Masculinity and Vulnerability at the Movies, Part 1

Real Masculinity Needs Believable Vulnerability

Maps of the Heart Nutshell: Real strength and courage is grounded in vulnerability.  We love strong men with heart, or the tough ones that end up with heart by The End.

(Note: some of this series is from comments I wrote awhile back on another movie blog.)

We may admire or even envy a character’s strength,  but we love their vulnerability, when it’s believable.  Not many actors can play believable vulnerability, and if we don’t really believe they’re in trouble, or that the bottom they’ve hit is very deep, then we don’t care as much.  We want movies more real these days, and the roles that resonate after decades had actors that could make us believe their sweat wasn’t sprayed on.   You can see it in seconds, in the trailer of a movie.

Strength without vulnerability devolves into egoic machismo, one-dimensional and unbelievable, if not laughable.  Tough guys are a dime a dozen, but when Marlon Brando chokes out ‘I coulda been a contender!’ we’re there.  That’s why Daniel Craig made Casino Royale work.  The Departed was well-written and cleverly filmed with plenty of macho men, but it didn’t pull me into their world, perhaps partly because the original, Infernal Affairs (Mou gaan dou), had already done that for me.  It had actors with believable vulnerability.  The Departed didn’t.  When critics talked about the choices Jack Nicholson made for his role, I think it was about choosing camp machismo over a greater realism.  I left the theater thinking I’d enjoyed a good Scorsese film and Nicholson was over-the-top Nicholson.  But I didn’t feel shaken by corruption in the force, or in a man like Costello.  The rat ran across the screen for a few seconds at the end and I smiled at the attempted visual cleverness, but that was all.

Some actors have surprised me.  Gerard Butler’s role in 300 was written as over-the-top tough.  He wasn’t supposed to be vulnerable, but as a result, it lacked depth and reality, but then it was a comic book.  But he played an interesting mix of tough/heart-hidden-behind-a-wall moving toward vulnerability/falling in love in Dear Frankie and in the UK mini-series “The Jury” (2002).  It’s an ensemble piece with a lot of story lines, but Butler plays a recovering alcoholic fresh out of rehab, who falls in love with a fellow jury member.  Of special note:  the scene the morning after he’s gone on a bender and he’s sitting at a diner with his AA mentor.

Even the comedians we remember as great are the ones that could play vulnerable, like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.  Sometimes it’s physical vulnerability that gets a laugh, like Will Ferrell running around a track in his underwear. Wouldn’t be funny if he looked like a body builder.  Good comic relief in an action movie usually hinges on vulnerability: we know and believe that Indiana Jones hates snakes.

Where you probably need real vulnerablity most (unless you’re going for camp), is scary movies.  Alfred Hitchcock’s everyman could play believable vulnerability, like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window, Cary Grant in North by Northwest and Notorious, Gregory Peck in Spellbound, Laurence Olivier in Rebecca.

Harder still, but a coup when you can do it, is pulling off the vulnerability of a tough guy or superhero.  Harrison Ford forged a trail with his good-natured self-deprecation—is fear of snakes and that darn scar under his chin & the (many) ways he got it.  He continued with everything from the tough and tender cop in Witness to his very human Jack Ryan character.

You can read a good script and feel believable vulnerability on the page—the “everyman” under extraordinary circumstances—but some actors still can’t pull it off.  Some scripts don’t have it, and the actors can still make it work.   Brock Peters, Robert Duvall and Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, Jeff Daniels in Something Wild, James McAvoy in Rory O’Shea, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile or Daniel Day-Lewis, River Phoenix, James Dean and Morgan Freeman in just about anything—they all seem to rise far above those words on the page, however eloquent, poignant or real they may be.

All the leading men I mentioned in this post and Part 2 that follows can play believable vulnerability.  A lot of actors can’t or on some level haven’t allowed it.   I’ll use Christian Bale as an example.  I think he’s a fascinating actor and a favorite of mine, but I haven’t seen him play real believable vulnerability yet—even in The Machinist.  I think he and Werner Herzog missed the point in Rescue Dawn.  If you’ve seen the former Vietnam POW, Dieter Dengler, in Herzog’s brilliant, heart-breaking documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” there’s something profoundly sensitive and fragile and heartfelt about him, and that is his gift—to the point that I’d say he survived and escaped not because he was tough, or his heart was walled off, but because it was broken open and he survived not in spite of it but because of it. There was this sense of the enormous capacity of his soul.  But I don’t get that from Bale and not sure how Herzog captured Dieter so poignantly in his documentary but missed it in the film version.  That said, I admire Bale for his dogged determination in any role, and if any actor can figure this out—or allow it to come out—it’s Bale.  And yet in this one instance, I’d say dogged determination isn’t the answer.  It’s the opposite of that.  It’s releasing that.  It’s the heart broken open for all to see. That’s courage.

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