The next time someone tries to convince me that Pitt is ‘a really great actor, actually’ I’ll just throw my eyes around the room in a casually-but-profoundly dramatic fashion before fixing them on the Fight Club fanboy – and it always is a Fight Club fanboy – and saying: “THERE you ARE!”
I don’t mean to be bitchy, but… Ab Pitt seems to have all the neuroses of a Marilyn Monroe about being thought a dumb blond, but little or none of the talent. It’s not the fact this Big Movie Star has done an ad like this at all, or even the bathetic horror of the script – par to the course in perfume ads – it’s the way he delivers this stinky stuff like it was a Shakespearean soliloquy. We’re laughing at it because we know it will hurt.
Though of course, we’re just jealous. I certainly am. Brad is being so earnest and romantico not because he’s addressing you or me or Angelina Jolie, but his reportedly $7M cheque for the 30 second spot – which I suspect the director has taped to the camera.
At the height of her fame method-actress Marilyn was paid only $100,000 plus 10% of profits for the feature-length classic movie: Some Like It Hot. And I rather doubt she received a fee at all for her own posthumous Chanel No.5 ad.
The real significance of Brad’s ad of course is that Pitt is the first man to advertise the woman’s fragrance Chanel No.5 – which hitherto has been plugged only by leading examples of the ‘fairer sex’. Leading man Brad has stepped into a role previously occupied by leading ladies.
This though is very familiar territory though for Brad. Often described as ‘the most beautiful man in the world’ – i.e. the most objectified – he did after all play both Achilles and Helen in the movie Troy. He has the abs that launched a thousand sit-ups. And this former model’s own movie career was launched by playing a toyboy picked up and ravished by an older Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise (1991), a movie which itself famously reversed the gender roles of the buddy road movie.
Pitt also played, you may remember, the highly, er, aesthetic leader of a bogus revolt against metrosexuality and consumerism in Fight Club.
Oh, and by the way. Pitt is 48 years old. Which makes him even older than me. But in the Chanel ad, even with his gray beard and (electronically altered?) gravelly voice, Dorian Pitt seems no older than about 27 – the same age he was when we first met him in Thelma & Louise. In fact, he looks like a 27-year-old with a stick-on beard pretending to be 48.
As he puts it himself:
“It’s not a journey. Every journey ends. But we go on.”
A survey released just before Brad’s Bad Marilyn moment appears to confirm the continuing, endless trend for men appropriating previously feminine preserves that has been going on since at least the 1990s, and which Pitt, whether he wants to or not, has often exemplified – and encouraged. “The world turns and we turn with it.”
The fashion and beauty spending poll (commissioned by online casino RoxyPalace.com) asked 1000 UK men and women how much they spent on clothes and cosmetic products. The findings showed, they said, that ‘men are fast catching up with women’.
Women average £2,462 p.a.; men £1,786 (£50 less a month than women).
Men and women in London are the most extravagant, and also the closest to one another in expenditure, with women spending c. £2,700 a year; men £2,350, £29 per month less than women.
Unsurprisingly, other metropolitan areas such as Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Liverpool also showed above-average rates of spending.
A man who took part in the survey says: ‘I can remember my dad’s cosmetic shelf consisted of a bar of soap and a bottle of Old Spice but I have a cabinet full of products.’
A woman says: ‘I have been shopping with my boyfriend before and on occasions he has been known to spend more than me on hair products. I don’t think men spending more money on clothes and cosmetics is a bad thing. It’s always attractive for someone to take pride on their appearance.’
Again, nothing very new here (and the quotes do sound a tad hackneyed). Just, further evidence that despite the recession the ‘trend’ of metrosexuality has hardened into an epoch – that nevertheless some are still in terrible denial about.
A spokesperson for RoxyPalace.com concluded:
‘It’s becoming increasingly acceptable for men to use cosmetic treatments. Even macho film stars are advertising skin cream, and whilst it would be difficult to imagine a world where guys spent more money on looking good than women do, but who knows where the age of metrosexuality will lead us?’
