Bright Lights Film Journal

Mystique Without Camp: The Allure of the Leading Man

Turning “the male gaze” on men

It’s true that seeing Rock Hudson surrounded by able-bodied women is fun. In Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) he’s blocked — trapped in a “stoic” position by a plaster cast — while the girls around him do all the angling and leaping, the hunting and the spearing. It’s riotous, imaginative farce — but it may not be the peak of physical comedy. To me, what’s even funnier than Hawks is his reverse: it’s the idea of a man outrunning and eluding a woman, leaving fleshy and even very beautiful girls in the dust. You don’t laugh harder, but what you get is a primed and sustained amusement: a pregnant humor.

Dance of a Dream (2001) is set in the world of competitive tango training. Here, one super-capable man — an agile and handsome instructor — is surrounded by characters with foibles, most of them women. They may have verbal wit, but theirs is the sloppy, bawdy kind: he can top it, and flick it off with a gesture. The others are there to work off some inner need; however, Namson (Andy Lau) is effortless. More than the mere sketch of a plot, the subject of the film appears to be how stardom interacts with looseness. It’s about the ability of a perfect person to have fun — as well as looking at how a male star tolerates, or works around, comic and character actors.

The reason why this film intrigues me more than Hawks’ is that it’s more useless. What’s the point of a man being that self-sufficient — that “finished” in himself? Why would a man bother outpacing a woman — showing he can flex better, more easily than her? It doesn’t really make sense, biologically, but then this is a comedy that is defiantly anti-use, anti-fertility. The hero is pursued by a tomboy klutz (Sandra Ng) and a cerebral executive (Anita Mui) — both of whom are “useless” in narrative terms. What would a perfect male do with either of these? Is any connection possible between their bodies? Namson seems reluctant to engage with anything different from himself — even the sensual form of June (Cherrie Ying) seems crudely unrelated to him. So there’s an enigma at the center of this film: a being that’s resistant to any kind of approach. It’s a man whose closed face and body are desired by women — which may be one of the more interesting permutations there is.

Watching Dance of a Dream led me to think about the way male stars act: how do they move back and forth onscreen — what kind of charge are they expected to bring? What do actors do at the height of their sexual powers — and is it enough? The fact is that the hunk in question could only be played by Andy Lau. This is one of the most mysterious stars in the world: a ubiquitous face and a hidden man, who always manages to indicate something withheld, or slanted, in his expression. Traveling across Asia, he’s everywhere — on the backs of buses, screens, and depots — but in no way accessible. Even when his brows are directed frankly at us, it’s as if we glimpse another, averted face — the one he used before twisting towards the camera. In ads for drinks, watches, and mass-market leisurewear, he works the product, but at an angle: preserving his composure, while acting out the “hearty” and bluff gestures expected of him. In a commercial for green tea, he’s his usual, appropriate self: bending down low, earnestly accepting the gift (a rival brand), then casually tipping it out. Even when an entire sponsorship is at stake, this man has to show how alert he is. He knows how far appropriateness can take him, in terms of no one noticing his intentions. When you’re that groomed, your eyes can be wandering, ironic, scathing — anything you like, without breaking the mood. Above all, I’d describe Lau as superbly turned out — the emphasis being on the outward projection. There he is, in promos and appearances, “being” a friend, seeming respectful, looking alluring: “doing” the moves from a distance.

The result is a male mystique with no camp in it — and a hunk whose self-regard is constantly challenging. I wouldn’t have thought that this kind of Garbo-like mystery could persist, especially somewhere as savvy and irreverent as Hong Kong. Name one Hollywood star who could take that sort of exposure and not risk saturation. My theory is that, on some level, the audience knows which looks it will tire of in advance. The eye may be attracted to, say, a thin crease in a face — it enjoys cutting into the groove — but at the same time it’s conscious of wearing it out. When you know exactly what you like in a face — and what your eyes like doing to it — you also know you’re going to get sick of it. Having a face that’s made up of neat, definite planes, and very controlled movements — Rebecca de Mornay, for instance, or Sharon Stone — is therefore a risky strategy. These women are so determinedly angular that they instantly draw our attention, but then our gaze ends up tracing the same lines over and over again: the eye bores into the bone. We’ve developed a system for looking at them: a pattern to pull out. It’s as if your gaze creates a face-mold — made out of some invisible, erotic stuff — that gets thinner and thinner with use.

