In Black & White: Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

BIG BAD WOLVES: Masculinity in the American Film. By Joan Mellen. Pantheon. 368 pages. $12.95.

If memory serves, Professor Joan Mellen is not a fan of Pauline Kael’s, but the two ladies have things in common. Both have the (fortunately) rare gift of being simultaneously very readable and wildly wrongheaded, so that the reader is forever being placed in the bizarre situation of flinging their books down in rage and then hastily picking them up and reading on. Neither simply puts forward an idea or argument; instead, the reader is subjected to a nonstop harangue, with no quarter given anyone who might occasion their dislike. Passing off this constant shrilling as serious critical analysis is profoundly annoying.

Big Bad Wolves has a good and timely subject. “Manhood” has, after all, been one of Hollywood’s permanent themes, and with sexual roles being the subject of much debate over the last decade or so, it is interesting to consider how far, and in what ways, the movie industry has contributed either to understanding sexual mores or to distorting concepts of what “being a true man” is all about. Leslie Fiedler’s books have occasionally touched on the movies, and no one can have failed to notice the buddies syndrome which has been the most obvious preoccupation of American movies over the last ten years (not that it was exactly absent from them before that), so a study of “masculinity in the American film”, especially from a woman’s viewpoint, should have been pretty interesting. Alas, Professor Mellen’s tome has set back the cause of common sense about sexual roles by quite a few centuries. In attacking the male grossness and sexual fascism that she regards as typifying the Hollywood product, she is as inaccurate and underhand as the films she despises most.

Roughly, her idea is that the masculinity of characteristic male superstars like Wayne, Eastwood, Redford, Gable, et al. in fact epitomises a violence and brutality that pervade American culture. Such heroes as these, she argues, justify male domination and the perception of women as fickle, shallow, flighty creatures who lack real identity and intelligence. They are also deeply conformist and reactionary, they secretly dread impotence and disguise this fear with macho narcissism, and very often their putting-down of women goes so far as to become hatred of the sex, which in turn makes their idealising of male friendship latent (or not-so-latent) homosexuality. Not that the Prof is against gays – far from it, she claims. But she feels that this hidden form of homosexuality is dishonest and hypocritical, especially as it goes hand-in-hand with a paranoid loathing of overtly homosexual people. The virtues of tolerance, gentleness, generosity and kindness give way to acts of brutality that corrupt and stunt fulfillment. In short, she says, “in seeking to entertain us, movies in a very real sense have exacerbated our pain.”

Well, yes. I can’t say that movies have ever exacerbated my pain in any detrimental sense, but I do see what she means. Unfortunately, every valid point that might be made along these lines is murdered in an orgy of overstatement. Mellen doesn’t even stick to her self-prescribed limits. Amongst the “Hollywood” movies she castigates are the James Bond films, the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, and Robin and Marian, all of which, as she well knows, were made in Europe and with a specifically European sensibility. Not content with razing the performances of her big bad wolves, she implies at every opportunity that these dubious males are obviously pretty shifty in real life, too. And she doesn’t do anything as obvious as reminding us of, say, John Wayne’s habitual glorifying of the likes of Nixon and (Joe) McCarthy. She’s much sneakier than that. Charles Bronson, she tells us with glee, doesn’t like to talk much. Aha! What is he repressing? (The thought that he might not like prying journalists is not considered.) And with what joy does she quote Joanne Woodward: “Someday, Paul and Bob will run off together. And I’ll be left behind with Lola Redford.” You can almost hear the unarticulated gloating – “Just a pair of fags, see? Even their wives say so!” – and don’t you dare think Mrs. Newman might have been joking. I very much doubt that the Prof ever makes jokes herself.

It’s very easy, of course, to argue a case if you deliberately fail to consider any contrary information and shy away from citing examples of films that are diametrically opposed to your central thesis. Mellen’s misinterpretations of individual movies are often so extreme that I can only conclude she was doing it on purpose. All the President’s Men, we read, “chronicles how two bright young men, working as buddies side by side without any women in their lives, restore the Horatio Alger myth.” Yes, er, but as a matter of fact, the real Woodward and Bernstein didn’t have wives – was Alan Pakula supposed to invent a couple? Also, of course, they didn’t like each other too much and they did have a good bit of help from women, all of which the film shows. Moving right along, we find Mellen describing the hero of Straw Dogs: “Effeminate in appearance, he wears glasses.” Gosh! A dead giveaway. She claims that the heroes of M*A*S*H are “never sexually lacking” when, in the very sequence she concentrates on (Painless Pole’s suicide attempt), Hawkeye Pierce admits, quite casually, to having been impotent several times.

