The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Tag: Hollywood (page 1 of 2)

Psycho Somatic

How Sam’s body in ‘Psycho’ melted mine and Julie’s minds

On New Year’s Day I rewatched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As you do. Released in 1960, his low-budget, shockingly deviant, uber-Freudian masterpiece is sixty years old this year. Pensionable, almost.

Psycho (Opening Scene)

In a worrying development, suggesting I may be due early retirement myself, I discovered that I’d completely forgotten how fit Marion’s boyfriend Sam is, played by John Gavin, 29. And how much we see of his fitness in the opening topless scene – in which Sam, rather more than Marion, played by Janet Leigh, 33, is the apple of the camera’s eye. No wonder Marion steals $40K to keep him.

Sam is the unwitting femme fatale of this noir: those big, black eyes, those long luscious lashes, that beckoning bosom. That sticky end. Sam is desire.

It’s worth analysing that first scene in Psycho in detail, since it prefigures by decades the way the way men are ‘objectified’ today – and is a timeless cinematic love letter to the late Mr Gavin.

We open with a bird’s eye camera panning across the hot, arid Phoenix afternoon skyline, then voyeuristically zooming in on the dirty, open window of a non-descript, seedy hotel – and swooping under the partially-lowered blinds. (Stuffed birds of prey are an obsession of Norman Bates, who later perves on Marion through a peephole as she undresses in his cheap motel room – in much the same way we did at the beginning of the movie.)

The first shot of our trysting, unmarried lovers is of Marion lying on her back on the bed in her lace bra and half slip, gazing up glowingly at Sam – his be-flannelled arse and lunchbox occupying the middle of the screen, framed next to Marion’s upturned face. Like much else in this film, including the shot of an actual flushing toilet later (the first ever in a mainstream US movie or TV show), it’s a shockingly suggestive-to-explicit image for fin-de-50s America. What’s more, that bra and those flannels are not even married.

(Unsurprisingly, the censors enforcing the still-extant Production Code were very unhappy with the first scene. Hitchcock offered to re-shoot the opening with the Code’s grim guardians on the set – if they allowed him to keep the shower scene, which they also hated. Fortunately, the board members failed to show up for the re-shoot and the cheap hotel shots also stayed.)

Unmarried flannels and bra debauching public morals

We can see Marion’s lover is shirtless and towelling himself – so we deduce, along with her satiated countenance, and the drowsy soundtrack, that the tableaux is post-coital. But we can’t see the flannels’ head as the shot cuts him off just above his waist. He is the faceless object of Marion’s desire and longing.

But we do hear him speak – in a deep, smooth voice:

‘You never did eat your lunch, did you?’

The camera cuts to the untouched shrink-wrapped sandwiches and soda bottle (and two stubbed out fag ends) on the bedside table. And then immediately to a long shot of a spectacularly unwrapped Sam, shooting an explosively handsome grin at Marion, his lean, attractively muscled body – especially for 1960 – picked out like a vision by the camera lighting in the gloomy room.

So, we know what Marion did eat for lunch. And it was totally delicious. The way her head instantly moves in on him suggests she’s hungry for more.

Sam’s toplessness – which, being male, is officially non-sexual – to some extent stands in for Marion’s, which was still in 1960 Hollywood officially impossible. But in black and white practise, it is very much its own splendid, highly sexual thing.

They then canoodle on the bed, while Marion makes it clear she’s unhappy about their clandestine, seedy meets and wants to get married. Sam eventually demurs that he can’t afford to get married yet because of the alimony he’s paying to his ex-wife, along with taking care of his father’s debts. Marion replies, prophetically:

“I pay too. They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.”

During this exchange the camera spends most of its time on Sam (who remains partially clothed while Marion gets dressed) and his adorable face, nose and chin, which Marion can’t stop stroking – showing us the back of her head, even when she’s talking. We have to see him from her POV: why she would desire him enough to steal, completely out of character, $40,000 from her kindly old employer.