Lau is the exception to this. No amount of “over-exposure” seems to get us any closer to that mask of his, with the unexpected looseness in the lower half (a slight puff around the gills can convey sensitivity in the most unlikely characters). In some ways, he’s the perfect object for the female gaze: sharp enough to intimidate, but not so rigid as to invite contempt. (A streamlined appearance is good, but one wants to do more than just track up and down.) More importantly, his shifting expression means that our gaze doesn’t congeal: it allows the look to smear in the way that sensuality demands. This is such a structured face, yet it never lets the eye rest: from time to time, the features tick up at the side, or he works the molten area around the mouth. The most remarkable thing about Lau is how advanced his program of acting is: not only does he unnerve men, but he works hard to dislodge something that isn’t even a cliché yet — the female eye. If a whole genre of European film has been devoted to surprising and teasing out the male gaze (and occasionally, making it pay), then as far as the female viewer is concerned, Andy Lau is its equivalent. He has got to be the most ambiguous romantic lead there is: his face would hardly inspire women to trust what they see.

There are very few American stars brave enough to court the female audience in this way. Sometimes we get a shot of charisma, as a side product of a gay theme: for example, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the beautiful long boy in Mysterious Skin (2004). Maybe it’s because, as David Thomson put it, historically men have had an “insecure” hold on the camera. I don’t think we retain their images in the same way. Unless they conform to some classical ideal, we may not be comfortable holding men as “cards” — the way women can be stored according to their names and coloring, or as variations on an aesthetic.1 The one actor who might be considered challenging beefcake — the powerfully effective Kurt Russell — gets little respect or attention. While a star can intrigue us simply by having an inner-directed expression, or engaging in sleight-of-hand (as Billy Wilder said, the ability to “just open a drawer beautifully”2 ), these talents are not critically recognized.

But there are exceptions. They make a very short list; one can run through its highlights quickly. From a generation past, we still have Alain Delon and Paul Newman: two sets of very pure looks, though not particularly subversive — both can be looked at without anxiety. In the last ten years, Newman has become a great and mischievous actor. He seems to understand which of his features have become iconic — the tick of the brow, the blue gaze, its penetration — and he handles them like ready-mades, with superb irony and control. However, Skeet Ulrich, so good in Touch(1997), no longer has the assurance or the languor to command the screen: he rushes and sweats. Vince Vaughn, a dangerous presence in the mid-’90s (Clay Pigeons, 1998), has given up on testing his appeal: he’s now a cheeseball ‘70s dude. Owen Wilson is said to be irresistible — but that patented affability is starting to wear thin, and it’s open to everyone: man, woman and child. Chiwetel Ejiofor was wonderful as the “unreliable” love interest in Melinda and Melinda (2004), yet he’s a classical actor who moulds himself for each part, rather than pursuing a sexual agenda. Keanu Reeves has, to a lesser extent, and in a different way, inhabited the role of the beautiful boy. He’s listless at times, but gave a terrific performance as a cheap young man in Hardball (2001): a guy whose looks don’t help, because the grease and the shine are showing through. He was pale, and convincingly jerky — a boy with an indefinable air of shabbiness about him, as if covered with a sheen of cold sweat.

It’s a shame there aren’t more performances to talk about, because, simply put, I like hunks who act. Being a heart-throb and playing with power can be a way of learning to engage the screen: knowing how long a gesture should be held, varying the approach to a reaction shot, seeming unawed by the camera, building an awareness of space into one’s reflexes. A star who can play “dreamy” as well as sly has the whole audience covered, and I can think of only one who comes close to Lau. Recently I came across a performance by an actor who showed us everything he had learned, from years of playing to the crowd — and that actor is, without apologies, Jon Bon Jovi. For those who haven’t seen The Leading Man (1996), Bon Jovi is an extraordinary and seemingly 24-hour actor, who has developed an intricate and consistently absorbing performance style, which he uses in films, appearances, clips, renditions, and in any kind of fan context. He is a marvelous interviewee, who relaxes journalists with all of his professional warmth. Audiences are often touched by his attentions: even in the States, he acts like an American celebrity with a soft spot for a particular country.

Like Lau, Bon Jovi is a pop performer of 20 years, and consequently has a flexible but interested approach to female attention. Women who gush get a concise but friendly response — just a little complacent. He has an amused but genial way of dealing with nymphets: he’s not oblivious to their bodies, yet he’s so civilized that they seem to recover their modesty (and their clothes) all of a sudden. Teenage boys who head backstage seem to be entering a charged space: with a few strokes of the arm, he pivots these awkward young bodies around the room, maneuvering them into one pose after another.

Bon Jovi has been just as systematic in his approach to acting. As a rock star with dues to pay, he’s chosen to appear with respected British performers, and alongside star actresses (he’s the heroine’s other option), as well as in his share of pulp and TV projects. He’s also been very smart about which of his stage antics work onscreen. People who haven’t seen him act might over-estimate the degree of swagger he brings, but he certainly hasn’t dropped it altogether. He’s not going to abandon the moves that made him — he does a pared-down version of the strut he has in videos, and wears leather without hesitation.