I imagine when he mentioned ‘macho film stars’ he had in mind Gerard Butler as the bearded face of L’Oreal, not Brad Pitt. But in regard to his last poser, it’s not entirely impossible that for younger people living in metropolitan areas, that world may have already been delivered by metrosexuality. Or very nearly.
These days, working out is often at least as important a way of ‘looking good’ for males as fashionable clothes and cosmetics – but isn’t covered in the survey. In fact, many men invest more heavily in their bodies than in their wardrobe – which tends to be rather skimpy…. And generally it seems men are more into working on their bodies to ‘look good’ than women are.
So if you were to factor in average spends on gym membership, fitness equipment, and particularly sports supplements such as creatine and protein drinks (a booming market), the gap between men and women’s average spend on ‘vanity’ might shrink again. Currently the gap between male and female spending on ‘looking good’ is reportedly only £29/month in London. That’s less than most monthly gym memberships.
£29 also happens to be about the price of a yearly subscription to the best-selling men’s magazine, Men’s Health. The November UK issue of which carries the results of another survey, this one studying MH readers’ favourite subject: themselves.
One of the questions asked readers who had their ideal body. The answers were:
Tom Hardy 42%.
Cristiano Ronaldo 32%.
David Beckham 26%.
Somewhere David Beckham is crying into his low-carb lunch. Interesting to note though that Brad Pitt doesn’t make the list at all, when once he would probably have dominated it – after all, Men’s Health has built a global empire out of modern man’s yen to have abs – and thus be worthy of love. And abs didn’t exist, remember, until Brad Pitt invented them in the 1990s.
Perhaps though Brad is relieved to be out of the running. Or maybe he’s relieved and heartbroken.
Tom Hardy, the Brit Brando with the voluptuous pecs and the pouty lips, seems to have won the hearts of Men’s Health readers. I don’t blame them. And I suspect Tom’ doesn’t either. Probably they were seduced by his body in Warrior and his motto in Inception: “Don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling”. Actually, in a better world that would be the motto of Men’s Health magazine.
Interesting that a third would want a body like Ronaldo’s – despite Ronaldo’s official designation in the UK as Most Hated Footballer. It rather confirms my suspicion that us Brits are just jealous of him.
It does seem a little odd though that there are only three men in the whole world whose bodies Men’s Health readers want/aspire to – and nearly half of them want just one body in particular. (There’s no indication of whether they were given a multiple choice or just came up with the names themselves.)
Other findings include:
37% of MH readers spend 4-6 hours in the gym a week – while 30% spend more than six hours there.
46% want to improve their abs. 42% their upper body, and 12% lower body.
Chicken legs, in other words, are de rigeur with MH readers.
Guys! Do you worry that your body isn’t sufficiently lean and muscular? Do you frequently compare your muscles with other men’s? If you see a man who is clearly more muscular than you, do you think about it and feel envious for some time afterwards?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions it used to mean that you should send a postal order to Mr Charles Atlas to ask for advice. Nowadays, if the myriad articles about the latest ‘disease’ to afflict men are to believed, it means you might need to see a therapist to talk you out of going to the gym so much because you may be suffering from ‘bigorexia’ – the delusion that you’re not beefy enough.
On the other hand, it might just mean that you go to the movies.
We expect as a matter of course that our male leads these days will have perfect pectorals, bounteous biceps and corrugated steel stomachs that speak of thousands of hours of sweat, tears and neurotic dieting. ‘Brad Pitt’ is now Esperanto for ‘six pack’. What, after all, is the point of being a film star if you can’t hire the most sadistic personal fitness instructor in town and feast on egg white omelettes and rice cakes? More pertinently, why should we puny punters pay good money to gaze up at men on the big screen who aren’t themselves bigger than life, but sport waistlines that speak of no life at all?
It wasn’t always thus. In fact, until the Eighties muscles were usually so few and far between on the screen that the oiled man in swimming trunks bashing the big gong at the beginning of Rank films was as much meat as you were likely to get at the movies. It was of course an oiled Austrian action hero and former Mr Universe who changed all that, banging a gong for bodybuilding in ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (1982) and ‘Terminator’ (1984) introducing us to the spectacular male body and changing forever the way we see the male physique.
