Stanley Crouch appreciates that great Nebraskan, Fred Astaire, who
looms not because he seems more masculine than anybody else or more handsome or less corny. He remains more pure than all categories because of his ability, in motion, to transform all things through grace, which is the fundamental dream beneath the gaudy exterior of American civilization.
(Thanks to A&L.)
Meanwhile, over at WSJ, Kimberley A. Strassel laments the passing of the “real” hero. As Astaire showed, he didn’t have to be barrel-chested, though it helped – few could replace that weighty manliness with Astaire’s supreme grace. And Astaire shared with the “big” guys a sense of control, of wit & energy, of the manliness that comes with maturity, of the grace that comes with an assurance hard-won but real. Astaire projected the virility of style & class, of charm & harmony.
Then, the stars (hoofers or hard-boiled dicks) were grown-ups. Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Cary Grant – all so different, but did anyone mistake them for kids even in their earliest pictures? And they brought with them a power that didn’t need to be made explicit to be real. You always knew Astaire would catch the girl – in his arms, she would be safe, gently persuaded, at one with him & the music. Not that the girls weren’t pretty spunky, too.
Bogart’s silence – watching Mary Astor poke at the fireplace, looking into Ingrid Bergman’s eyes as the shadows fall in his apartment – reverberates. They actually had dialogue then, great dialogue. But it said enough that silence was full of thought, too. In these, perhaps his two most iconic movies, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, his love is shown by that very distance & even admiration; he doesn’t choose passion but that is because he’s a grown-up, a man or proportion. He is more capable of and worthy of passion because of his proportionality, his allegiance to the public virtues as well. These choices at once ennoble his passion and his choice. And we are moved, because, of course, it is a man who would make such a choice with whom we want to end up – one who has the proportions with which, in the end, we feel safe. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, we see that character moved a few steps farther, from assurance & control, to madness & chaos, we see what happens when that proportionality is lost.
A woman I once knew hated Casablanca, arguing it was a fascist movie; of course, there is the obvious, they are fighting fascism. But in a sense she had a point: he places the state above the personal (no E. M. Forster he). But her complain came from a vision that I assume finds modern heroes, vulnerable and adolescent, attractive. Well, to each their own
Of course, these men were also threats when those values got skewed, when the private will was unfettered by that public restraint: Robert Mitchum’s most iconic roles are probably the haunted and haunting villain of Agee’s Night of the Hunter and the rapist of the first, more powerful & less bloody Cape Fear. In the latter, he looks at a woman across the room, with a sexual menace powerfully fulfilled when, in the next scene, we see her refuse to tell the police of the unpseakable, of what he did. And we see that what he has done is to leave her the still quite beautiful but deeply & thoroughly internally scarred woman scurrying somewhat hysterically about the room.
Their power, the power of all these, is their masculine laconic energy – the power of what isn’t said that communicates a self that is, somehow, quite real. (Tonight, we return from Three Burials, not a movie I liked particularly but in Tommy Lee Jones we do have someone much closer to those old guys.)
And so, with few of those barrel-chested guys around today, Strassel mourns: “These marvelous males have given way to a new generation of Hollywood consumptives, metrosexuals if you will, the most solid thing about whom are their perky cheekbones.”
Update: WSJ continues this subject with discussion of Mansfield’s new book, Manliness:
Perhaps this seems like a quaint insult, but Mr. Mansfield means something very particular by it. He would like to return the notion of manliness to the modern lexicon. His new book, “Manliness” (manfully, no subtitle), argues that the gender-neutral society created by modern feminists has been bad both for women and men, and that it is time for men to rediscover, and women to appreciate, the virtue of manliness.
This is also the week of Philip Longman’s “Return to Patriarchy” at Foreign Policy.