She analyses Robin and Marian, predictably enough, in terms of Robin’s relationship with John, taking quite literally Robin’s claim – obviously a bit of macho bravado – that he hasn’t thought of Marian “for years.” She investigates the characterisation of Richard the Lionheart and concludes that, yes, the king was yet another closet case – but who was denying that? Not screenwriter James Goldman, who here clearly depicts the king as being every bit as violent and repressed as Mellen claims, just as he did (at length) in his earlier play and screenplay The Lion in Winter. The rivalry between John and Marian for Robin’s affection – which is how Mellen sees their relationship – is in fact rather more complex than that. Mellen cites Marian’s despairing line “You’ve had years and I’ll lose him!”, but carefully ignores the crucial rejoinder from John: “You’re Rob’s lady. If you’d been mine, I never would have left you.” It’s Marian John loves; that is all that’s said, and it’s all that needs to be said. When Robin says, “I doubt I’ll have a day like this again,” he is already dying from his wounds and in mortal agony, and Marian poisons him (and herself) not for the sake of any sexual victory over John, but simply to spare Robin pain. John’s cry of “No! No!” seems understandable in the circumstances and hardly a sign of unspoken homosexuality. (The overt display of emotion is OK for homosexuals, Mellen seems to be arguing, but not for heterosexuals: Paul Newman’s relief when Redford is saved from death in The Sting is interpreted by Mellen as another certain sign of secret gay cravings, for all the world as if a heterosexual man shouldn’t be relieved when a friend is, at the last moment, saved from being brutally murdered!)

Indeed, as the blatant double standard of her bogus, stereotype-happy “liberal” attitude  (gay men are all right as long as they’re not too butch) suggests, Mellen is keen to have things all ways. She attacks establishment stars like Wayne and Gable for maintaining the status quo, but when M*A*S*H shows disrespect for the Army and its regulations, she calls it “nihilist”. In order for Dog Day Afternoon to serve as an example of a film tolerant of homosexuality (which it is), Mellen has to pretend that its hero is a model of adjustment, when it is quite plain that, whilst sympathetic, Sonny (Al Pacino) is, to say the very least, a deeply confused young man. Three Days of the Condor, by virtue of the presence in the cast of the hated Robert Redford, is seen, astoundingly, as a pro-CIA propaganda movie. The gentleness shown by, say, Jon Voight towards Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (a flagrantly misogynistic movie, however – as even Mellen has noticed) is quite reasonably said to be admirable male behavior, but the similar acts of kindness shown by the Clint Eastwood character in The Outlaw Josey Wales to the dying boy (Sam Bottoms) are seen merely as corrupt attempts by the horrible Eastwood to gain sympathy for the title character, who, since Eastwood plays him, has to be regarded as a fascist.

And so it goes on. Movies that fit in, or can be twisted to seem to fit in, with Mellen’s vague theories are seen as good, no matter what their shortcomings as movie art, and vice versa. In fact, it’s very hard to work out what Mellen’s aesthetic criteria are. She describes The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as “one of [Ford’s] finest films” and then spends three full pages savaging it into oblivion (ditto for “one of Hawks’s most brilliant films”, Only Angels Have Wings). Amongst relevant films she wholly ignores are the Eastwood-starred-and-directed Play Misty for Me, with its attack on sexism, and the Eastwood-starred The Beguiled; McCabe and Mrs. Miller; Harold and Maude; or any of Hitchcock’s films. Her self-righteous, self-serving wrath gets so nauseating that I was even offended by her misreading of Marathon Man, a film I despised. In her earlier book, Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film, Mellen deduced, fraudulently, that Ingmar Bergman was an anti-Semite from the fact that the Jewish archaeologist who is the male protagonist of The Touch is unpleasant (she ignored the compassion Bergman displayed towards him). With regard to Marathon Man, she claims the film is anti-German, her reason being that the film’s villains are principally a trio of Germans. Well, yes, except that they are all Nazi war criminals. How can you win?

© 1979 Pierre Greenfield

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.