True, all those steroid-pumped chests look excessive now, ‘tittersome’ even, and screen muscles have tended to come in a more manageable, more covettable size for some years, but a male Hollywood star who doesn’t work out is as unthinkable now as an American who doesn’t floss.
And Arnie, like the cyborg he played in his most famous movie – or a personal fitness trainer from hell – keeps coming back. He refuses to acknowledge that he’s mortal, or, which is much more hubristic, out of fashion. Next week sees the opening of his new action-hero movie ‘Collateral Damage’, in which he plays a fireman seeking to avenge the murder of his wife and son by terrorists. Next month he begins filming ‘Terminator 3’, quickly followed by ‘Total Recall 2’ and ‘True Lies 2’ Single-handedly, and Promethian-like, fifty-five year-old Arnie, who had major heart surgery five years ago, seems to be trying to haul the Eighties back. (Not least because his political ambitions seem to promise ‘Reagan 2’.)
Meanwhile, his former arch-rival and Sylvester Stallone is currently trying to get funding for yet more sequels to his Rocky and Rambo films (6 and 4, respectively if you’re still counting). Also fifty-five years old, Sly hasn’t had a hit movie for a decade. Post September 11th he hopes America is ready again for a muscle-bound, if slightly wrinkly hero and that Hollywood will buy the idea of Rambo parachuting into Afghanistan in a thong and putting the fear of god into Bin Laden and Al Quaeda. So far his attempts to get funding have been unsuccessful, but if the Austrian Asshole succeeds in making a comeback from the knackers yard, who will be able to stop the Italian Stallion?
Of course, Arnie and Sly weren’t the first musclemen to make it in movies – just the first to succeed in making it really ‘big’ business.
Back in the 1930s there was Johnny Weissmuller, Olympic swimmer turned jungle vine swinger in a loincloth. His muscular tartiness in the Tarzan movies was made acceptable by the fact that his physique was practical in origin (swimming, vine climbing and wrestling alligators). He was also an ‘ape-man’. As a (white) noble savage, who hardly spoke except to ululate loud enough to make the tree tops quiver, or shout ‘Ungawa!’ at a startled passing elephant or chimpanzee, he was spared many of the enforced decencies of 1930s Western civilisation. Interestingly, like Arnie he was originally Austrian: ‘Weissmuller’ is German for ‘white miller’; while ‘Schwarzenegger’ means ‘black plough’. Modern bodybuilding owes everything to Aryan farming.
By the 1940s and 50s Sword and Sandal epics, the pre-cursor of the action movie, starring people like Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and B-movie body-builder-turned-actor Steve Reeves legitimised the display of more naked, shapely male flesh (hence the line in ‘Airplane’ when the pervey pilot asks the lad being shown the flight-deck: ‘Son, do you like watching gladiator movies?’). Russell Crowe of course was to revive this genre in 2000 in ‘Gladiator’ and went out of his way in interviews to claim that his brawny physique had been formed not in the gym but in ‘practising sword fights’ – in a leather skirt. (Some cynics might say that he failed to gain the Oscar for ‘A Beautiful Mind’ because by then he seemed to have lost his beautiful body).
In the Fifties and Sixties, Rock Hudson, epitomised the ‘All-American’ clean-cut hunk. A Tarzan of the suburbs, if you will. He had a body, but was not sexual. His masculinity was pleasingly superficial and unthreatening. (And now we know that there was never any chance that he might do Doris Day at all).
But it was that other fifties phenomenon Marlon Brando who inaugurated a new era – the male as brazen sex object. His tight-T-shirted, sweaty muscularity was openly erotic; his brutish, built but sensual Stanley Kowalski was the streetcar named Desire (‘Stell-la!’). Clift and Dean were faces, but Marlon was a face on a pouting body. There was something androgyne yet virile about the Wild One’s most physical roles. Perhaps as a kind of revenge on the industry, Marlon famously developed an eating disorder (something usually associated with women) and later became notorious for his ‘work outs’ with gallon tubs of ice cream. In an odd way, Brando’s weight-problem is a kind of ‘bigorexia’, and probably even harder work than staying trim in the way that, say, Clint Eastwood has (and having sex in ‘In the Line of Fire’ with his tight white T-shirt at 70).
