It seems fitting, in the context of this slightly odd Wesley Morris piece in the Boston Globe about the lack of movie stars who are also Real Men, to discuss the first trailer for Iron Man 2. Morris’s piece doesn’t quite work because he doesn’t have an articulated definition of real manhood. He sees elements of it in everyone from Clark Gable to Clint Eastwood, and complains that it, whatever it is, is lacking in younger men of today. If he had a firm definition to work from, it might be possible to make that exclusion definitively. But Gable and Eastwood are really only two points on a continuum, and not even definitive end points of it. I agree with Morris on certain points: I do think that a certain lassitude has crept into portrayals of male characters in major movies, a lack of certainty and decisiveness. But I’m not entirely sure I think that’s a dreadful thing. Portrayals of men are different today because of evolving gender roles. But just because we’ve moved beyond once kind of dominant performance for men doesn’t mean a total loss: if you lose one kind of role, but gain many others, I think that’s probably a net benefit for male actors across the board.
But all of that aside, since Morris mentioned him, I actually think there are remarkable commonalities between Clark Gable’s performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies. Both characters are extremely competent in their performance of somewhat socially inhospitable occupations: Butler is a smuggler and speculator, Stark is an arms manufacturer. Both characters delight in flaunting societal expectations of their relationships with women: Butler sets Belle Watling up in business and carries on an affair with her. Stark, in an age where women like Belle Watling neither exist nor are particularly shocking in the form they take, merely consorts with pretty much anyone cute who comes along. And both end up masking their feelings for women they love in flippancy. The fabulously tossed off “You complete me” Tony gives to Pepper as he jumps out of a plane is the equivalent of Rhett’s declaration to Scarlett that “You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.” Both are meant to be evidence of how little the men in question care, and they convey just the opposite.
I tend to think that those kinds of conflicts, that flippancy and anger and commitment, are frequently what characterize not just self-aware and fully recognized men, but self-aware and fully-recognized people. I’m glad Downey Jr. is continuing in the tradition. And I’m glad Gable was such an illustrious part of it. Male actors will carry it on, and redefine it. And female actors have work of their own to do, too.