The Sunday WaPo had an article in it on a subject that's near and dear to my heart: Stephen Hunter, "The Lost Action Hero: Strong, Stoic, Feared: Alas, Hollywood Doesn't Make 'Em Like It Used To," (Washington Post, Sunday, September 3rd, 2006. Registration required, annoyingly.) becka_kitty forwarded it to me because we'd been chatting about the subject after she mentioned casually to me, a couple of weeks ago, that the temple she's involved with is trying to persuade enough guys to be interested in getting together to discuss men's issues. I think that there are men's issues. But unlike the women's issues circa 1948-1960 that were famously described as "the problem that has no name," problems that couldn't begin to be solved until women each realized that no, it wasn't just them, I don't think our problems can be solved by sitting around in a circle and talking about them, so I couldn't be arsed. In fact, if anything, the way in which men's problems would probably be discussed in a pagan-ish temple's "men's group" is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
I think that Stephen Hunter's analysis of the roots of the problem and his prescription are wrong, but he's fingered one of the same symptoms I point to: there isn't a single leading man in Hollywood under about the age of 50 ... and that's being generous. Not leading boy, not leading guy, a leading man. Think of the "man's man" actors of the past: John Wayne, yes, but even more so Humphrey Bogart; John Dean, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, and the like; even borderline cases like Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Of whom, I say, Bogart is first among equals, the real man's real man.) Or consider the truly great exemplar of what it means to be a grown man, an adult, Johnny Cash. Contrary to what the WaPo's Stephen Hunter says, it's not their brutality that sets them apart from boys or guys, nor their willingness to be total sociopaths. Nor is it any kind of macho invulnerability; all of those actors get the stuffing kicked out of them at least once in virtually every movie they make, and finish most of their movies half crippled up from their injuries. Nor, as the Johnny Cash example perfectly exemplifies, but also most of Bogart's roles, is it necessary for a man's man to have no feelings, nor is it necessary for him to care about no one, nor is it necessary for him to feel no fear.
My personal nomination for what's missing from nearly all men today, the true lack that makes it unimaginable that Hollywood could reasonably cast another Rick Blaine or Han Solo and make it look convincing, is a willingness to take as many lumps as it takes to get a job done and not whine about it. From "The Man Comes Around" to "Ring of Fire," from "King of the Road" to "I've Been Everywhere," from "Folsom Prison Blues" to "Hurt," Johnny Cash sang about a lot of pain. But unlike almost every other guy in country music, and every emo rocker of whom we have such a plethora, and virtually every so-called man who's recorded a song that mentioned their own pain since the Man in Black died, he sang about his pain as if it were no big deal. As if he never expected a man's life to not hurt. As if any pain he was in, or any pain that he'd been through, was just a topic of casual or technical conversation -- like the weather or car shopping or the price of beans. Even rappers, most of whom supposedly grow up in neighborhoods where they ought to have grown up knowing better, complain about their lives in petulant and angry tones that make it clear that any hint of pain in their life feels terribly unfair to them, like they were entitled to a pain-free life. How childish.
Or consider Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. In the penultimate scene, as he's making sure his gun is loaded for the big confrontation with the ultimate villain of the piece, Bacall's Vivian Rutledge points out, in a "gotcha" tone of voice, that his hands are shaking. He explains that of course he's afraid -- and in a lot of pain, it hasn't been that long since he took a beating that should have sent him to the hospital -- and still in shock from having had to shoot his way out of an attempted assassination at point blank range less than an hour ago. And worse, he's legitimately nervous about screwing this up, because the villain has out-smarted him at every step up until now. But he says these things neither petulantly, nor fearfully, and nor unhappily -- he says them as if they were obvious, and important, but emotionally neutral facts.
Vin Diesel could almost play that part. But I sense that he wouldn't, or his agent wouldn't let him; he seems to only be cast as smugly indestructible butt-kickers. Samuel L. Jackson can do it, and does, and so does Bruce Campbell as his female co-star raved about him in the making-of feature on the Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. DVDs. But what sets those three actors apart isn't just their actual meaningful masculinity, but that being masculine actors in today's Hollywood makes them hopelessly perma-cast as genre actors ... unemployable above the B-movie level. Because raising boys to some day become MEN has gone out of style.