In the Fifties-come-around-again Eighties, Tom ‘Risky Business’ Cruise somehow managed combine Brando’s erotic narcissism with Hudson’s clean-cut sterility, this time in a pair of Y-fronts. Later, in ‘Taps’ he played an intense right-wing recruit with an obsessive interest in bodybuilding and showering. In ‘Top Gun’, the definitive Eighties movie, he legitimised the new male narcissism as something patriotic and Reaganite. Most of Tom’s oeuvre since then has stuck to the same theme of boyish vulnerability mixed with determination; passivity and masculinity; sensuality and respectability – and the identity problems that this creates (e.g. ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and ‘Vanilla Sky’). By the same token, his muscles, with the exception of those seen in ‘Taps’ – and his preposterous forearms in ‘Mission Impossible’ – have never been huge, but they have always been very definitely there if needed. Or desired.
The Eighties ‘roided’ bodybuilder action heroes such as Arnie, Sly, Mel, Bruce ‘Die-Hard’ Willis (who for most of the Eighties seemed to be wearing Brando’s unwashed vest from ‘Streetcar’) and the ‘Muscles From Brussels’, Jean Claude Van Damme were less happy to be sex objects. True, these were film stars whose claim to fame rested largely on their willingness to display their bodies, but there was also slightly desperate disavowal of any passivity – hence the emphasis on being action heroes. Arnie and Sly were offering their spectacular bodies for our excitement. Like the explosions and the stunts, their bodies were special effects – in a pre CGI era they were perhaps the most important special effects of all.
Since then the mainstreaming of bodybuilding, the increasing sophistication of CGI and the reconciliation of a new generation of young men to their ornamental role has left their Eighties action heroes’ antics looking rather embarrassing. Today’s male stars work out, but the compensation of hysterically massive musculature, hard-on vascularity and single-handedly wiping out entire armies isn’t needed. Aesthetics have become more important than arm-aments. Arnie may have succeeded in getting Hollywood down the gym, but it is (early) Marlon and Tom who have inherited the World. Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Ethan Hawke, and all those close-ups on hunky-but-pretty Josh Hartnett’s long-lashed Nordic eyes in the war movies ‘Pearl Harbor’ (2001) and ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2002) prove this. Even Will Smith in ‘Ali’ (2002) doesn’t really look terribly heavyweight.
And former WWF wrestler Dwayne Douglas Johnson ‘The Rock’ who made his debut in ‘The Mummy Returns’ may be hailed by Vanity Fair as ‘the next Segal, Stallone and Schwarzenegger rolled into one’ (a queasy image), but seems extravagantly ornamental, with his plucked eyebrows, lip gloss, make-up and decorative tattoos.
However, that’s not to say that the new relationship to the male body is any less pathological. When for example we see Brad smoking or eating a hamburger in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, we can’t help but wonder how much it cost in CGI. (Reportedly he and his wife don’t keep any food in the house and have all their meals calorie counted and delivered to their door). It’s difficult to imagine any of today’s generation of male stars finding anything they’d actually swallow – and keep down – on the menu at Planet Hollywood.
Meanwhile Arnie and Co., the ‘bigoxeric’ heroes of yesteryear’s big screen, seem unlikely to bring back the outsized Eighties not just because no one really needs them or can find a use for them, but because they are looking their age – older actually, in Hollywood terms. The steroids Arnie began using at the age of 14 to produce those ‘special effects’ can hasten the ageing process and may well have contributed to other ‘collateral damage’, such as his heart problems (they have also become mainstream – 7% of High School boys in the US admitted to taking them). Having been convinced by Arnie to put so much faith in working out and getting beefy, the world does not want to be reminded that it can’t keep you young forever and in fact can have the opposite effect.
