Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

(I post an archive entry from my Celia Hayes blog, on the eve of the Golden Globes awards, All Hollywood seems to be running about with their hair on fire, casting accusations everywhere, regarding who knew or didn’t about the casting couch, who got an advantage from utilizing the casting couch, and who behaved badly to whom. I’m working on a post about this week’s Trump madness, and the time just got away from me.)

(Example #1 – William Holden, publicity still)

There are boys enough in the movies now, all dressed up in costume and mincing around, waving the prop weapons in a manner meant to be intimidating. Generally they look a bit nervous doing so. They have light boyish voices, narrow defoliated chests, delicate chins adorned with a wisp of beard, and sometimes they come across as clever, even charming company for the leading lady or as the wily sidekick to the first name on the bill, but as hard as they try to project mature and solid masculinity they remain boys, all dressed up in costume pretending to be men. Even when they try for a bit of presence, they still project a faintly apologetic air. Imagine Peter Pan in camo BDUs, desert-boots, full battle-rattle and rucksack. It’s a far cry from picturing John Wayne in the same get-up. Where have all the cowboys gone?

(Example #2 – Robert Mitchum w/Deborah Kerr in “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison“)

You could not really describe John Wayne as movie-star handsome; neither could you honestly say that Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen, Charlton Heston or William Holden were movie-star handsome. (Save perhaps Holden, early on.) They had something more – magnetic physical presence. They owned a room, just by walking into it. They had lived-in faces, especially as they got older, rough-hewn, weathered and individual faces, broad shoulders, strong and capable hands, and total confidence in themselves – even when the plot necessitated a bit of self-doubt.

(Example #3 – Charlton Heston, in “Ben Hur“)

They had growly, gravelly voices, and sometimes didn’t talk much at all. They even had enough strength and confidence to be tender – at least, when not everyone was looking. They and their like – of whom John Wayne was the epitome – were capable enough that even an equally strong and capable woman could breathe a sigh of relief when they walked in. Because, no matter how bad it was, they could cope, and they wouldn’t see her as a threat – and afterwards, they would be perfect gentlemen, either pitching woo or walking away, whatever the situation called for. With the current crop, one always has the lingering fear that in a rough spot, the strong and capable woman would be carrying them, metaphorically if not literally. This would never happen with John Wayne.

(Example #4  – John Wayne inStagecoach“)

He was just one of many leading men from the 1930s on, but for three generations and more of moviegoers, John Wayne established the standard. Although he could wear a suit and tie, he did not look particularly comfortable in it; better in an open-collared shirt and bandana, Levi jeans, boots, a working-man’s clothes with the sleeves rolled up, or battledress utilities – and a weapon to hand that one would be absolutely confident that he would use, if necessary. He would not be particularly eager to use it – but he would, when pressed to a certain limit. That was John Wayne in his element, no matter what the title of the movie or the situation called for by the plot.

(Example #5 – Steve McQueen in “The Sand Pebbles“)

Sometimes a loner, quite often not being able to get or keep the girl – but always a gentleman, almost always unfailingly polite to every woman, no matter if she were respectable or not, or even in the case of Maureen O’Hara, estranged by reason of plot device. The kind of understated tension in heroes of the old-movie – that capacity for violence leashed and kept under iron control is strangely endearing, and even reassuring, or at least it used to be. No matter what happened, one was certain that he would protect those he loved, felt loyalty towards or pity for, or even  . . .  just because it was the right thing to do. Damn, do I miss John Wayne and his kind, after watching so many movies lately, starring the pretty, beardless boys!

(Example #6 – Humphrey Bogart, in “Casablanca.” Naw, not handsome. Presence? Enough to open a branch location or two.)

The only solution I could come up with was to create a handful of characters in the John Wayne tradition, and write about them, in my own books: strong, capable, un-self pitying men, and the women who come to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

(Example #7 – Jimmy Stewart, in “How The West Was Won.”)

15 thoughts on “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”

  1. We went to see “American Assassin” a month or two ago, mainly because the author of the book had a good reputation.

    It was a big disappointment. Partly, it was a takeoff on the Matt Damon character in The Bourne series.

    Mainly it was because the hero looked like a high school kid.

    Look at the hero !

    Maybe he could play the leading lady.

  2. everything Mike K said about american assassin ^^^

    Kept hearing how it would be so good.

    You want another example – Leonardo DeCaprio as Howard Hughes.

    I’m sorry. No matter how well he portrayed him (and I think he did a pretty good job) I kept seeing a kid in a fedora.

  3. Um, are we allowed to point out that the reason for this is that today’s Hollywood casting choices are in general made by men with the same, um, proclivities as Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey?

