Filmism.net Dispatch April 12, 2016

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There's been a common theme amongst cineastes and the movie press over the last few years that the macho alpha males of yesteryear (Steve McQueen and Paul Newman's names are frequently mentioned) have disappeared. Modern Hollywood leading men, it's said, are prissy, yoga-loving metrosexuals who don't know how to slam down a beer, drive dangerously, grumble a sexual demand at a woman and render her weak at the knees or light a match with their fingernail to save their lives.

The discussion reached fever pitch a few years back when superhero casting made the news. How was it, many asked, that some of the biggest names from American 20th Century iconography were being played by foreigners. Batman was a Welshman (Christian Bale), Superman a Channel Islander (Henry Cavill), Spider-Man a Brit (Andrew Garfield, who was moved to the UK at age three despite being a native Los Angeleno) and Wolverine an Aussie (Hugh Jackman).

Was it all the crocodile wrestling and... er... tea drinking that made actors from outside America so masculine? How did we lose the 'when men were men' archetype from the American thespian arts? Did the eponymous hellraisers drink, smoke and shag so much they died of liver and lung cancer and the clap in a few short years?

I think what we have here, my friends, is a soundbite-worthy meme that caught on in the popular press and was blown a bit more out of proportion every time the narrative was re-iterated. Case in point; Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and all the other actors from the era who likewise became bywords for ultra-masculinity but were also British.

Second, look at what's happened to movies, box office and audiences in forty years. It can be argued Star Wars marked the beginning of the end of movies like Bullitt, The French Connection, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and all those films where the rough and tumble leading man was the appeal.

Not only were exciting visuals and special effects the new drawcard, another shift was starting, one that would be more or less complete within a handful of years and usher in the supreme decision making power of Spielberg, Zemeckis, Dante and their contemporaries. Movies were no longer made for adults, they were made for the demographic Hollywood stills spends most of its time and money chasing, teenagers.

I don't know of any studies or surveys that rate the presence of a particular actor as the reason kids and teens go and see a film, but it's not hard to see that even former marquee stars like Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger don't sell movies anymore. Brand names like Lego, Harry Potter or, yes, Star Wars are what sells.

So my contention (backed up without any scientific evidence whatsover) is that it's not that macho movie stars have gone anywhere, it's that the industry simply doesn't make the kind of movies that give them a platform anymore and hasn't in a long while. After all, Zack Snyder, DC Comics and Warner Bros knew very well the characters of Superman and Batman were what bought punters in, not Henry Cavill or Ben Affleck playing the roles.

There might be scattered attempts to make movies cut from the same cloth as the old macho era. Magic Mike XXL comes to mind, but then again the old Hollywood man's man would have been surrounded by strippers, not doing it himself. It made money (but not much), but the second day drop-off was catastrophic.

Which leads me to the idea that maybe female audiences weren't nearly as interested in the macho archetype at all, no matter how many of them were supposed to be willing to fall at the feet of the Marlboro Man and his ilk. Maybe he was a male fantasy all along, one the McQueens, Redfords and Bronsons of the world were only too happy to buy into because of all the tail it got them.

They were Hollywood stars after all, and probably had all the same facial peels, tummy tucks and moisturising regimens today's male stars do to retain their own allure. The presence or absence of the all-American male might (like everything else in the movies) simply been a matter of marketing.

For what it's worth after all this time, I did see Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens and like many, thought JJ Abrams restored that ole black magic. Similarly big but not nearly as nostalgic is Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

One you might have missed that I'd like to call your attention to however is What We Do In the Shadows, a brilliant mockumentary from the team behind TVs Flight of the Conchords and Eagle vs Shark.

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