Yes, in ‘Collateral Damage’ Arnie’s Panzer body is still there, trundling around beneath his pill-box head, but it is faintly embarrassing now – so much so that everyone in the movie pretends not to notice it. He plays a fireman, which is nice and useful and human-scale. But we know, post September 11, that most American firemen, beefy and worked-out as many of them are, do not look like ageing male masseurs. As one of the characters complains, almost surreally, when Arnie turns up unexpectedly: ‘You order cheese pizza and you get German sausage’.
Achilles, Alexander, Jason, Odysseus – the fabulous scrapping, rutting warriors of the Ancient World fulfil every boy’s own fantasy. Now, says Mark Simpson, Oliver Stone’s spayed movie ‘Alexander’ and the recent crop of ‘epics’ confirms that Hollywood has abolished heroes – past and present.
(Originally appeared Independent on Sunday, 19 December 2004)
For some, the entry “Double Classics” in their school timetable might have been an ominous omen. For me and my classmates however it meant 80 minutes of bliss listening to a wonderful old gent called Mr Field recount, and frequently re-enact with his walking-stick, fantastic stories of male derring-do from the Ancient World. Spellbound and wide-eyed we listened to the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, Achilles and Odysseus. So great was the pull of the past in the mouth of Mr Field that hardly anyone fidgeted or played with their chunky 1970s LED digital watches.
Of all the epic tales recounted it was that of Alexander the Great that most gripped my pubescent imagination. The story of a scrappy, muscular little blond boy from the provincial Greek state of Macedonia who took on the world and won, carving out an unprecedented empire that stretched from the Adriatic to India. The story of a boy who never quite grew up; who quite probably assassinated his father; who certainly surpassed his extraordinary achievements, establishing himself as the greatest cavalry captain who ever lived, whose tactics are still studied today. A boy who never really cared for any woman except his terrifying mother Olympias (so terrifying that once he left home, Alexander never returned); whose great and constant loves were Bucephalus, his legendary war-horse, and Hephaestion, his legendary comrade in beefy arms. What boy wouldn’t love Alexander? What boy wouldn’t want to be Alexander?
The story of Alexander the Great (356BC -323BC) is the best boy’s own story ever told -the Trojan Wars may never have happened: hence the posters for Oliver Stone’s new movie Alexander announce: “The Greatest Legend Of All Was Real”. Alexander’s is a tale of passion, adventure, really big fisticuffs, masculine camaraderie, and running away from girls. And also, drunkenness, debauchery, mass murder and madness. His 12-year tour of the known (and unknown) world, and his long list of battle honours – Thebes, Heliocarnassus, Issus, Gaugamela, Tyre, Hydaspes, to name but a few – represent dates on the greatest rock ‘n’ roll tour in history.
Alexander is the timeless, ageless hero of boyish psychosis – a romantic disease which affects all men, though admittedly some more than others (well, I was at boarding school). Boys brim with enough energy to change the world, or destroy it – it makes no difference to them. This dangerous, sexy, passionate indifference is the basis of the mixture of fear and envy that causes adults generally to treat them so badly.
Alexander’s ambition was literally global, shaping the Ancient World; his Eastern crusades ended the ancient dynasties of Persia and Egypt. Alexander effectively invented the Western idea of Empire, globalisation and stamped his face on our idea of fame and success. He wanted nothing less than the whole world to be Alexander. For a while he came shockingly close to achieving just that, boldly going where no man had gone before (another boyhood hero of mine, William Shatner, played Alexander in a TV series before landing the role of Captain James Tiberius Kirk – which he played of course, in his wonderfully limited way as Alexander again). In part, his success was due to the way he succeeded in portraying his own ambition and self-interest as being for the benefit of Macedonia, pan-Hellenism or humanity itself.