And we really do.

We’re also left in no doubt that that Marion, despite the talk of marriage, is not some shrinking, 1950s violet. She has a very active sexuality and wants to possess Sam.

Norman, whom she of course meets later on the way to claim Sam with the stolen cash, is a kind of anti-Sam – younger, skinnier, sexually repressed and a mommy’s boy. Oh, and a knife-wielding cross-dressing psychotic.

Sam and Norman exchange sexual tension

His voice is quaveringly pubescent compared to Sam’s butch baritone. But like Sam he is also pretty – after all, he’s played by teen-throb and sometime popster Anthony Perkins. Moreover, it is square Sam’s hotness, and unavailability, as well as the stifling gender roles and mores of mid-century America, that has led Marion – the older woman – to the seedy-grisly terminus of the Bates motel.

Norman goes to see ‘Mother’

I’d also forgotten something else about Psycho: how much Norman swishes his tiny tush when climbing the stairs of his gothic family home in the final reel. Just before we hear his ‘mother’, in a voice like late Bette Davis in full sneer mode, shouting:

“No! I will not hide in the fruit cellar! You think I’m fruity, huh? I’m staying right here!”

But then, it’s gothic chicken and eggs – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, made two years later, was conceived as a horror cash-in on the runaway success of Psycho, and Davis’ famous ‘psycho-biddy’ character Jane owes more than a little to Ma Bates.

John Gavin died in 2018, aged 86, an event I seem to have somehow missed, but he’s been in my fruity thoughts lately, having also recently rewatched Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), in which he plays a smouldering young Julius Caesar hanging out with an oysters-and-snails loving Crassus played by Laurence Olivier – and yes, of course there’s a bathhouse scene. And Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), in which he plays an object of double feminine obsession (mother and daughter).

Often described dismissively as a ‘Rock Hudson lookalike’, Gavin was, I’d venture, prettier in his prime than Hudson, whose straight-edge, solid, dull, Anglo, handsomeness was the very reason he was supposedly ‘the last man you woulda guessed’. Although Gavin, who was of Latin American heritage, could sometimes be butchly wooden on screen, and unlike Hudson very heterosexual off-screen, there was something about his youthful looks that he couldn’t quite straighten out. That body. Those eyes. That mouth.

But it was the obese, bald, 60-year-old – as he was when Psycho was made – grandfather from Leytonstone, Mr Hitchcock, famous for his sometimes cruel, objectifying treatment of his female stars, who seems to have truly recognised, drawn out, and forever captured (stuffed?) the full-throated sexual energy, passivity and fatal charisma of Mr Gavin in his prime. A sexual energy, passivity and fatal charisma that Mr Gavin probably didn’t even know he had in him.

As a parting observation, I would suggest only slightly subjectively that in this film so famous for its focus on eyes – Norman’s at the peephole, Marion’s blinking at the car headlights on the highway, unblinking on the brightly-lit bathroom floor, the beady glass ones of the stuffed birds, ours zooming in under the cheap Phoenix hotel room’s blinds, Norman’s grinning psychotic eyes in the final frame – it is Sam’s eyes that are most seductive. They suck you in.

Like a shower drain.

Midway to Paradise (So Near, Yet So Far Away)

Mark Simpson finds Midway ‘dumb, numb and empty of cum

When I went to see Roland Emmerich’s teensploitation flick Midway this week I had low expectations. In fact, they were so low I almost ran aground on the way to the multiplex. Emmerich, the director-writer responsible for blockbusters such as Independence Day, Stargate, and The Day After Tomorrow, specialises in making movies as spectacularly awful as they are successful.

Why did I go? Because Emmerich’s films are aimed at teen boys – and I’m a classic case of arrested development. So is Emmerich, clearly – but I can only aspire to his level of adult cynicism, which has probably made him as wealthy as a war profiteer.

