The romantic male stars aren’t necessarily sexually aggressive. Henry Fonda wasn’t; neither was James Stewart, or, later, Marcello Mastroianni. The foursquare Clark Gable, with his bold, open challenge to women, was more the exception than the rule, and Gable wasn’t romantic, like Grant. Gable got down to brass tacks; his advances were basic, his unspoken question was “Well, sister, what do you say?” If she said no, she was failing what might almost be nature’s test. She’d become over-civilized, afraid of her instincts - afraid of being a woman. There was a violent, primal appeal in Gable’s sex scenes: it was all out front - in the way he looked at her, man to woman. Cary Grant doesn’t challenge a woman that way. (When he tried, as the frontiersman in “The Howards of Virginia,” he looked thick and stupid.) With Gable, sex is inevitable: What is there but sex? Basically, he thinks women are good for only one thing. Grant is interested in the qualities of a particular woman - her sappy expression, her non sequiturs, the way her voice bobbles. She isn’t going to be pushed to the wall as soon as she’s alone with him. With Grant, the social, urban man, there are infinite possibilities for mutual entertainment. They might dance the night away or stroll or go to a carnival - and nothing sexual would happen unless she wanted it to. Grant doesn’t assert his male supremacy; in the climax of a picture he doesn’t triumph by his fists and brawn - or even by outwitting anybody. He isn’t a conqueror, like Gable. But he’s a winner. The game, however, is an artful dodge. He gets the blithe, funny girl by maneuvering her into going after him. He’s a fairy-tale hero, but she has to pass through the trials: She has to trim her cold or pompous adversaries; she has to dispel his fog. In picture after picture, he seems to give up his resistance at the end, as if to say, What’s the use of fighting?
Many men must have wanted to be Clark Gable and look straight at a woman with a faint smirk and lifted, questioning eyebrows. What man doesn’t - at some level - want to feel supremely confident and earthy and irresistible? But a few steps up the dreamy social ladder there’s the more subtle fantasy of worldly grace - of being so gallant and gentlemanly and charming that every woman longs to be your date. And at that deluxe level men want to be Cary Grant. Men as far apart as John F. Kennedy and Lucky Luciano thought that he should star in their life story. Who but Cary Grant could be a fantasy self-image for a President and a gangster chief?
Personally, I don’t read film criticism. There’s a reason for that. It’s boring. According to this article, and a few others, I’m not missing anything. Apparently, film criticism is dying (gasp!) and we should all be gravely concerned with the future of film writing, as it now faces its imminent death.
I’m uncertain as to what exactly is threatening film criticism — besides general lack of interest. Video games? The (evil) internet? Perhaps actual film viewing?
Maybe all of these things.
Ultimately, the best way to increase the popularity of film criticism is to write better articles. The days of hack writers clacking out dialed in columns with the same tired plot summaries, thumbs up — thumbs down, and a pithy pull-quote are over.
The rule of the game now is: it’s got to be fun to read.
Contemporary film criticism is predominately about assessing value. Is movie X worth the cost of admission, the cost of parking, the cost of the concession stand, the cost of social engagement. Bringing anything down to consumer grade level of criteria is sure to weaken the punch of any critical experience.
But that’s not the public’s fault (not entirely). The job of the writer is to engage an audience. There’s a whole of lot of other stuff to read out there, film critics need to be writers before worrying about being critics. It would do all well to remember that 99% of writers go unloved and unread — but keep on writing.
Write better and the audience will come.
Jonathem Lethem is writing a book on John Carpenter’s 1988 They Live, and I’m excited to read it because I know that Lethem’s got a good head on his shoulders and looks at things in an interesting way.
Kim Morgan writes romantic prose on directors, movie stars of old, — even cars, in films that strike her fancy. Half the fun of reading Morgan’s work is seeing what she’s into. I like Cool Hand Luke too, but I want to know why Kim likes it.
Do yourself a favor, go and grab your copy of Kael’s 5001 Nights At The Movies and look up your favorite movie from 20+ years ago. In fact, don’t just look up one, look up at least three.
Chances she didn’t agree with you — or maybe she did. Doesn’t matter. The point of this exercise is that Kael was a writer first. She engaged you with her personality. Like a wacky friend or family member, her point of view on things was fascinating. How many film critics can you say that about?