In this Alexander could be seen as the ancient template for a neo-con America; he even invaded and conquered what is today Iraq and Afghanistan – as well as Iran. But like the neo-cons he could conquer but he couldn’t or wouldn’t administrate: rebellions broke out frequently and his Empire dissolved immediately after his death; Alexander, like contemporary audiences, had a short attention span. Certainly Stone’s epic new biopic could be subtitled: “Operation Persian Freedom”: his Alexander mouths platitudes about liberating Asia; the turbaned, bearded King Darius looks oddly like Bin Laden and, after his decisive defeat at Gaugamela, he is hunted down by Alexander in the mountains.
Obviously this, in addition to the rediscovered fashionability of sword-and-sandal epics (Gladiator, Troy, King Arthur, The Last Samurai), is why Hollywood has rediscovered this chippy little man and remembered his story as the ultimate road move, the classic story of boundless boyish all-American ambition, lighting out for the territory. In addition to Oliver Stone’s effort, Baz Luhrmann is rumoured to be developing his own version, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role. Even The World’s Only True Catholic, Mel Gibson, is planning to make a 10 episode HBO TV series about this pagan arse-bandit who whipped the world’s butt. Suddenly, Alexander really does appear to be conquering the world again.
There is another reason why the epics are back though: they offer reassuring, if utterly fraudulent, nostrums about masculinity in an uncertain, metrosexual world. The Ancient World was a time when men were men (and boys were nervous). In fact, warrior chic has been the fashion statement of 2004. This is the same year, after all, that a US presidential election was fought largely on the basis of who would make the best warrior president – and won largely on the grounds of who saluted best on camera and looked most fetching in 1960s uniform.
And likewise, what Hollywood is really offering us in these modern epics is not hairy retrosexuality but just more metrosexual pleasures, this time in a rather gorgeous, ancient setting; models playing at being rough boys – metrowarriors. In The Last Samurai, the Tom finally grows facial hair, and renounces the unmanly military machinery of modernity for the harsh-but-tender camaraderie of Samurai life – but only to make him more glamorous; Mr Cruise’s Western otherness actually makes him the female lead of the movie. In Troy pretty boys Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom are the real beauty pageant entrants and Diane Kruger (Helen) – and the audience – sit in judgement. The fields of Ilium become not a backdrop for the glorious feats of ancient warriors, but an expensive pretext for ogling Brad Pitt’s body, and also a half-hearted attempt to make it look practical, purposeful: when in fact his flawless, untested physique is the very definition of look-don’t-touch. In Alexander Irish boy-band actor Colin Farrell, with bottle-blond hair and eyeliner, stands in for charisma and passion.
The main reason for the return to the epics is this: Hollywood is emasculating the past. It isn’t raiding it, but paving it over. Telling us there never were any heroes. What other explanation could there be for foisting Pitt as Achilles and Farrell as Alexander on us in the space of a year? These stars who have risen without a trace are stars because of their bland insubstantiality not despite it. We live in a crowded world which is offended by talent, terrified by genius. The Irish pipsqueak Colin Farrell was destined to become King of the Knowing World, aka Hollywood, because he is so inoffensive. He’s the anti-Alexander. Like Robbie Williams doing an album of Frank Sinatra songs, Farrell as Alexander, or Pitt as Achilles, serves to reassure a generation that might have some dim, uneasy ancestral memory of a time before the mediatisation of everything – relax! – there were no great men and there was no era of greatness. There are just different styles, man. Masculinity is a game of dressy-uppy. Like the CGI armies of modern epics, and the digital wars of Pentagon planners, contemporary masculinity is simulation and number-crunching technology. Shock and Awe without the draft.
Hence Farrell’s Alexander isn’t haunted, or driven, paranoid, or threatening, terrifying or charismatic: his eyes are just too close together. When wearing his giant war helmet in the battle scenes his beady little eyes look blinking out like Marvin the Martian. He is utterly lost in Stone’s movie. Farrell’s face is as blank and thoughtless as the world that has made him a “star”. It’s difficult to believe that anyone would follow him to the corner shop let alone the edge of the world.
