In an age of Judd Apatow movies and the trend of schlubs paired with babes, pop culture often preaches that humor and kindness are all — and I really do mean all, in some cases, a steady job isn’t even really a necessary credential at the start — a man needs to achieve romantic success. It’s a view of the world that both isn’t realistic to men’s dating experiences in real life if the Nice Guys Of OkCupid are any indication. And it’s one that doesn’t address men’s struggles with their own looks, whether in the context of the kinds of makeover montages that are so common in stories about women, or in their own right. But watching a number of Steven Soderbergh’s smaller recent movies, I’ve been struck by a common theme: an intriguing — if indirect — exploration of the all-too-rare subject of male body image.
Soderbergh’s plumbed the idea that women aren’t alone in having anxieties about their looks. In 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, Chris, the boyfriend of call girl Chelsea, works as a personal trainer, surviving the recession on the anxieties of more privileged men. Magic Mike, his 2011 movie based on star Channing Tatum’s experiences as a stripper, young, beautiful Tampa men try to use women’s desire for their bodies to lever themselves up the economic ladder in a recession, and the movie’s action comes from Mike’s gradual realization that objectification and the enjoyment of it have distanced him from his values and from other people. And in Behind the Candelabra, his upcoming Liberace biopic for HBO, Soderbergh’s not just examining the pianist himself, or his younger lover Scott Thorson (on whose memoir the movie is based), but what happens when someone has unfettered access to plastic surgery, weight loss drugs, and wardrobe budget.
Given that recent strain in his work, I was eager to ask Soderbergh about it at the Television Critics Association press tour. And while Soderbergh said that he hadn’t intentionally planned the movies as a series, he was very matter-of-fact about the idea that men experience bodily anxieties in a way that isn’t often acknowledged in popular culture in the same way it is for women.
“I guess I just feel those are very common feelings,” Soderbergh told me. “We all get up in the morning. We put clothes on and we look in the mirror and we make a judgment about how we feel about our appearance. Not all of us have the opportunity or the resources to indulge in plastic surgery or even, you know, an incredible wardrobe.”
HBO hasn’t distributed screeners of Behind The Candelabra yet, but Matt Damon, who plays Thorson, and Michael Douglas, who’s playing Liberace, said that despite the over-the-top elements of Liberace’s personal style, and the presence of Rob Lowe as Liberace’s cat-eyed plastic surgeon — Soderbergh said that producer Jerry Weintraub once referred to the project as “La cage aux folles on steroids.” — the movie was respectful of the men rather than a catty deconstruction of them. “I’m fascinated by Liberace’s wardrobe,” Soderbergh explained. “I mean, that stuff’s pretty fascinating to look at and imagine someone wanting to make that appearance. It’s pretty extraordinary…I can’t imagine going to work in these outfits.”
And that’s a really interesting question to ask. We may not be done with the conversations, but we’ve at least asked the initial questions about why a size two or four is the only acceptable dress size for women, why makeup has become mandatory, why heels become standard footwear. Soderbergh’s work is, if not always directly, asking why muscles are important enough that men will hold onto their trainers in a recession (or teenage boys will go on serious hormone regimens before they’ve finished growing), how men adjust when their bodies are treated like consumable objects in the way women’s have been so often, and now what happens when one man wants to remake another in his own image enough that he’ll ask him to submit to dramatic plastic surgery. That’s an incredible and worthwhile project. And even if it’s not a conscious effort on Soderbergh’s part, I hope other writers and directors take note.