The other day, I happened upon a piece by the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen, a columnist with whom I rarely agree. In it, he dealt with the casting of hunky Daniel Craig as James Bond, and his relation to his predecessors in the pantheon of male movie stars. And his take on the differences between the sex appeal of modern leading men and those of yesterday had much merit; notwithstanding his premise that men like Cary Grant “represented the triumph of the sexual meritocracy — a sex appeal won by experience and savoir-faire, not delts and pecs and other such things that any kid can have.”
But I get his point: the stars of yesteryear had to do more than disrobe and flex to win the hearts and minds of ladies. It is this observation that has raised the hackles of modern movie-goers and unleashed a bitter backlash, presumably from those who favor brawn over, well, everything else. One admirer of modern men of musculature has gone so far as to call George Clooney the reincarnation of Cary Grant. Oh my.
The reason behind all the acrimony? Simply put, people do not want their popular culture mocked. As anyone who has attended a wedding recently has doubtless learned, any commentary on the ear-shattering and soul-consuming musical “entertainment” is not well received, to say the least. Dare to attend a party and suggest that an athlete from the past is greater than those of today and you’re not likely to be asked back. But most offensive of all to modern ears, is the opinion that the majority of today’s movies mainly consist of fighting, fantasy, or filth.
Of course, this was not always the case. The silver screen has always been filled with faces that are easy on the eyes, even among the male stars. The epitome of this was my personal favorite, Robert Taylor — he of the perfect profile, piercing blue eyes, and pearly white teeth — whose initial appeal was certainly on a physical level. But there was more to it than that. A man like Taylor — who was an ultra-conservative and therefore detested by modern film critics — radiated an aura of sturdy manliness and believability which made him equally adept at playing a dashing young Parisian suitor to Greta Garbo’s Camille, as well as a hardened Roman tribune in Quo Vadis.
Since these men weren’t frequently, if ever, shedding their clothes onscreen, their physiques weren’t as important as their ability to shine convincingly in roles that were far removed from their actual backgrounds. They were able to do so because they were truly actors. The suave, sophisticated Grant was born Archie Leach to lower middle-class parents. He ran away to join a troupe of acrobats at age 14 and crafted his on-screen alter-ego along the way. Conversely, Humphrey Bogart, who for most of his career, personified the “deese, dem and dose” street toughs at Warner Brothers, was actually the son of a prominent New York surgeon and his illustrator wife, who sent him to all the best schools.
The Golden Age of Hollywood is generally defined as starting with the talkies and ending around 1960, but I date the beginning of the end with the breakup of the studio system and the advent of Method acting in the late 1940s. The Method ushered in decades of scenery-chewing performances drenched in the angst so beloved by film critics and other pointy-heads who continue to confer upon today’s movies decidedly undeserved laurels; supposedly, because they deal with “reality.”
Gone are the great actors who could express emotion without profanity, along with terrific writers and directors who could convey love without sex scenes, comedy without scatology and violent acts without gore. In the name of so-called realism, we lost the allure of illusion and the craft of quality story-telling, and instead are left with movies that may be filled with technologically perfect pyrotechnics, but little heart and soul.
As for me, I’ll stay with movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood when audience intelligence was still respected and the goal was to provide entertaining movies and not “art”; the modern definition of which seems to be that which shocks and disgusts most. In my opinion, there is more art in the opening credits of Gone With the Wind than in the entirety of nearly any movie made in the past 60 years, and more attractive men than all of the overly-sculpted stars of today. I’m with Cary Grant, who said, some years ago:
I have no rapport with the new idols of the screen, and that includes Marlon Brando and his style of Method acting. It certainly includes Montgomery Clift and that God-awful James Dean. Some producer should cast all three of them in the same movie and let them duke it out. When they’ve finished each other off, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy and I will return and start making real movies again like we used to.
Would that it were so.