Just as I and countless other generations of boys before me worshipped Alexander, Alexander hero-worshipped Achilles. It is said he kept two items under his pillow at all times: a dagger and a copy of the Iliad. He yearned to emulate flame-capped Achilles’ achievements; in fact he far surpassed them (Farrell, by contrast, turns in a performance below even that of Pitt’s Achilles). He was terrified that his father would leave nothing left for him to achieve, and is one of the reasons why he is suspected of a hand in his assassination. Alexander wanted fame – but he wanted it for his worldly achievements not his profile. There was another reason why Alexander was fascinated by Achilles: he was interested in the story of his warrior-lover Patroclus (Homer doesn’t actually say they were lovers, but by the time of Alexander they were widely regarded as such). Patroclus was a year older than Achilles, just as Hephaestion was a year older than Alexander; Alexander must have worried that the world might think him Hephaestion’s boy.
At Ilium, Alexander and Hephaestion laid wreaths on Achilles’ tomb, stripped naked, anointed themselves with oil and ran races around the grave. Strangely, this scene didn’t make Oliver Stone’s movie. We do however hear Aristotle lecture the young Alexander on how Achilles and Patroclus were lovers and how such a friendship between men “produces virtue” and is “the basis of the city state”. But this dry history lesson on Greek patriarchy isn’t quite what the teasing tagline “Alexander was conquered only once: by Hephaestion’s thighs” might lead you to expect. In fact, we never really see Hephaestion’s thighs let alone Alexander between them. Stone hints heavily they were lovers, and uses Alexander’s life-long devotion to Hephaestion – Alexander was besides himself with grief when Hephaestion died and lay on his corpse for a day and a night – to make him more sympathetic, but can’t quite bring himself to show sex, kissing or even very much affection. By contrast, the on-screen romance between Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Ringpiece is positively pornographic.
There is only one sex scene in the film – but it is a wedding-night tryst with Roxanna, a wife that Alexander took after invading Persia (but didn’t get around to impregnating until years later, and only after Hephaestion’s demise). Alexander, by the way, was not “bisexual” in the way that publicity for the movie has carefully suggested. Stone’s Alexander is bisexual in the way that Elton John was “bisexual” in the Seventies: Stone is worried about losing his mainstream, American audience and wants to give them at least half of Alexander to identify with/desire. Of course, terms such as “heterosexual”, “homosexual” and especially “bisexual”, with its sixties ‘free love’ associations, are anachronistic and misleading in an Ancient context where the gender of a male’s partner was of much less importance than the public observance of certain rules of engagement based on age and rank (adult male citizens, for instance, were officially forbidden sexual relations with one another but encouraged to have them with unbearded teenaged youths).
Nevertheless, according to many accounts Alexander’s preference was for the same sex; and there is evidence that in regard to Hephaestion at least he disregarded the ban on sexual relations between adult males.
His mother and father were so frantically worried about the teenage Alexander’s lack of interest in ladies and what this augured for the royal line that they hired a beautiful and famously talented courtesan. The fact that his mother is recorded as pleading with him repeatedly to sleep with the courtesan suggests that this approach wasn’t very successful (and a mother’s pleading, let alone Olympias’, was likely to have been slightly counterproductive). He was to marry, more than once, but mostly for political reasons, or to satisfy demands for an heir. For most of Alexander’s life, boys were for pleasure; Hephaestion was for love; women were for heirs and alliances – and effeminates like Paris. Though, perhaps to confound our modern interpretations, or at least mine, there is evidence he took a mistress towards the end of his life.
Alexander disdained a chance to inspect Paris’ famous lyre, dismissing it as having been used for “adulterous ditties such as captivate and bewitch the hearts of women.” But, he added, “I would gladly see that of Achilles, which he used to sing the glorious deeds of brave men.” This early example of the public school mentality seems to us now like a kind of queeny misogyny, and perhaps it was, but the fearsome queeniness of hyper-masculinity, a queeniness that literally subjected the world (arguably not once, but three times: under Alexander, under the Romans and under the Brits). Alexander’s father Philip may have invented the modern state with his innovation of a standing army, but it was his Empire homo son who proved to be his most potent martial innovation of all.