What’s clear is that this is a very proud actor, who’s keen to show his smarts in every situation. When he has to seduce, he takes pains to be carefully winning; he wants to keep the female audience on side, yet show his ticking mind at work. It’s an unusual, wary sexuality I haven’t seen in other American stars. Look at the way he plays a lust interest in Moonlight and Valentino (1995). The script sees him as a Coke-ad style man, over whom everyone visibly drools. But Bon Jovi turns the role into that of a shrewd male object. He’s the all-seeing guy, who doesn’t mind being privy to female melodrama, but seems to be making mental notes all the time. He seems almost intelligently leered at, as if indulging the cuteness of these women. It’s an elegant rendering of a blue-collar stud. Bon Jovi has created an absurd amount of room in these seemingly negligible roles: part of it is the technical vocabulary he seems to have picked up through years of being a public figure. His handling of props is immaculate: he uses a fixed grin and looks down before taking a swig from a bottle as a way of punctuating the move, forcing the lens to wait for him. Actors such as Jeremy Irons and Michael Caine have discussed all the arduous rules that have to be learned for the camera — for instance, look at a door before you walk through it, otherwise the audience won’t register it. However, Bon Jovi is an effortless definer of space: it’s as if he’s absorbed, painlessly, all the conventions needed for film acting. At the same time, it’s clear he’s being photographed on his own terms. He takes his time into a shot: does a quick head shake, then an indefinite pause; lowers his eyes before looking at an interlocutor; dances around so that his feet point towards the action.

So far, we’ve only had one chance to see all these skills come together: the part of The Leading Man. It’s difficult to imagine who else director John Duigan could have cast in this role. Like most of Duigan’s films, it’s about the puzzle of desire — in particular, the mystery of the desired object, and whether it has a real center. In this case, the object is an American film star who comes to London to work on a play. The focus of the film is this man’s superstar charisma: what it hides, what it responds to, when it is being genuine, whether it might be capable of love — and how it takes us all in. When Robin Grange arrives, he’s clearly prepared for work. He wears a functional dark blue coat, and a headset that keeps him tuned out (or is it tuned in?) to his own private line. He seems to have a subdued approach to his craft, keeping his head low and respectful, but he is far from being outclassed. The character (and Bon Jovi) is undaunted by English theatrical tradition — if anything, it’s the Brits who overact, knowing they have a terrific movie star in their midst. He underplays them all. What these thespians don’t understand is that they’re getting a tremendously refined version of the Hollywood player: the nuances are lost on them, and therefore his facial expressions remain largely private — just for us. But this concealed performance is worth capturing because of its detail. Robin is able to “take” London because he blends low-key and starry elements in such a fascinating way. He has a brawny body we take seriously: he moves it gallantly, with arms folded together at the waist, like a doublet. The “humbleness” of the coat, and his earnest professionalism, are used as off-setting factors. Uniquely among ’80s stars, Bon Jovi has held onto the style of that era: keeping the big shapes, but making them lighter and more mobile. In one scene, he wears a red top tucked into tight pants; there’s a subtle definition beneath the sweater. For such a careful man, his walk is surprisingly broad and charging, with the feet heavily planted, and a twist to either side. The modest coat frees him to flash his movie-star smile — whiter than ever in England — without any fears. His hair is a reduced version of the ‘80s pouf: shaggy, with just enough blowback.

This young man has a surprising amount of schmaltz, although he disguises it with attentiveness. He’s courtly and knowledgeable, yet unfazed by the presence of history. When listening to writers, he has an intelligent, measured reaction to seriousness (who knows on what level he really responds?). There’s the suggestion of immature sexuality in the dated female nude in his apartment. However, Bon Jovi’s physical confidence turns what could have been a cynical shot into a curious one. Sitting at an exercise machine, Robin tries to seduce Hilary (Thandie Newton) over the phone: he cradles the receiver in his hand as he steadily guides the lever, rising in a series of capable thrusts. The effect is one of “pulsion” — energy and expertise, rather than mockery. He’s also a great-looking guy who’s good with men — he’s affable and protective towards them, although his smile is nothing more than a gesture of indulgence, a set of ripples in the face. He has brilliant ways of moving in on others. He keeps his body slanted throughout a conversation, so that it is already halfway to intimacy; then, he can alter its implications by a slight tilt. By jutting a lip, his pensive mouth instantly turns blunt: it suggests a point of entry, into the face and personality.

However, inward as he is, one of Bon Jovi’s best traits is his reactiveness to co-stars. We see his very expert handling of Newton’s body (who seems lost to wonder here), and his absolutely professional but tactile kiss. Robin manages to give Hilary the impression that he’s incredulously seducing her: he pretends to shape himself around her form, then vigorously bounds out of bed when he fails — he’s essentially unaffected by her. He’s very subtle in response to coarse female advances — though he does respond. He accepts a hug, not without interest; one fan gets an effortless purring smooch. He disarms girls by making “flippertigibbet” gestures — flapping his arms to act crazy, bobbing as Hilary tosses her scarf, and wearing socks while working out. Robin needles his conquests, like an older brother, calling them “silly” while guiding his fingers along. With Hilary, as well as the more reflective Elena (Anna Galiena), it’s one storybook embrace after another, but delivered with such urgency that it seems fresh each time. Women respond confusedly to his touch — the technically perfect, transcendent kiss.

