Who's The Man? Hollywood Heroes Defined Masculinity For Millions From silent stars to John Wayne to Iron Man, film critic Bob Mondello looks at the role that Hollywood has played in defining manliness, and how that definition has changed over several decades.
NPR logo

Who's The Man? Hollywood Heroes Defined Masculinity For Millions

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/336575116/336603488" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Who's The Man? Hollywood Heroes Defined Masculinity For Millions

Who's The Man? Hollywood Heroes Defined Masculinity For Millions

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/336575116/336603488" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


For part of our series on Men In America, we asked the question what actor or character comes to mind when you think of an iconic man?



PETER JONES: George Clooney, I guess.

BILL MARR: Brad Pitt. He's played Achilles and that's one of those archetypes of males from ancient history.

RICHARD MEAD: Indiana Jones - intelligent guy but also very physical and rugged and, of course, always saving the woman at the end.

SHAPIRO: That's Richard Mead of Fairfield, Connecticut. We also heard Will Rodriguez Kennedy of San Diego, Peter Jones of Scottsdale, Arizona and Bill Marr from Trumbull, Connecticut.


Now it's movie critic Bob Mondello's turn. Here's his take on how Hollywood has defined manliness and how that's been challenged.

BOB MONDELLO: Tony Curtis used to say he had learned how to kiss a girl by watching Cary Grant at the movies. And I'm assuming he wasn't just sitting behind him at the theater - at say, "To Catch A Thief."


GRACE KELLY: (As Frances Stevens) Ever had a better off in your whole life?

HUGH GRANT: (As John Robie) You know as well as I do this necklace is imitation.

KELLY: (As Frances Stevens) Well, I'm not.


MONDELLO: Tony Curtis was hardly alone in taking instruction from films. Movies have always offered a window through which audiences can observe human nature without being observed - where a man can learn how to make things right, the way John Wayne did.


JOHN WAYNE: (As McClintock) Pilgrim, you caused a lot of trouble this morning. Might've got somebody killed. Somebody ought to belt you in the mouth. But I won't. I won't - the hell I won't.

MONDELLO: Movies will teach you to sacrifice for the greater good like Humphrey Bogart.


HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) And that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll not regret it - maybe not today.

MONDELLO: Learn how to stand firm against injustice like Spencer Tracy.


SPENCER TRACY: (As Henry Drummond) I say that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially.

MONDELLO: Learn how to stand up for yourself like Sidney Poitier.


SYDNEY POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) I'm married 11 years and I've got a boy who's got to sleep in the living room 'cause I've got nothing - nothing to give him but stories.

MONDELLO: All of this was useful for a nation that thought of itself as a melting pot. For generations, immigrants had emerged slowly from ethnic enclaves, where things were just like the old country. It was hard. But film, even back when it was silent, was like an instruction manual. For a nickel at the Nickelodeon, a foreign guy, fresh off the boat, could see exactly how American men dressed, how they greeted each other - with a handshake now with European kisses on each cheek - how people behaved here, which in silent film was stereotypical - women domestic, delicate and passive, men outgoing, strong and active.

Films power of suggestion became so influential, so overwhelming, in fact, that some argued it should be curbed. In the 1930s, the film industry created a production code that laid out a set of strict rules for filmmakers - banning drunkenness, sex, revenge plots, all forms of immorality and stating explicitly that no movie should throw audience sympathy to the side of wrongdoing. You couldn't do most of Shakespeare under those rules. But you could have strong, manly, family-friendly heroes, which meant, as the blue noses intended, that Hollywood, having been told what it could show, was, in effect, telling audiences what they should be - portraying human behavior, especially male behavior, in idealized, heroic terms that mere mortals might have trouble living up to.




JIMMY STEWART: (As Jefferson Smith) Liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books, Ms. Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say, I'm free.

MONDELLO: Then after World War II, the code started fraying around the edges as competition from television cut into Hollywood's bottom line. What could film offer that TV couldn't? Well, foreign films had nudity. Indie films offered rebellion. The studios wanted a piece of that action. So they stopped restricting filmmakers and started alerting audiences through ratings. And as soon as the restrictions were gone, leading men in movies became more like men in real life - not always strong or good or forceful. Dustin Hoffman became a huge star playing a total slacker in the graduate.


