Saturday, February 12, 2011

They Don't Make 'em Like They Used To

Dorothy Malone from Written on the Wind fame.
Nope. They sure as Hell don't. The stars of now are extremely different than the stars of yore. How does a nation, a culture, go from idolizing Bogie and Bacall to Robert Downey Jr and Natalie Portman? I'm not knocking on those two in any way at all, it's just that...they're different. Very different. Although some might argue otherwise--to which I can understand, we haven't changed that much--but my point is they're different enough that when the two are compared there's a distance. A distance that isn't filled with the most positive of emotions. 

McQueen and Dunaway in Thomas Crown Affair
 Our stars are defined off the screen by their on screen persona. Steve McQueen was the king of cool, confident, and sure. He solved crimes and robbed banks with complete faith that everything was going to be fine. He was a man of action, little words,  and fast cars. We (men) envied his complete lack of insecurity, his stead fast self-assuredness. Women flocked to him for, what I can only guess are, the exact same reasons. He was a role model for boys on how to be a man.

No man has been able to wear a tux better than Steve McQueen.
 Faye Dunaway wasn't quite a man eater but wasn't Little Miss Innocent, either. Her persona was a wounded individual who had  the determination to get over her past. She wasn't afraid to make herself vulnerable , as she did in the Thomas Crown Affair and with Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. Yet, amongst the vulnerability and history, she was also a very confident woman. She played strong female leads where she talked slowly and deeply, making sure every vowel and syllable was understood by this man that she was slowly giving herself to. She carried herself with determination, she walked as if every step meant something. And, man, was she gorgeous.

"If a man is being honest, I mean really honest, than everything he does is for the sake of women." --Jack
But, a star's  persona is also determined by their artistic output. Jack Nicholson has never not played a character who either A. Doesn't drink, B. Doesn't smoke, or C. Doesn't have some kind of history. Combine that with his off screen "antics" and we get our idea of Jack: A wild man. But his consistently brilliant performances add a level of complexity and respect. He knows what he's doing.  He cares about what he's doing. And he's good at what he's doing. You can't not respect that.

Redford on the trail.
But, without these roles that have been written for them, these stars wouldn't be who they are to us. Imagine if Nicholson and McQueen switched roles. Would it work? God, no. Imagine if Robert Redford was never Butch Cassidy. Would you still like him if he bought that massive ranch in the middle of no where or would it add a level of "weirdness"? He'd be kind of weird if he started off in a contemporary role without the previous first impression, of him in one of the best Westerns ever created.

The writing of movies has changed. Screenwriters don't create Thomas Crown's any more. They don't create Travis Bickles or Sally Bowles. Instead our stars of today are more insecure, bitter, and angry at the way the world is. Our stars of today don't know what's going to happen tomorrow and sure as Hell don't know if it'll be good. Obviously, on a topical level, this can be blamed on the writers: why aren't we writing the characters of the greats? Why aren't we creating more romantic, charismatic, suave and secure characters to be blasted into the psyche's of today's youth? Why are we sitting here so pessimistic and bitter, self-indulgent and self-deprecating? 

Outdated? Maybe. But you can't beat talent. Show me a contemporary that can beat Minelli and I'll show you a liar.

But, at the same time, is it just us? Or is it the world around us? The culture we live in? Nobody's watching Cabaret anymore for a reason. The mass public will fall asleep within the first twenty minutes of The Shining, not just because of our incredible ADD-like rate of consumption (as compared to previous generations) but also because of our lack of empathy. We can't sympathize with those types of characters anymore. They're out of touch, outdates, antiquated. They may look brilliant, and their fashion may be making a comeback, but who they're characters are--as complex and real as they may be--no longer appreciated in our film vernacular. Give me the Cobb's in Inception; the Joker's in the Dark Knight. I don't want no slow talking and fast driving Steve McQueen. I want somebody who is energetic, ambitious, and feels as psychologically fucked up as I do. 

That just makes Steve McQueen seem...normal. And that's as good as sin in this business. 


Rose Cummings said...


Your point is well taken, but why are we so pyschologically fucked up? (That might take a while to answer, so we'll just keep that question rhetorical) Why does a movie have to be edited at the speed of lightening? I like movies that take some time to explore the world of the characters, linger on them a while. Personally, I loved (still love) Steve McQueen. I think he was the last man's man actor to grace our screens.

You bring up some great points.

Prof. C

hmescon said...

I think you make an interesting point about actors' personas on and off screen. I think especially nowadays, it is the off-screen persona that we allow to define these characters. We are so heavily inundated with the intricacies of their personal lives. People and Us magazine are covered with the affairs (literally) happening in Hollywood. We're so intrigued by Angelina Jolie's personal life, that we go and see "Salt". But I guess it is a case of the chicken and the egg. If she wasn't in films, we probably wouldn't care that she stole someone's husband, right?

It's also interesting what you say about the neurotic/fast-talking characters versus the confident classic characters of "yore". Though I wonder if we saw these characters today, if we could take them seriously. Would they come across as cliche or perhaps unrealistic? Is James Bond the closest we've gotten to this recently (even though the character originated much longer ago)? Maybe Liam Neeson a bit? Haha I don't know... Just throwing out some ideas. But I do agree with your statement overall. Interesting post!


Cate Hahneman said...

Interesting thoughts Matt. It's like you said, are the writers to blame? They may be responding to a broader impatient and neurotic culture, but they're the ones with the chance to shift the mood. Screenwriters can helm the popular pulse, so maybe it's up to us to bring back those classic film personas!

Andrew said...

I've never really looked into it, but I always wonder what audiences in McQueen's era thought of their current actors compared to earlier, silent ones. I imagine some of this comparing might have come with the growing accessibility of films for viewing on VHS, DVD, and now the internet - creating this sort of ADD of interest, desire, and distinction. You have some really great thoughts here and I agree that I often turn to older films for smart, suave stories and actors - knowing that they will deliver something that modern films often do not. Maybe we need a few decades before we can sift through and pick out our era's classics.