Manuel Betancourt

Best Lead Actor, or How ‘Man’ is the Word

February 9, 2009 · in Uncategorized

A Blog Next Door’s Oscar coverage 2009: for the lit theory junkie in me and the Oscar watcher in you.

Best Lead Actor: ‘Masculinity Crisis’
A Nominated Leading Man is a Nominated Leading Man is a Nominated Leading Man. Bored yet? Well, that’s what Leading Men tend to be for me. Maybe it is because ‘Men’ are so boring but lumping them into one theoretical framework is much easier than with the ladies: how else to describe the Leading Men but to explore the lineup as a continuum of masculinity? Or better yet, as experiments in different models of (albeit, American) masculinity?
Nixon, Randy, Harvey, Benjamin and Walter are all models of contemporary masculinity. Oscar seems to be asking: which one are you?

Frank Langella – “Richard Nixon” in Frost/Nixon
I am a political man.
Where else to start? Here is a man’s man – only not a fighting debonair one, but a political bureaucrat (he doesn’t even dare try and wear loafers – in Kevin Bacon’s words, they’re very effeminate). Nonetheless he sees most things as a duel – as a fight. Add to that the fact that Mr Nixon cannot distance himself from his political image (as a strong anti-Communist man, all the time brushing a chip off his shoulder in being compared to the 1960s political beau: Kennedy) and that he is put in a position of always needing to prove himself and it is hard to see Langella’s Nixon as anything other than a man in crisis.

Mickey Rourke – “Randy the Ram” in The Wrestler
I am a fighting man.
Randy is a man’s man: he fights, he fucks. Here is the brass, American masculine ideal taken to the ultimate degree (and subsequently mauled and aged accordingly). What to say of a man who we seldom meet outside of a strip bar or a fighting ring, who is utterly uncomfortable playing the subdued, ‘domestic’ role of a grocery store aid and whose last moments are a gasping for air and bravery to seemingly face his death in what can only be described as a coming together of hubris and catharsis – though ultimately engineered by notions of ‘masculine’ roles? Exactly.

Brad Pitt – “Benjamin Button” in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
I am a passively young-ing man.
But probably the most controversial of the models presented by this lineup is Ben Button. He is the epitome of passivity – indifference would be too strong a word, but appropriate nonetheless. Benjamin is an observer of life, love and even sex (at least he finds a tutoress in Ms Swinton) who seems to have no agency: he inherits, he travels, he sails; but never do we experience that Benjamin is capable of any action. This is the model of a man whose life is a series of events that pass him by and willingly submit to them. Indeed, the film seems to exult this to the degree that the film itself is so captivating and visually lush that it suggests Fincher, Miranda and Roth have concocted a vibrant world for Benjamin only to have him inhabit it without ever doing anything with it.

Sean Penn – “Harvey Milk” in Milk
I am a gay man.
How captivating that if we were to pick out the most wholly practical and praise-worthy masculine model we go to the ‘gay man’: Harvey is a late bloomer who finds his footing well into his life and when seeing imperfection in the world around him all he can think to do is act. If Benjamin is a model of passive agency (so seldom revered in masculine figures), Harvey is a man who can’t stand still when faced with the world around him. He’s like an action hero; or like an activist hero.

Richard Jenkins – “Walter Vale” in The Visitor
I am a frustrated man.
Throughout our cinematic encounter with Walter, we find that he is living an unfulfilling life – his book is nowhere near completion, he’s seemingly detached from his work. In a way we could Walter as an academic version of Randy; here is what every want would want (a job, economic stability) but we have none of the satisfaction.
See? Even the write up bristles with dull and boring language and little or no deep analysis; these boys just don’t do it for me…
Next up: Desire and the Supporting Ladies