Boys on film: what we can learn about masculinity from Hollywood

In a range of new films from First Man to Beautiful Boy, male characters are representing two different types of masculinity: unblemished and toxic

Between First Man, Beautiful Boy, Boy Erased and The Old Man & the Gun, Oscar-bait films with singular, male-referencing nouns in their titles are in season. Is it mere happenstance, a case of nominal fortuity, or does it suggest a more sweeping reappraisal of masculinity and boyhood in this year’s films? Well, a little bit of both.

To say Hollywood hasn’t always been interested in the particularities of men and their inner lives would be untrue. Were that so there might be a Netflix category for Films Starring Emotionally Constipated Men the way there’s one for Strong Female Leads. Alas, the former is something of a cinematic convention, the latter, unfortunately, still a subcategory deserving of special designation.

Many film-makers – Sam Peckinpah, for instance – have made the study of the violent male id their cause célèbre. And from John Wayne to Humphrey Bogart to James Bond, movies have historically provided a blueprint (albeit, a single-minded one) for the performance of masculinity, so much so that Woody Allen’s character in Play it Again, Sam literally conjures Bogart’s ghost to seek his counsel on courting women. “I never met one who didn’t understand a slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45,” says a spectral Bogart.

Suffice it to say that on-screen examinations of men and masculinity have tended toward hagiography, subtly and not-so-subtly reinforcing patriarchal notions about how to be a man. But as Hollywood itself belatedly reckons with toxic masculinity and the harmful, abusive ways it’s reared its head, more complicated portraits of men are upon us. There was last year’s Phantom Thread, nothing if not a critical study of corrosive male ego, and a succession of awards season juggernauts – Birdman, Boyhood, Moonlight – that could each be considered male coming-of-age stories, even as the age in question varies dramatically.

Watching this year’s spate of movies, however, I couldn’t help but notice the ways they attempted, to varying degrees of success, to explore two particular kinds of topical masculinity that haven’t always been on screen: a youthful, unblemished one, in which adversity is sentimentalized, and a toxic one, in which pain works as a plot-stimulant, giving cause to our male protagonist’s destructive or selfish or emotionally repressed behavior.

Take, for instance, First Man, which doesn’t lionize Neil Armstrong’s dogged race to the moon so much as it suggests the quest itself is a distraction from the death of his two-year old daughter and the monotony of suburban American life. Director Damien Chazelle has tended to venerate the monumental achievements of certain Great White Men, but it was something of a relief to see Armstrong’s daring and determination complicated, depicted for what it was: a hero’s journey, sure, but one motivated in large part by a culture that once forbade masculine displays of emotion, fragility and bereavement. First Man has been written off as nostalgic for that era, but it ought to be seen as more of an interrogation than an endorsement of it.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildlife
Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildlife. Photograph: Allstar/June Pictures

Paul Dano’s superb Wildlife, too, examines the ways mid-century men dealt with wounded egos: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry is so miffed after being fired from his job as a golf pro that he abandons his family to fight faraway wildfires. A past version of that same film might have considered that decision properly righteous, but here it’s seen as cowardly, a balm for the character’s pride. Make no mistake – First Man and Wildlife could hardly be more different. But in both films we find ourselves identifying with Neil and Jerry’s wives, played by Claire Foy and Carey Mulligan with the bewilderment of strong women who’ve wound up with men so spiritually and emotionally aloof. In both Gosling and Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, there’s a quiet, sad-eyed diffidence that gestures toward a new kind of leading man, or at least a new perspective on the ones of yesteryear.

New kinds of leading men can be seen in two other films this year: Beautiful Boy, in which a father and son wrestle with the latter’s drug addiction, and Boy Erased, in which fundamentalist Christian parents send their teenage son Jared off to conversion therapy camp, later learning the cruel ignorance of their ways.

Both films feature stellar performances from Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges, respectively, but they render the pain of addiction and institutionalized bigotry in superficial ways, mostly as engines for parental enlightenment and filial devotion. David, father to Nick, struggling with an addiction to meth, can’t seem to wrap his head around the disease, not least because it doesn’t square with his notion of the kind of young man his son is: budding, beaming, beautiful. The film, though, is similarly incredulous, tethered to those same idealistic ideas of the handsome, white, and morally pure suburban son, replete with potential and unjustly afflicted with disease. Chalamet plays the part formidably, but the film suffers where it prescribes to the dogma instead of interrogating it, as if to ask how on earth this could happen instead of why.