  4. My father knew someone who worked with him and the phone calls at all weird hours were true. He said – growing up in Los Angeles – that he only became weird after his plane accident.

  5. Hughes was also quite deaf, probably from the airplane experiences. She said he would come out of his office to see who was there who could hear his side of a call.

    He was also surrounded by some odd people. Once he landed a DC 3 at Santa Monica airport and, as they walked away, he told one of his aides to “Keep an eye on the plane” and thereafter a 24 hour a day guard was maintained although that was not what he ordered.

    He was a little odd. Once I was invited to use two of the seats at a table he had purchased for a charity New Years Eve party. Everyone who was at the table had had a background check to be sure he was not subsidizing a communist

  6. One of my favorite William Holden scenes (among so many) was his dance with Kim Novak in ‘Picnic’. It was a great film, more like a stage play than a movie. Holden played this big lug who returns to his home town over Labor Day. We all know this kind of guy. The one who got through extended adolescence on his good looks and charm until his luck inevitably runs out. He returns to his hometown and rediscovers what it was that was so special about himself in the first place, which, apparently, was that he was so different from his hometown. His true essence exists in the ensuing hullabaloo he causes.

    They try to make some references to bigger social themes through the kid sister, and there’s some of that ’50s innuendo sprinkled in with the older characters.

    But it’s the dance scene that carries it to another level. I can’t imagine this dance portrayed in a movie today or any contemporary moviemaker capable of telling the story of these people.

  7. Pinkerton TV series with the “Pink” emphasized in the title and a skinny woman the smart, tough one that pulls the guy’s bacon out of the fire; the guys mainly bloated egos. They appear to be primarily props to provide some contrast to her prowess and clever mind. Many series and full length action/adventure/mystery/thriller pieces follow this fundamental theme to a greater or lesser degree. The old guys you were lamenting wouldn’t fit the narrative. And the narrative doesn’t pass the reality check. But it does increasingly reflect where we are headed in that at least the guys are portrayed as they are becoming and the women as they think they can be.

    Here is a weird thought: Is all this gender flexibility at least possibly related to the changing hero roles proposed in pop culture? We throwbacks tend to think of strong women standing beside strong men rather than taking their place. What I think I’m seeing is women being encouraged to think they are strong and taking the place of weaker men (boy-men) who like that just fine.


  8. You have to remember that people now don’t smoke as they used to. Smoking can age a person’s looks more rapidly.

  9. Randolph Scott – Comanche Station
    Sterling Hayden – Western Union
    Burt Lancaster – Vera Cruz
    Kirk Douglas – Gunfight at O K Corral
    Ben Johnson – Wagon Master, if you have to pick one of three hundred
    Glenn Ford – 3:10 to Yuma
    Gary Cooper – High Noon or the Virginian?
    Alan Ladd – Shaaaaane

    And Jimmy Stewart should be for the Man who shot Liberty Valance

  10. Grurray,

    Picnic seems like a play because it was one and I suspect fairly close to the Broadway script by William Inge, Playwright of the Midwest. Other titles you might remember are Bus Stop, a great job by Marylin Monroe and Splendor in the Grass with Natalie Wood. He was certainly fortunate in the leading ladies his work attracted. That dance is one of the most erotic ever shot on film. With only a torn shirt on the male. Oh for the return of censorship.

  11. Oh, geeze yes – that dance scene was one of the most subtly erotic things that I have ever seen … the way that he moved … Talk about the impossibility of crushes on a guy of your father’s generation and dead about the time that one became fully aware of the full possibilities…

  12. @Mrs Davis

    I have long felt that the imagination is far sexier than just seeing nude bodies.Seems almost formulaic these days on screen. (it is generally more powerful than reality too ;-) )

    Always enjoyed the back and forth between Cary Grant and Eva Marie
    saint in North by Northwest.
    lots of innuendo, nothing overt on screen.
    then at the end you see the train going into the tunnel

  13. Gary Cooper in High Noon is my ideal man, probably because Gary was almost as tough, honorable and duty bound as my hero, my dad.
    American Assassin was a disappointment in part because my wife and I have read or listened to every book and loved them. Mitch Rapp is made of iron, not from an Abercrombie and Fitch sales team.

    I find it funny that people worry over whether two women talk about something other than a man in a movie. I would love to see a movie where men act like grown ups and just do their damned job without sobbing about it.

  14. You know, Clint Eastwood is still alive.

    Bruce Willis would probably fit your bill, although he tends to be a bit sarcastic. But still, always level headed, always in charge. (And yes, Die Hard IS A CHRISTMAS MOVIE!!)

    Tommy Lee Jones.

    On the small screen, there’s Nick Offerman. And Robert Taylor (Longmire).

    Not sure if you’d really call him an actor, but what about Mike Rowe?

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