I subscribe to the philosophy that everyone needs a good cry once in a while. My subscription to this philosophy puts me at odds with many of cinema’s most iconic men. Historically, figures like James Bond, Indiana Jones, all superheroes, or any John Wayne character (take your pick) have managed to make it through their 120 minute running time without shedding a tear--they have low points, sure--but they never feel their sadness so intensely that it triggers a physical reaction in the form of waterworks. Rather, most leading men make it through the brunt of their dramatic arcs with little more than the furrowing of a displeased brow.
Rather than tears, the traditional masculine response to sadness seems to manifest in physical or sexual violence (a.k.a. some form of physicality directed outwards at an external force): Jake Gittes slaps Evelyn Mulray then throws her onto a couch when he suspects she’s manipulated him; Hud nearly rapes Alma after being virtually disowned by his father; nearly every iteration of Bond just destroys whatever angers him, man, woman, animal, machine--if it hurts, a man in classic cinema gets angry about it.
Interestingly, however, throughout the past decade men in movies seem...well, more sensitive. As gender roles are increasingly challenged and the country’s sociopolitical turmoils grow ever grimmer and more complex, everyone’s favorite male heroes suddenly find themselves incapable of wearing their adversity as coolly as they’ve been able to in the past, and without an easily-identifiable emotional outlet to punch; instead, their emotions are now contained within them by the brooding close-up, or worse, released suddenly and unwillingly via a fantastic denaturalization into snot and tears. Arguably James Bond was the first to get in touch with his sensitive side in the 2006 “reimagining” of the franchise Casino Royale, a film that not only raised the bar for the entire Bond film series in terms of quality, but that focused on developing Bond’s internal life in ways that formed the sharpest of contrasts with the one-note pun of a Bond that immediately preceded him in Die Another Day. Even more convincingly, Bond actually tears up while holding the quickly-fading body of M in 2012’s Skyfall. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne spends a distinct period mourning after the death of his love in The Dark Knight, and indeed recedes into himself completely for the first half of The Dark Knight Rises. Increasingly, seeing tough men in a state of genuine distress is appealing to audiences, perhaps because it makes each individual viewer feel safer with their own sadness--if James Bond gets sad, why can’t I?
Additionally, part of the increased focus on masculine sensitivity is, perhaps, that male actors are more willing to portray it. Here again we can thank the contemporary push against gender norms, as actors can now run the gambit of “sad” emotions that are traditionally labeled “feminine” without having to sacrifice their appeal to men or their ability to star in action films. Michael Fassbender, chosen to play the villainous Magneto in the new X-Men franchise and involved in the testerone stuffed 300 movies, reveals internal vulnerability in startling frankness when playing the tormented bachelor Brandon in 2011’s Shame. The performance requires Fassbender convey Brandon’s internal sadness via a consistent and intensive examination of his expressive face, yet it also challenges how the on-screen male has long externalized his troubles. Rather than expressing his inner torment in anger or violence towards another, Brandon’s externalization of his sadness, while still fundamentally destructive in nature, is directed at himself, as his various intimate encounters combined with his sexual addiction slowly kill him--and result in plenty of honest-to-goodness tears. The performance also requires Fassbender to literally strip away any boundary between his body and the viewer’s gaze, as he spends a great deal of his time on-screen stark naked, meaning the film displays his emotional instabilities both on internal and external levels and makes him vulnerable physically to the audience’s own judgements. While the character of Brandon stands as an extreme example, he points to the legitimate trend of on-screen men bearing their emotional wounds in their purest forms, undisguised by anger, and uninhibited by the machismo that so permeates characters like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards.
Overall then, there is something amiss with today’s male heroes, and it’s usually that they know something is wrong, yet are no longer afraid to show it. Every tear that falls from a man’s eye in a film is another piece of evidence that the definition of masculinity is loosening in America--even if slowly--and likely for the better.