The Decline of American Manhood

America’s movies reflect the changing image of American manhood. Hollywood projects to the entire world the values of America’s men. Any weekend spent in a movie theater can only leave us asking, “What happened to American men . . . where are the adults?”

The current generation of Hollywood male actors are far from the square-jawed, imposing men of yesteryear; these replacements are, at their best, wiry young males with limpid stares; they are confused and distracted and ever so emotionally available. What happened to American manhood?

Casting directors say the decline came in the mid-90s as the previous generation of romantic and action heroes drifted into middle age – men such as Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Costner and Sylvester Stallone. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are both over forty and in demand, but traditional masculinity is a rarity among younger American male actors. Casting director Debra Zane calls them “overtly sensitive” and says that “that’s what there is right now.”

“There’s always the desire for the sort of Russell Crowe types, which is to say a man’s man,” she added. “They’re always in demand. And in short supply. And why is that? I don’t know why.”

Those actors with big-screen virility are usually not Americans. Russell Crowe is Australian; Sam Worthington is English; Gerard Butler is Scottish; Christian Bale is Welsh; Eric Bana is Australian and Daniel Craig is English. There are few American leading men who radiate confidence, competence and calm. George Clooney is now 53; Tom Hanks is 57 and Samuel L. Jackson is 64 years old – among younger American actors there are few with manly heft. Can you imagine Tom Cruise replacing Humphrey Bogart in any film, or Toby McGuire leading a band of Spartans anywhere?

“We have a lot of pretty guys running around with six-pack abs, but they lack authenticity and credibility,” said Robert Newman, a leading agent at International Creative Management. “In the 1950s a lot of men had been in the war; some of them became actors. They lived hard lives. There was a weight that came out of it.” He added, “When Steve McQueen took his shirt off, he’s thin, he’s not ripped. There’s a hardness and danger about him because of who he was.”

“I’m casting a movie now,” said casting director Allison Jones to the New York Times back in 2004, “and I need an 18-year-old Steve McQueen, and he doesn’t exist.” She added that an actor like Leonardo DiCaprio is “not going to be in the remake of ‘Bullitt’, the 1968 McQueen film. “I’m looking for that again. It’s killing me. I can’t find them. It must be hard to find them in life.”

These days all the Glenn Fords and John Waynes are on Turner Classic Movies; there are no American male stars younger than 50 who radiate masculine authenticity and competence. It wasn’t always this way.

There was a time when both American film makers and actors were men who had lived hard lives, worked nasty jobs, perhaps worn a uniform and had come away with hard-won experience and adult perspectives. By contrast today’s filmmakers went straight from their parents’ couches to film schools and then on to cranking out music videos. Their lack of experience is reflected in the questions they never ask and the stories they cannot tell.

Soldiers in Hollywood

During the First World War the London Scottish Regiment included in its ranks the future acting legends Claude Rains, Ronald Colman, Herbert Marshall and Basil Rathbone. All of them experienced the battlefront. Rathbone executed dangerous reconnaissance missions; Marshall lost a leg; shrapnel left Colman with a limp and Rains was partially blinded by a gas attack.

The distinctive manner in which Claude Rains cocked his head to one side while engaging his co-stars added a wry and quizzical quality to his character, but it was a posture born of his lopsided eyesight. Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg gave him a stiffness that came across as a sort of dignity on the big screen. The emotional fragility that Leslie Howard brought to Gone With the Wind (1938) was the consequence of his having been shell shocked in 1916. Howard bravely returned to military service, working for British intelligence in the 1940s; he died in 1943 when his plane was shot down.

Hollywood director James Whale had been captured by the Germans in 1917 and spent years in a POW camp. His films Journeys End and Waterloo Bridge were about the Great War’s combatants; his classic horror films were haunted by his wartime nightmares. It was Whale who gave us the madness of The Invisible Man starring Claude Rains and Bride of Frankenstein, co-starring Ernest Thesiger, who was made an invalid by the Great War.

