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Masculine Beauty: The Fall From Gable

Substance is absent from our notions of male attractiveness.

Source: LA TIMES, Friday, February 16, 2001

The King is a hundred years old.

Clark Gable, who would be celebrating his centenary this year, died in 1960, but the King of Hollywood, as the actor was known, continues to cast a long, dark shadow over the movie landscape. The kingdom may well not be what it once was, but the figure of the King is set permanently in our subconscious. Even now, whether we like it or not, in our deconstructed, post-modern era, the image of Gable epitomizes the idea of the tall, dark and handsome leading man, the quintessential movie star, the celluloid symbol of ultimate masculinity. But as the kingdom enters its second century, and if Gable were to saunter on to our sound stages anew, sight unseen, would we once again see in him those innate leading-man qualities? Would we still consider him desirable?

As the New York Times wrote at the time of his death: "Gable was as certain as the sunrise. He was consistently and stubbornly all men." Today's leading men would probably give their right arm for a part that enshrined them so firmly in the popular culture as Rhett Butler. Repeated TV showings of "Gone With the Wind" have ensured that younger movie fans, more used to the current screen diet of Adam Sandler, special effects and masturbatory apple pies, are at least aware of his presence on the landscape, though his style, indeed, his very essence, must strike them as being as alien as Scarlett O'Hara's hoop skirts. In his day however, there was nobody who could touch him. Cliche be damned, women loved him and men wanted to be him. His image was the desired one, and luckily for us it was immortalized forever by some of the greatest glamour photographers of the 20th century.

These portraits are currently on display in a wonderful exhibition marking Gable's centenary at the Cinema Arts Gallery in Beverly Hills. Featuring the work of such masters as Clarence Sinclair Bull, Laszlo Willinger and George Hurrell, the exhibition gives us an excellent sense of what it was that made movie fans swoon in the '30s. It gives us an insight into what constituted a beautiful man--what, indeed, was considered sexy in an era before such a vulgar word was commonly used. And the portraits also raise the question: Could he become, in our current graceful parlance, a sex god for our time?

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On an examination of the current scene, it doesn't look that promising. Male movie stars remain very much the barometer by which we measure our notions of masculine beauty, and looking at the top 10 or so who are considered "box office," a kinship with either the physicality or spirit of Gable is more or less absent. The one exception--much remarked upon particularly since his performance in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"--is George Clooney. In the very basics, there is certainly a resemblance. But he is essentially Gable Lite; with his eager-to-please, slightly coy manner, eyes staring up from under improbably long eyelashes, Clooney is Gable by way of Princess Diana, a soft, feminized version with a suggested passivity that, although in keeping with fashion, runs utterly counter to the all-important unself-consciousness and raffishness that were so attractive in the King.

It's likely that if he were to stroll into a casting agent's office now, Gable would probably be told to go get himself a body, put in some pouting practice and stop acting his age. The current unprecedented era of male body worship has meant that every bit-part player or soap star has to have a body ripped to within an inch of his life, a body that he has to unveil at the drop of the smallest hat. The sultry, sexually suggestive yet nonthreatening male has become one of the dominant cultural images--on billboards and in movies, television and pop music. Open any glossy magazine and you will find women, however alluring, increasingly relegated in the fashion ads to supporting parts, drooped adoringly over the central, glistening male torso. Whether this is a direct response to the supposed changes in the status and subsequent expectations of women in wider society, or whether it is simply due to the growing commodification of all things sexual, is hard to determine. Needless to say, in neither turf would a Gable prosper.

This wholesale media display of the male body, with its overt sexuality and often homoerotic undertones, would be alien to Gable's generation and has certainly not been without issues for modern men, not the least of which can involve health dangers. A number of recent books, most prominently "The Adonis Complex" (Free Press, 2000), has highlighted the ways in which this atmosphere has led to an increase in many men of distorted views of their less-than-perfect physiques and the drastic remedies they resort to in order to live up to the desired image, such as steroid use and the development of eating disorders. As is often the case in matters of image and fashion, gay men lead the way in this, and there have even been reports that claim to show a growing jealously and sense of inferiority among straight men for their super-buff gay brothers.

The use of digital technology to further enhance the perfection of current heartthrobs in a way makes the game even less fair, and supposed ideals even harder to attain for most men. But is the cut, pristine, ever-youthful-looking male standard of our time what people really find attractive anyway? Or do they still hanker after the less overtly sexual, more "manly" man of yesteryear? Again we can press movie examples into service. A totally unscientific poll of my nearest and dearest--for the most part straight women and gay men in their 30s--revealed a divergence of responses (along quite traditional lines) to the question of whether Gable and his ilk were, to modern eyes, still sexually appealing. All of them were sufficiently movie-literate to be able to make the comparison.
* * *

The women were more welcoming than the guys. "Yeah, he's sexy. . . . He looks like he'd know what to do" was one comment. "He looks like he could be fun . . . nice cheeky smile" was another. The guys, on the other hand, were far harsher. There was no sex appeal about him for them, no clue as to real physical attributes underneath the finely tailored '30s clothes. A picture of a debonair Gable, when placed against one of Brad Pitt in T-shirt and come-hither mode, was cutting no ice. "I wouldn't say he's especially cute," opined one. "He could be my dad.

* * *

In direct counterpoint to the '30s, when so much of what was appealing was a matter of hidden allure and the strength of the imagination, much of the governing aesthetic in male heartthrobs today would seem to be directly related to, or heavily influenced by, pornography. With the greatest respect due to their undoubted acting abilities, the generically accessible boy-next-door good looks of current male stars such as Pitt, Matthew McConnaughey, Ryan Phillippe and Ben Affleck is not so unlike that of the male porn star. They are sexual yet strangely vacant; they offer playfulness but with a complete absence of unforced charm; and, most important, they are seemingly conscious of every step, every sexy move that they make in front of the camera. Such narcissism could not be claimed of Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift or, heaven forbid, John Wayne.

But maybe the most important factor in determining beauty has become one of youth, at least so far as the media are concerned. The preferences of 30-something women are not those held paramount today (and the preferences of my gay buddies can be alarmingly similar to those of teenage girls). It's almost astonishing to realize that when Gable was proclaiming wearily to Vivien Leigh that, quite frankly, he couldn't give a damn, he was more or less the same age (38) as our very own Tom Cruise. In a nutshell, this contrast tells us more about the changing perception of male beauty than any other comparison. Gable was recognizably a man of the world, his experience carried in and contributing to his physical appeal. Cruise, on the other hand, is perceived as essentially a juvenile, an unchanging Peter Pan figure with the same weightlessness as a college grad; thus, he works best in roles that call for youthful, naive zest. It's also the quality that prevents him from having truly adult sexual appeal, much less a sense of possible, sexual danger.

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Some time ago, I made a documentary for British TV about Leonardo DiCaprio, at the time still riding high off "Titanic." In my interviews with countless fans, it became clear that for teenage girls, the boyish but androgynous look was the one they preferred in their idols--smooth, hairless, lacking traditionally adult, masculine physical attributes and, by implication, sexually unthreatening. This is the age group most targeted by movie makers, advertisers and other cultural purveyors in general. Just as the out-of-control obsession with youth has robbed us of old-style movie glamour (as Joan Collins once said, there's no such thing as a glamorous child), so will Hollywood's sucking up to the youth market ensure that our leading heartthrobs have to be kept in a state of superannuated adolescence. Gable the King may remain on his throne, but his loyal attendants would seem to be getting thin on the ground.

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