The Oscars are generating a flurry of media excitement about the strong parts played by the best actress nominees. Take ‘Million Dollar Baby’, where Hilary Swank is stunning as a white-trash girl boxer. Or ‘The Aviator’, where Cate Blanchett may not look like Katherine Hepburn but captures Hepburn’s frighteningly imperious manner. Then there’s ‘Vera Drake’, Imelda Staunton’s dogged portrayal of a 1950s backstreet abortionist. Each role says something valuable about how women have struggled against the odds to take control of their lives.
Since 1929, when the Oscars began, men have written, produced and directed — in short created — the vast majority of these screen images of feisty, pioneering women. Watching them, we learn more about how men’s view of women has changed than about women. This year is no exception. Men, as usual, dominate every single category except costume, art direction and of course, actresses. What is new about this year’s nominations are how they reveal fascinating changes in how men see themselves. They range, in the best picture and best director categories, from the deeply poignant to the totally weird.
Take ‘Million Dollar Baby’. The emotional core is not Swank’s driving ambition to be a contender in the ring. It is Clint Eastwood’s moving portrayal of her boxing trainer and how Swank becomes his daughter substitute, filling the aching gap left by his real daughter, who refuses to have anything to do with him. In other words the film is really about a sad old man who has spent his entire life in a kind of emotional paralysis, and the price he has paid has been his most intimate relationships. This theme connects with Eastwood-style “what you see is what you get” tough guys completely isolated by the narrow strictures of traditional masculinity.
‘Sideways’ takes an uncompromising look at a slightly younger generation of men — two fortysomething friends: a pathetic womaniser and an alcoholic schoolteacher, who for much of the film bemoans his twin failures as a husband and a novelist. The focus is the men who are unhappy and deeply confused. The portrayal of Howard Hughes in ‘The Aviator’ seems at first to be in more familiar heroic-male territory. The man’s tragedy was the need to be in control of everything, from women to the weather — which betrays a somewhat grandiose but, dare I say it, disturbingly familiar sense of omnipotence, which is also a cover for a deep-rooted sense of helplessness. In contrast, ‘Finding Neverland’ is about the creator of that other perennial male fantasy, the boy who never grows up. Johnny Depp’s brilliant performance as JM Barrie communicates an asexual, touchingly spiritual longing for the boy child’s innocence and purity. In the film this is interestingly overshadowed by the boy’s (Barrie’s model for Peter Pan) fear of losing his mother.
Hollywood has, of course, always made films about men battling with difficult emotions. But, typically, male vulnerability has been caused by the kind of wound that men obtain through some form of heroic sacrifice whether driven by courage or hubris or both. Non-heroic failure, as portrayed in ‘Sideways’, has not been the most popular subject in the land of the American dream. What I detect in these recent films, made by men about men, is a new kind of struggle to understand the fallout resulting from men’s failure to acknowledge their need for intimacy. The fact that these films are being made now and that they have achieved success in the Oscar nominations may even suggest that we are entering a new stage in gender relations — the “male emotional awakening’’ phase. This can only be good news for strong, feisty women and, of course, for men.