Humphrey Bogart is a pretty leathery guy. He’s possibly the most iconic male figure of the golden age of cinema. He’s stylish, he’s magnetic, and his face resembles a crumpled map of Italy. He looks like he’s seen some shit.
Bogie is a good example of the fact that in the good old days, the men of the screen were valued for their charisma, ‘masculinity’ and acting chops. The reining heartthrobs were middle aged stars covering their dad bods with snappy suits. Cary Grant was 55 when he slayed women everywhere in North by Northwest. Sean Connery was 59 when he won People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. Retrospectively, “the more rugged actors held on the longest and are best remembered, men like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Spencer Tracey”. Actresses have always been beautiful first and foremost, with talent as a nice bonus feature, but great male actors historically haven’t required any special beauty.
There’s also the long and vaguely disturbing trend of creepy age gaps, ranging from old timey Magic in the Moonlight to more recent cradle snatching in Focus. The reining champ may be 1957’s ‘Funny Face’, in which Fred Astaire is 58 and Audrey Hepburn 28. The Wikipedia entry for “List of films featuring romances of significant age disparity” lists 9 entries for ‘older woman-younger man’ relationships (2 of which are Star Wars entries). In the older-man/younger-woman section, I got bored of counting when I reached 150. The older gentleman endures, even with the paunches and jowls that render actresses obsolete.
But sex does sell, even to women. An obvious example is James Bond, who has been reinvented with the casting of Daniel Craig and his pert pectorals. Last year’s reboot of 70s show Poldark starred Aidan Turner, whose shirtless scenes caused an estrogen explosion. Even unthreatening pretty boy Zac Efron has undergone a high-profile transformation for the Baywatch revival, which makes the original look rather homely. Suddenly the male body is required to be perfect. The first stirrings of this came at the outset of the 50s with “a growing trend in the movies…moguls were beginning to realize that the female half of the population enjoyed seeing well-built men. So in the movies, males with muscled chests were increasingly featured stripped to the waist”. These early ‘beefcakes’, while paving the way for Chris Hemsworth, still displayed a level of muscularity that would be attainable for a ‘normal’ guy.
A different model of male beauty was forged in the brief but iconic career of James Dean, who was beautiful, brooding and doomed, a direct antecedent of figures like Robert Pattinson. He was vulnerable and fine-featured, as opposed to the hard-boiled cragginess of the established male ideal. Then the 80s brought us Schwarzeneggers and Stallones, and suddenly the male body was receiving the kind of lingering camera attention that was previously reserved for cleavage. The two action juggernauts ushered in a new industry, that of the amateur bodybuilder, which has been gaining traction ever since. Laura Mulvey famously noted that men in film are active, serving to advance the story, making things happen, while women are passive, interrupting the story, because their primary function is merely to be looked at. Mulvey brings up the obligatory head-to-toe slow pan of the hot girl; it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t cause anything. It is sheer visual titillation. This kind of aimless, lingering stare was suddenly directed onto men in the 80s, with Rambo and the Terminator’s every sinew carefully documented. They still did stuff and broke stuff and fired enormous weapons at stuff, but they were also there simply to look a certain way.
At the time, their bodies were objects of fascination, a novelty. Now, however, that kind of bulk is increasingly normalised. This is a startling account of the rigours male actors are putting themselves through to maintain star status. The goal is not just to ‘get big’, but to get to under 5% body fat. Especially as Hollywood is rapidly becoming a business of superhero franchises; to win (and keep) a blockbuster role, you have to look like an action star. That means dizzying lats and arms that look like a row of melons.
The female gaze has been acknowledged, and the diet and lifestyle industry has realised men buy things, too. In our escalating culture of perpetual self-improvement, beauty standards for men have suddenly gotten a whole lot higher. Our beefcakes are bulkier, but they also have flawless skin and symmetrical features. Now we have an array of dashing Depps and tight Tatums. Sure, you’ve got your hairy, coarse Hugh Jackman types, but even they have clearly been following a strict regime of bicep curls and low carbs. Gone are the days when Sean Connery could claim heart-throb status with his desk-job arms and his perfectly adequate midriff. Jason Momoa was putting away “56 chicken breasts a week in order to play Khal Drogo. Chris Evans, Chris Pratt and Hugh Jackman all were putting in multiple 90+ minute work outs each day to get into shape.”
And now that audiences have been taught to expect male beauty, men are starting to look sideways at the mirror. Bodily anxieties and self-surveillance are no longer exclusively female territory, as male self-esteem shrinks and body dysmorphia grows. There’s a recent crop of research showing that men are finally experiencing insecurity: “researchers found 7.6 percent of young males were “very concerned about muscularity” and were using techniques that could be harmful to obtain an ideal body.”
We expect our leading men to be perfect from head to toe, and like actresses, talent is second fiddle (except for Judi Dench. She can look however she wants). Men are finding out that these expectations of beauty are unrealistic, demanding outrageous self-discipline and eroding self-worth.
Looking at Aidan Turner makes me feel slightly asthmatic; Cam Gigandet in his birthday suit saved Burlesque from being a waste of 2 hours. It’s nice to have it acknowledged that women like looking back at men. And still, men are not even remotely as objectified as women are; Game of Thrones, for example, is the go-to culprit for constant female nudity, but has only ever shown us Hodor’s dong. But we’re undeniably seeing an unprecedented commodification of the male form, and it comes with side effects. Hollywood needs to sort some shit out, but ‘progress’ isn’t about men being as insecure and objectified as women.
Plus, one idea of what is ‘hot’ is boring. It’s so exciting and refreshing to see the Tilda Swintons and Michael Ceras of the world being celebrated. At the risk of sliding into nostalgia, let’s revive the star power of yesteryear, celebrating heroes who are interesting and magnetic and maybe slightly lopsided, but cut the double standard. Normal men don’t work out 3 hours every day, but neither do normal women. Give us more of both. Give us an onscreen world populated by charismatic, compelling actors who are focussed on telling awesome stories, instead of anabolic paleo Herculeses struggling to simulate a facial expression. Let the human looking people play the iconic characters for once. Gimme Zack Galifianakis as a dashing romantic hero. Gimme Melissa McCarthy in a political drama. Deliver us from John Cena.