Lucas Hedges in Boy Erased
Lucas Hedges in Boy Erased. Photograph: YouTube

Jared’s pain in Boy Erased is of an entirely different sort, but it, too, is a film about the weight of society’s expectations of young men. Like Beautiful Boy, though, it doesn’t seem genuinely curious about those expectations beyond a simple straight-gay continuum. Mostly, it turns pain into polemic. But at its best moments – like one scene where Joel Edgerton’s conversion therapy drill sergeant has the boys lined up on a scale of least-to-most manly – the film asks tough questions about the cultural gradients of masculinity, the shades of which are often simplified on-screen.

Seeing as “toxic” is Oxford Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year – its second most-frequent collocation is, of course, “toxic masculinity” – it makes sense that the year’s most thoughtful consideration of the subject can be found in Burning, the South Korean director Lee Chang-Dong’s psychological thriller that turns the love triangle of Jules and Jim on its head. It’s a film that’s honest, and strikingly literal, about the way men react to threats to their masculinity – with seething resentment, unspoken desire, and violence against women and each other. Like the hearings about Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged abuse did, it captures the harm and erasure enacted upon women caught in the throes of masculine one upmanship.

It makes strange sense, then, that Robert Redford’s delectable turn in The Old Man & the Gun is supposedly his final role. David Lowery’s film, in its relish for Redford’s waspish looks and smooth, movie-star charm, is itself a kind of swan song for a bygone version of the American man, solitary, sandy-blond and square-jawed. That’s not to say we won’t see more of them on screen. Invariably, we’ll always have superheroes in spandex, astronauts and boxers and stickup men, the Redfords and the Bogarts, brandishing their .45s. Glaring discrepancies remain in the opportunities afforded women in film versus men, in front of and behind the camera. But as the industry begins to slowly redress those imbalances and call time’s up on toxic men more generally, it’s becoming more nuanced and inquisitive about the ways those men, and boys, are depicted on-screen.


Jake Nevins

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Oscars 2019: who are this year's early frontrunners?
With major festivals over and done with, speculation has begun over which films and performances might score with Academy voters

Benjamin Lee

17, Sep, 2018 @2:44 PM

Article image
And the nominees aren't: the Oscarbait films that failed in 2019
While Roma and The Favourite might be leading the race, there’s a list of major prospects that struggled to turn buzz into votes

Benjamin Lee

23, Jan, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Beautiful Boy review – Timothée Chalamet shines in grim addiction drama
The story of a father (Steve Carell) dealing with his son’s addiction to crystal meth is formulaic but raw, and contains another Oscar-worthy performance from the Call Me by Your Name star

Benjamin Lee

08, Sep, 2018 @2:19 PM

Article image
The shape of next year: an early look at 2019's Oscar hopefuls
This year saw The Shape of Water, Frances McDormand and Gary Oldman crowned winners but who could be on stage next time?

Benjamin Lee

06, Mar, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
Telluride film festival boasts Robert Redford and Nicole Kidman in star-studded lineup
The Old Man & the Gun, The Front Runner and White Boy Rick among premieres screening at the weekend

Catherine Shoard

30, Aug, 2018 @3:32 PM

Article image
Beautiful Boy review – precious tale of addiction woe
Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet play a real-life father and son in this insufferable, memoirs-based drugs drama

Peter Bradshaw

16, Jan, 2019 @6:00 PM

Article image
Why the privileged white male is bombing at the Box Office
Troubled white men, in film and on Esquire’s new cover, are everywhere. Does anyone care?

Steve Rose

25, Feb, 2019 @10:05 AM

Article image
Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet on drugs, disillusionment and playing father and son
In Beautiful Boy, Chalamet plays a teenager hooked on crystal meth, Carell his father. They talk about the challenges of their roles – and missing out on best actor Oscars

Ryan Gilbey

13, Dec, 2018 @2:48 PM

Article image
The art of the article: Hollywood looks to journalism for the future
Long reads are proving irresistible to film executives, with Jennifer Lopez, Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck and Robert Redford all signing on to star in fact-based projects

Jake Nevins

10, Aug, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Old Man and the Gun review – Redford radiates swagger and class
The film feels like a homage to Redford, who will surely earn a final best actor Oscar nomination for his performance

Gwilym Mumford

12, Sep, 2018 @12:36 PM