Another War

The Second World War began for the British in 1939. David Niven enlisted and sought a position with the British commandos. He experienced combat at Normandy, Dunkirk and the Battle of the Bulge. Many American actors enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

James Stewart was the first Hollywood star to enlist – months before Pearl Harbor. An accomplished pilot, Stewart flew combat missions over Europe and remained in the Air Force Reserve until 1968.

Clark Gable, Tyrone Power and James Stewart – Hollywood’s biggest stars – chose real-life combat roles in the war. “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio,” Henry Fonda explained. Fonda would serve on a destroyer in the Pacific. Tyrone Power served as a Marine and was awarded two Bronze Stars.

After his wife, Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash during a war-bonds tour, Clark Gable joined the Army Air Force and dropped bombs on Germany. Adolf Hitler personally had offered a reward to anyone who killed Clark Gable.

The disabled World War One veteran Dashiell Hammet, then 48 and tubercular, made every effort to join the fight – he was sent to the grim Aleutians. The pacifist actor Lew Ayers served in the Pacific as an Army medic.

Gregory Peck and Errol Flynn were both classified 4F – Peck for a bad back and Flynn for malaria and a raft of venereal diseases. They and others would spend the war years making pro-American films and selling war bonds to finance the war effort.

Then there were the civilian soldiers who became actors after the war. Lee Marvin was awarded the Purple Heart for his service as a Marine on Saipan; Ernest Borgnine was a 10-year Navy veteran; Charles Bronson, an aerial gunner, was a Purple Heart recipient. Donald Pleasence was a prisoner of war after his RAF plane was shot down. Many Hollywood film directors spent the war years filming footage for the War Department.

All this hard-won experience informed the performances of these veterans. Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Mister Roberts was an echo of his own desire to enter the fray. Jimmy Stewart’s love of flying is everywhere in The Flight of the Phoenix, Strategic Air Command, and The Spirit of St. Louis.

The sprawling fact-based war film The Great Escape was brought to life by World War II veterans Donald Pleasence and Richard Attenborough as well as once-wounded Korean War veteran James Garner and former peacetime Marine Steve McQueen. George C. Scott brought his four years in the Marines to his role as Patton. Former Marine Lee Marvin was a natural for his role in The Big Red One.

From Men to Boys

That generation is no longer visible in today’s movie theaters. The end of the draft insulated most Americans from any war experience, rendering such hardships something for “other people” endure. Today’s film makers must conjure wartime conflicts from their imaginations or, more frequently, copy and paste together old imagery lifted from previous war films. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is entirely derivative from its stereotypical characterizations to its shaky hand-held camera simulations of combat newsreels.

The “anti-war” demonstrations during the Vietnam conflict were really anti-draft protests; when the draft ended, so did the demonstrations. Nonetheless, those young males who had avoided the draft by exploiting college deferments continued to experience “survivor’s guilt” because of all those not-ready-for-college young men who were sent to Vietnam in their place. Lots of these guilty guys hid out in acting studios and film schools where they honed an expressiveness that they would later use to justify their avoidance of the draft. Almost without exception, their war movies are derived from only two film dramas: Apocalypse Now and Coming Home, co-starring (Hanoi) Jane Fonda. Without exception every war zone in their films is a scene of war-crime atrocity and every returning vet is either a coiled-up killer or borderline suicidal. In every case the armed services or “the system” is uncaring. Without exception these filmmakers claim to “support the troops.”

Their message that “war is an insanity that makes men insane” deflects our attention from the fact that war is hardship of a sort that gave us a previous generation of complex and experienced men who gifted to us amazing and nuanced performances and films. It was veterans like John Ford who gave us They Were Expendable. William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives starred disabled veteran Harold Russell. Need I mention John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage or Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets!. These films didn’t flinch from the grim brutality of armed conflict, but they were also a vision of the brotherhood born of battle. These films were made by men who were there.