Bon Jovi is minute in his gradation of gestures — having his head, gaze, and voice all move at different speeds. His smile may come before or after the start of a gesture, but never at the same time. He makes a slow turn before a direct look, or raises a glass during a spreading grin, so that we’re caught at the junction of movement — we get the sense that something compelling has happened, yet the mix of succinct and gradual throws us off. Robin cleverly fingers a glass, or holds a thin folder between two fingers in an odd but arresting way (the right way, in retrospect). He brings a cigarette to his mouth, with his hand almost a full fist, then converts to a single finger: he doesn’t use the cliché of the elongated gesture, but moves in a way that looks purely practical. In his series of linked poses, he seems even more fluid than, say, Delon: the slow extension of a leg is not merely graceful, but like a restless shaking-off of energy. Like Lau, Bon Jovi knows how to play around the idea of attraction; thus, he can move in and out of sensuality without a break. His look is very distinct for a light-eyed man: the faint gaze and pale lashes suggest almost a “weak” appearance, but in effect, the lack of shadow lets his stare do all the work. The pale-browed gaze is “objective,” in a sense: it can scrutinize without intensity, and appear to be passing lightly over different faces. Robin is well named — for his androgynous, watchful qualities, as well as his changeable and distracted manner. A masseuse remarks that there’s “no tension in you at all”; he corrects her by saying, “No guilt.” Part of the charm of this film is that its still center remains intact. There’s a delight in having the winner win: seeing a person who is calm and not needy glide through life. Unlike the tortured Felix (Lambert Wilson), Robin is a smart and good American: he’s wise enough to accept a happy ending at face value, while the “beta” male agonizes over whether he deserves fulfillment.

The advantage Bon Jovi has right now is that he’s playing in a space where there are no real parameters. When it comes to drawing the male eye, we all know about slinks, smiles and other “beguilements,” but what women like (what they pore over, as opposed to pin down) is still a very undefined area. While I’ve never been a fan of his music (although I can’t deny “Livin’ on a Prayer” rises to an apex, more than any other anthem), he’s a man who makes a second count, when a camera is on him in any context. Like Kurt Russell and Andy Lau, he’s a hunk who’s made good, and the audience is pleased that a successful man has talent. It’s arguably the path taken by many beautiful actresses: women who inspire genuine affection by being better than we expect, so that our involvement is protective rather than critical (Nicole Kidman is currently riding that excitement, like Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange before her, although most of their danger has dropped out.)

But the men are doing something different here. In The Leading Man, you can feel your eye being stretched — forced to scan areas of movement and attraction it normally doesn’t. One constantly feels that the actor is carving out new space: using different levels of slowness to tease the eye, or approaching it from different angles, so that what we sense, before we know it, is a hot pocket. Bon Jovi has lost most of his cheesiness: does he still get the teenage screams he used to?3 He’s become an object for a new gaze: something designed specifically to draw out and elude our search. The whole film is an exploration of male mystique: the man is a body that generates and invites propulsion. Who knows if young girls will respond to that push-pull?

 

  1. For instance, women with slightly varying looks, or a series of beautiful sisters, can be stored as a “set” in a way that brothers can’t, unless their structure is exceptional. (Even in that case, we would probably just glimpse them as a row of profiles.) []
  2. Cameron Crowe, Conversations with Wilder. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999, 14 []
  3. It’s difficult to monitor how teen girls actually feel about what they see. Two contrasting modes of attraction may be seen on reality TV. For instance, with most of the pop talent shows, female fans display little evidence of excitement in the early stages. It’s as if they’ve been presented with too many objects, and need some way of filtering them. The show tries to manage this by showing shots of other girls getting enthused — this way, they can have the attraction modeled for them, as an example. If one doesn’t feel desire oneself, one can take it on the confidence of a middle-aged executive.

    However, the recent Rockstar: INXS showed a different scene altogether, entirely separate from current MTV and rap. It was the flipside of pop: a world in which “integrity” ruled, and women had to exude a very controlled, stately version of sex. This was the domain of rock, in which men could thrust freely and not be seen as cheesy, whereas women who gyrated seemed soiled — they just did, somehow. Their skin tended to have that heated, “boiled” look — the way adolescent flesh can look hot and overdone when it’s displayed without being asked for. In order to have the camera perceive them correctly, the women had to be angelic earth mothers, who “brought” the soul without coyness. They could shimmy, but it had to seem like an expressive response to music. It’s useless to decry double standards: this was simply how the camera registered it. []