WILLIAM DANIELS: (As Mr. Braddock) Ben, what are you doing?

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Well, I would say that I'm just drifting, here in the pool.

DANIELS: (As Mr. Braddock) Why?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Well it's very comfortable just to drift here.

DANIELS: (As Mr. Braddock) Have you thought about graduate school?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) No.

DANIELS: (As Mr. Braddock) Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) You've got me.

MONDELLO: Peter Fonda easy rode his way across America. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen played anti-heroes and got labeled the Kings of Cool. John Travolta was that era's Fred Astaire. All recognizable as people, not icons - all nuanced and vulnerable. And incapable of being like the men of old Hollywood because the world had changed too much. As Woody Allen demonstrated by conjuring up Bogie to help the man up in "Play It Again, Sam."


WOODY ALLEN: (As Allen) Vorus (ph) men's spray deodorant and Johnson and Johnson baby powder.

JERRY LACY: (As Bogart) For Christ's sake kid, you're going to smell like a French cathouse.

ALLEN: (As Allen) I need them.

LACY: (As Bogart) Why? Are you ashamed to sweat?

ALLEN: (As Allen) I want to make an impression.

LACY: (As Bogart) Somewheres in life you got turned around. It's her job to smell nice for you.

MONDELLO: Testosterone was in full retreat by the 1980s. Movies made for teenagers had teen heroes, not adult males. Roger Moore's James Bond started poking fun at the kind of suave his predecessor had played straight. And romance devolved from Cary Grant to Hugh Grant.


GRANT: (As Charles) I really feel, in short, to recap in a slightly clearer version - in the words of David Cassidy, in fact, while he was still with the Partridge family - I think I love you.

MONDELLO: This sort of eloquence would lead to the adult male as overgrown child in Judd Apatow comedies. And elsewhere were dads who turned themselves into Mrs. Doubtfire to rule the roost - sensitive bad guys, earnest good guys, gay guys who wish they could quit each other and action heroes like Jason Bourne, who literally don't know who they are. Men, in other words, became varied and human and unambiguously authentic on-screen. But audiences still want heroes and, more important, will pay to see heroes, which means Hollywood needed to find a way for males to be heroic again. The solution - which turned out to be a multibillion dollar solution - makes them super heroic - men of iron who care.


ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark) There is no version of this where you come out on top. Maybe your army comes and maybe it's too much. But it's all on you. 'Cause if we can't protect the earth, you can be damn well sure we'll avenge it.

MONDELLO: From John Wayne to Iron Man - not such a stretch really - icons, both standing tall, fighting for the greater good, manly in a way that may not be entirely human or even something most people would want to live up to. But that sure looks great in cinema scope. I'm Bob Mondello.

CORNISH: OK now we want to know about manliness in way that is entirely human. What are the movies that make men cry? Bill Marr of Trumbull, Connecticut, points to this Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt film.

BILL MARR: "As Good As It Gets."


JACK NICHOLSON: (As Melvin Udall) I might be the only person on the face of the earth that knows you're the greatest woman on earth.

MARR: She helped him become more of a decent person. Yeah, that almost brought tears to my eyes.

RODRIGUEZ KENNEDY: Oh, oh, "End Of Watch."

SHAPIRO: That's the Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena cop movie.

KENNEDY: Where he loses his partner.


JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Brain Taylor) God loves cops.

KENNEDY: I can cry. In the Marine Corps you learn that men do cry. If they don't there's something wrong.

CORNISH: That manly guidance comes from Will Rodriguez Kennedy of San Diego. So guys, it's time to share. Tell us about the movies that make men cry.

SHAPIRO: The scenes that get you verklempt. Its OK, we're all friends here.

CORNISH: Join the conversation. Write us at npr.org or at Facebook or tweet to us #menpr. We'll break out the tissues and air some of your comments next week.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.