The lack of subtlety and complexity in current American films is a consequence of the immaturity of our actors and directors. Americans today take longer to graduate college and leave home; they marry later (if at all) and take much longer to form families of their own. Thirty is the new twenty; responsibility and maturity came much earlier generations ago; back then boyhood was shorter.

James Cagney was all of 32 when he starred in The Public Enemy. John Wayne was 32 in Stagecoach. Kirk Douglass and Robert Mitchum were about 31 in Out of the Past. Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable were about age 35 in San Francisco. None of them seemed light weight, undependable or unfocused – they were men who got the job done.

The navel-gazing self-indulgent “youth generation” of the 1960s brought social civil war that divided American society along generational lines. Everything time-honored was suddenly just “old,” negative and ever so out of fashion; everything new-fangled was positive, “smart” and radiant with possibility. The “New Man” who emerged from this collective ethos was diffident, irreverent, undisciplined and forever sort-of boyish. It took a while for him to make his mark, but as our culture drained of such male icons as Frank Sinatra, Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman, the new man-boy emerged as an ever more enduring model of an American manhood hobbled by self-doubt and sexual insecurity.

The action heroes of the 1980s – Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Ford and Willis – are fading away, having been mercilessly critiqued by the same Vietnam-era academic hideaways who cheer the rise of the new boy actors. By the 90s the pampered sons of a softer America were proving themselves too small to fill the shoes of a true hero. The heavily promoted Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck lack international star appeal; their box office returns are inconsistent; even American audiences find them wanting. Some point the finger of blame at Dustin Hoffman who corrupted the leading-man model with performances as a sexually ambivalent and unconfident American male. Cross dressing will do that.

The damage done to American manhood was amplified by the rise of female film executives – Amy Pascal at Sony, Nina Jacobson at Disney, Stacey Snider at Universal and Sherry Lansing at Paramount – all of whom, as females, had a preference for men who were more vulnerable and “emotionally available” than the men of yesteryear, men who were more like their girlfriends. But when these women need a real man to fill a screen role that only a real man can fill, they are forced to import testosterone from overseas.

The 1960s were not the same experience for everyone. While America was dividing along generational lines the people of Great Britain were engaged in a class conflict. The British were cranked about privilege, not age or fashion differences. The struggle against class distinctions allowed up-from-the-street men such as Richard Harris, Michael Caine and Sean Connery to recast male stardom. It was grit and confidence, not vulnerability, that defined them. It is this reservoir of adult Anglo-Irish actors that now supplies the grown-up actors that American films desperately lack. Even British actresses, such as Cate Blanchet, Tilda Swinton and Kate Winslet seem more formidable than most American male actors.

These days the Australian Russell Crowe tops the list of actors when there is a need for big-screen virility. “When we want a tough guy, we go to Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Colin Farrell,” observed Jim Gianopulos, a co-chairman at Fox. Jackman is Australian and Farrell is Irish. What we have here is a serious national maturity gap. Americans are good at being prankish, sensitive and damaged and everyone else is better at being an adult.

There is speculation that after 140,000 American troops return from Iraq their hard-won experiences of war will filter down to the popular culture. Don’t bet on it. The sacrifice and heroism of these young people is something remote from the lives and the tastes of the liberal Hollywood upper crust. This liberal elite doesn’t want its children anywhere near national service.

America’s aging film academics never fail to critique military service in ways that justify their own youthful flight from service during Vietnam when black kids and poor whites were sent to war in their place. With military service now such an isolated experience, there is no longer the broad sympathetic memory of service among the general population that would welcome the perspectives of returning veterans. The general population has become more like the academics – shunning service and feeling guilty that others have borne the burden.

A feminized American culture has encouraged the emergence of the metrosexual male, that smooth-cheeked boy-man who shows none of the maturing hardship that could be read in the faces of real men like Humphrey Bogart (1940s) or Gary Cooper (1950s) or Steve McQueen (1960s). Hollywood liberals are projecting an image of American male incompetence to the entire world. We are witnessing the decline of authentic American manhood and with it any hope of an enduring American greatness.

Thomas Clough
Copyright 2013
September 12, 2013