, yes. But American, no. He’s a Brit.

This went on for about an hour. Viggo Mortensen’s name was mentioned. Complete aggrement, with one misgiving: Doesn’t he seem a little remote? Fair enough. During a lull (it came pretty quickly), one woman mentioned Liev Schreiber and the approval was unanimous. That’s a man! But with all due respect to both his manliness and talent: Liev Schreiber? At 42, he was the youngest plausibility. But he’s by no means a movie star. If he’s the best Hollywood can do, then we have a crisis of masculinity on our hands.

Things are so bad that, for his new special-effects opus, “Avatar,’’ James Cameron had to hire Sam Worthington, a little-known 33-year-old Australian journeyman to play the hero. When the movie opens Friday, we’ll discover whether the brawny Worthington could be a star.

Otherwise, we are long on vampires and werewolves, and the heartthrobs, dreamboats, and pinups who play them. At any other time that would be fine. But something’s wrong when grown women are lining up, without their nieces and daughters, to see a “Twilight’’ movie and profusely fanning themselves whenever Robert Pattinson strokes his hair or Taylor Lautner removes his shirt. We’re regressing into a nation of cougars.

This wasn’t always a topic of concern. The history of American movies is full of manly men. So much so that it’s embarrassing to have to list the names. For much of the movies’ existence, if you were a male star, you were also, to some extent or another, manly. Gene Kelly twinkled and twirled. But whether his limbs were entwined with Cyd Charisse’s or his arms were locked with Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin, Kelly was manlier dancing, not less so.

Movie manliness is neither cultivated nor depleted. But in the 1950s, there were signs that a change in its nature was underway, that it could dry up. Actors were studying the Method, which encouraged them to mine their own lives for inspiration. Stars were no longer merely performing. They were really thinking. They were really feeling. The emotions were really real.

Suddenly, the sexy stoicism of Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Robert Mitchum, Randolph Scott, and Gregory Peck and the easy wit of Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Rock Hudson was complicated with psychology and sense memory.

At the apex of his stardom, Marlon Brando seemed to be in a constant struggle with his manliness. Real men don’t rat or sing or fantasize about sleeping with married soldiers. They keep themselves collected and move on. Real men are John Wayne. Brando and Paul Newman were using the Method to rethink the contours of what a man could be and often found themselves in angst. James Dean used it to shatter a psychological prison and wound up shattering himself, too.

The Method may have given realism to screen acting. But it was hell on a man’s confidence. Manliness requires an unyielding combination of self-possession, competence, sex, and just a whiff of arrogance. Manly men brood. They do not reflect. With a few exceptions, they drive, steer, flirt, shoot, and, on rare occasions, well up. A deep voice helps, too.

Acting tends to change from generation to generation, and by the 1970s, the Method had permanently changed acting so that interiority mattered more than appearance. In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Elliot Gould, Robert De Niro, Jon Voight, Donald Sutherland, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Jack Nicholson would have been character types. By the late 1960s and 1970s, amid so much social upheaval, the country wasn’t looking for classically or conventionally handsome movie stars. It was looking for people to get at the human truth of being alive. And for that a kind of relatable ordinariness would do. Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, and Burt Reynolds - the studliest men of that era - were also the least Method-y.

The great manly holdout of old Hollywood was Charlton Heston, who was a star before all this psychological upheaval. If he played Michelangelo (which, in “The Agony and the Ecstasy,’’ he did), Heston didn’t need to search his soul. He simply learned to paint. By the time of the “Planet of the Apes’’ movies, “Omega Man,’’ and “Soylent Green,’’ Heston had moved past the Method into madness. The times had changed so much that his confidence and unmitigated virility seemed ridiculous alongside a culture of self-doubting men.

Heston had veered into camp and manliness into genre (in particular the lubricious bravado of blaxploitation). The disaster films of the ’70s, in which Heston could be counted on to save and repopulate the planet, became the action films of the 1980s, in which Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, later in the decade, Steven Seagal and Bruce Willis beefed up what Heston began. But their masculinity had nothing to do with their humanity.

They were martial artists and bodybuilders. Their approach to acting had more in common with Clint Eastwood, whose approach to showing emotions was to have few emotions to show: a scowl, a smirk, a catchphrase. They were both manly and parodies of manliness: not men so much as action figures. Manliness had been relegated to blockbusters and the entire careers of Ed Harris and Harrison Ford, who now seem like the last pair of Wranglers in a stack of designer jeans.

You could make the case that Jason Statham, the English star of the “Transporter’’ films, is an heir to Steve McQueen and the aforementioned action stars of yore. He’s manly in the best, most appealing senses, but he also, alas, is limited: a kinetic star. He works only when he’s moving. There could be hope for the swaggering Dwayne Johnson, also known as The Rock, but no one seems to want to see him when he’s not playing action or kiddie comedy.

Then there are today’s stars: the Damons and DiCaprios, the Tobey Maguires, James Francos, Ben Fosters, and Jake Gyllenhaals. Having seen several of these young men made up in films to look middle-aged, there’s the sense that even once they do reach 55 and 65, they will still fail to seem their age. With a woman, that’s the dream. With a man, it’s disturbing. Who wants to watch a generation of middle-aged boys? Is there anything about Tom Cruise that says 47? He has all the testosterone, but none of the stature. He works hard but defensively: I am manly, dammit.

To some extent, this crisis of manliness is also the result of great social progress. Feminism enlightened men and alerted them to women’s struggles. Now boys are more sensitive and more comfortable not simply with girls but with their own feminine sides. As a consequence, there’s a degree to which classical manliness - bold, robustly American - is simply uncool. Too many stars seem more comfortable being men in quotation marks. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man was a cheeky gag. Benicio Del Toro is charismatic, but more often than not he mumbles and somnambulates. Ben Affleck most successfully embraced his masculinity when he played the troubled ’50s Superman George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.’’ Then there’s that tanned Narcissus Matthew McConaughey, a man only a lifeguard could love.

Things are clearer on television, thanks especially to Don Draper, the adulterous, alcoholic advertising executive that Jon Hamm plays on “Mad Men.’’ Draper is self-possessed and almost pathologically unflappable. But his cool is purely vintage, presented safely in the rearview mirror of the early 1960s. His sole modern counterpart would seem to be a gentleman named George Clooney.

Ah, George Clooney. During that naming game, his was one of the first to come up. But as if to underscore the extent of the man problem, Clooney was mentioned twice more. Apparently, Hollywood is also out of options for leading men, since he has starred in three movies this year. Along with Clive Owen, Clooney is really the only convincing opponent for a class of women actors working without a worthy sparring partner.

No one on the horizon appears likely to come along and pick up the slack. Until this Man-siah arrives, “Up in the Air’’ isn’t simply the title of Clooney’s latest movie. It perfectly describes Hollywood’s man trouble.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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