According to some, possibly mischievous accounts, Macedonia – even by Greek standards – sounds like a giant, jumping, open all hours Ancient leather bar. In fact, the Greeks were scandalised by the “barbaric” and “beastly” behaviour of the Macedonians. Sniffy Greek sources complain that the members of Philip’s court were selected for their prowess at drinking, gambling, or sexual debauchery. “Some of them used to shave their bodies and make them smooth although they were men, and others actually practised lewdness with each other although bearded… Nearly every man in the Greek or barbarian world of a lecherous, loathsome, or ruffianly character flocked to Macedonia.” Actually, Macedonia was the kind of place that most leather queens would be terrified by.
Needless to say, it scares the bejesus out of Hollywood. In Stone’s film (financed mostly by German money), we get occasional, almost subliminal flashes of the real, raucous nature of Macedonian masculinity, with warriors and their boys glimpsed in the background almost necking each other. But despite these hints, the pre-Christian, barracks erotics of Macedonia ultimately defeats Stone precisely because it is too masculine, too pagan. Stone is a liberal Judeo-Christian pussy. Stone the macho director of films about macho men in which women are very thin on the ground wimps out in Alexander. Macedonian masculinity is just too… masculine. But then, this is the contradiction of all these metrowarrior epics: the Ancient World is just too rough and real and beastly and male – and, well, Ancient – for contemporary America.
So the warrior sodomy of Alexander is turned into something modern and harmless, something simulated: Queer Eye for the Macedonian Guy, as one critic dubbed it. In addition to the creepily spayed relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion, which is presented as a kind of contemporary gay marriage (sexless, boring, respectable), there’s a strong smell of Sixties unisex androgyny, like rancid jossticks: Stone has Hephaestion portrayed by the spoilt-girlish Jared Leto, complete with hippy-chick wig, plastered in eyeliner applied by Dusty Springfield. The masculine side of male love is as taboo today as the effeminate side is popular.
There is a strange kind of poetic irony here: after all, in JFK Stone told us that his virile Irish Catholic hero Kennedy was punked by the hissing conspiracies of New Orleans fags. Here Alexander and its director are punked by Stone’s own fear of masculine homosexuality.
But there is, admittedly, a lot to be afraid of. An entire season of Jerry Springer couldn’t come close to one evening’s male jealousies, passions and intrigues in Macedonia. Although Stone makes much of Philip’s assassination he draws a veil over the details. The assassin, one of his bodyguards, was a spurned lover called Pausanias. Noted for his youthful beauty, he had been usurped in the royal bedchamber by another attractive young soldier. Pausanias denounced Philip’s new lover as a male tart and “whore”. The boy then proved his virility and virtue by saving Philip’s life in battle, at the cost of his own. His brother and friends then, as you do, drugged Pausanias and gang raped him before handing him on to their grooms and muleteers who also raped him and then gave him a good beating as thanks. For political reasons Philip refused to punish the wrongdoers and restore Pausanias’s honour. Olympias and Alexander probably then used Pausanias’ fury as an instrument for removing daddy and gaining power. Alexander became king and Emperor of the World because his father was murdered by a neglected male lover. Warrior sodomy is a terrifying, fearsome-fearless thing – don’t mess!
It’s tempting to see this current obsession with the Ancient World as a function of our search for new pagan lights in a chaotic, darkened, post-Christian, post-ideological world in which Posh and Becks have replaced the Holy Family. Tempting, but probably mistaken. None of these films have any gods – except the pathetically democratic, earthbound ones: the celebs that star in them. Real worship, whether of heroes or gods is definitely not on offer. It’s just too messy and dangerous for our safe, sterile, simulated modern lives. Boys today don’t worship or want to be Alexander or Achilles, who both regarded themselves as sons of gods. They want to be Colin or Brad. Or their stylist. Although it is difficult for someone like me to accept, maybe this isn’t all bad. After all, as we’ve seen in present-day Mesopotamia, there really isn’t much room in the world for Empire building these days.
Besides, we’re all too busy playing with our digital watches to care about warrior virtues.
Copyright Mark Simpson 2008
A biography of the metrosexual. By his dad.
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