Midway, based on the pivotal 1942 Pacific naval engagement between the US and Japan which saw the destruction of much of the Japanese carrier fleet and the loss of their hopes of any kind of victory, manages to be even more stupidly awful than I expected.

But this time I doubt the stupid awfulness will be accompanied by stupid success. Not least because while the Battle of Midway may mean a lot to old queens like Emmerich – and me – raised on 1950s-60s Second World War movies, it probably doesn’t mean very much to the youths who are the film’s target market. The auditorium I saw it at one evening a few days after it opened was mostly empty – and I was somehow not the oldest person there.

Emmerich tries of course to ‘update’ things to get around this problem. So Midway is WWII re-run as a First-Person MMO Shooter – won by an excruciatingly cocky character called, I kid you not, ‘Dick Best’. Think Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ (he’s often called a ‘cowboy’), but somehow much more annoying. Ed Skrein really knocks himself out in the role.

All the other men are droolingly in love with him and the size and heft of his virility – especially his handsome moustachioed boss played by that gay Brit actor who put Orlando Bloom out of work (Luke Evans).

After Dick sinks the Japanese Imperial Navy one of his fanboys announces, somewhat redundantly:

‘This war will be won by men who like dick best!’

(The ‘who’ may have been silent.)

What’s peculiar about Midway though is that for a film obsessed with dick and rammed with hot male talent, including professional manteaser Nick Jonas – and referencing Top Gun – how lacking in homoeroticism it is. Or any kind of eroticism, really – apart from, I suppose, the CGI explosions.

Midway isn’t just dumb, which would be entirely acceptable – it’s completely numb. Dumb, numb and totally devoid of cum. Even the homosociality is unconvincing and unfelt, which is quite an achievement in a movie set on board aircraft carriers filled with hundreds of young men. Perhaps this is because, paradoxically, the director likes dick best.

Jonas letting loose by far the most erotic moment in Midway

Emmerich is gay, and so may be inhibited on that front – lest he ‘let the side down’, especially in this age of gay respectability. It’s not impossible either that he’s a homo that just doesn’t get it – which is surprisingly common, I can assure you. But his biggest hits Stargate and Independence Day relied on cynically exploiting 1990s teen male homopanic and anal anxiety in a way that only a homo could.

In 2015 he apparently tried to atone for his sins with Stonewall, a flick celebrating the 1969 Stonewall ‘Uprising’ as its now called (why spoil a perfectly good bar riot?) – which I haven’t seen and have zero interest in seeing. It was panned by critics and activists and pilloried for its politics and lack of diversity. But what were people expecting from someone who makes movies about shit exploding while dudes high five?

As a side issue, Midway stars several Brit actors, as is often the way these days, playing Americans – including the lead, Ed Skrein. Oh, and waiting for it to start I saw a trailer for Knives Out, with Daniel Craig playing an American with a ripe southern accent.

Now, it’s fabulous that Brit actors are getting work, darling. But as a Brit watching Brit actors do American accents in Hollywood moovies, too often I find myself cringing like a limey. Skrein’s accent in Midway is like being keel-hauled by your ears. (He also seems to be doing something intensely irritating with his clean-cut-jutting All-American jaw.)

But apparently not to Americans, otherwise they wouldn’t keep getting cast. And you would think, wouldn’t you, that Americans are a better judge of an American accent than me. Is it perhaps prejudice on my part – because I see them as British, whereas Americans just assume they’re American? Or are as generous and open-hearted as I’m bitter and small-minded and so are happy to accept them and their goddamn stupidly awful accents as ‘American’?

Probably the latter.

Midway (2019 Movie) New Trailer – Ed Skrein, Mandy Moore, Nick Jonas, Woody Harrelson

Muscle: Hollywood’s Biggest Special Effect

By Mark Simpson

(Independent on Sunday 31 March, 2002)

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’.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2010

This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story