BIG BAD WOLVES: Masculinity in the American Film by Joan Mellen

BIG BAD WOLVES: Masculinity in the American Film

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The title is taken from Clark Gable's jesting reference to himself in It Happened One Night but Mellen is serious about her thesis: male film heroes from the Twenties onward are characterized by stoicism, dominance, violence, superhuman courage, and masculinity. She also has a thesis-within-a-thesis--that the content of the movies is determined by big business--and she pursues whichever is convenient at the moment with dogged earnestness. The restricted patterns of masculinity in films are ascribed to corporations like Gulf & Western and RCA, which want to reinforce existing values and ""keep people at each other's throats in competing for work."" Granted, there are differences in each decade--each exploitative. The Twenties allowed actors multifaceted portrayals, but this was due to the repressive political atmosphere of the Palmer raids: ""With political freedom under assault, people were encouraged to opt for sexual liberation and more open styles of personal life."" At the advent of the Depression, Mellen collides with directors Frank Capra and John Ford, who she believes reinforced the status quo by presenting ""individualistic"" characters who tried to reform the system from within instead of by ""mass movement."" In the Forties, Humphrey Bogart personified a more vulnerable and realistic male image, and in the Fifties Marlon Brando and James Dean revolutionized the interpretation of the male psyche. But again, Hollywood's motive has to be devious: it is compensating for McCarthyism, ""replacing social dissent with a fascinating and serious examination of sexual politics."" While the Sixties continued a more complex treatment of males in films like The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, Mellen points to a hardening process under way by the Seventies that returned the film image of the male to the old machismo. Yet Mellen also hails Al Pacino's portrayal of a homosexual in Dog Day Afternoon as a major advance. She changes the rules as frequently as seems necessary, but her thesis does not survive her book.

Pub Date: Jan. 27th, 1977
Publisher: Pantheon