Twenty-five years ago, aged 50, Steve McQueen finally succumbed to lung cancer on 7 November. One of the best-loved movie stars of his generation--"girls wanted to sleep with him and men wanted to be him" went the oft-quoted line--McQueen oozed debonair 1960s style and timeless raw machismo in equal measure. For a 15-year period, the actor successfully pursued a series of record-breaking pay days as aggressively as he added to his collection of motorcycles, fast cars and glamorous women.
When fans raise a tumbler to McQueen this week, they might also lament Hollywood's current inability to reproduce such old-fashioned facets of maleness. Other "men's men" might have glowered across 30-foot screens since McQueen's early demise--Jack Nicholson, for instance, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford--but the image of the next generation of A-listers owes far more to (Mario) Testino than testosterone.
Consider Tom Cruise, the world's biggest movie star. Prior to his recent sofa-bouncing meltdown, Cruise had always appeared far too controlled to display signs of humanity, let alone rugged individuality. Equally eerily, for a leading man, Cruise has consistently appeared asexual in films, failing to summon up any on-screen chemistry with his leading ladies on the rare occasions that his characters have been fitted out with love interests.
Or examine the perennially adolescent persona of Cruise's nearest box office challenger, Will Smith: petulance alternated with braggadocio. Smith clearly is agreeable to many in a light comedy, but he too has neither managed to convey menace or sexuality convincingly and, with the exception of the biopic Ali--appropriately enough--he has never attempted to punch above his weight.
Pausing briefly to note Matt Damon--who as amnesiatic secret agent Jason Bourne, has the perpetual demeanour of a student who mislaid his dissertation--we come to Johnny Depp, who has stretched his pale, skinny androgynous teen incarnation into his forties. When Depp played a pirate, for God's sake, it was as camp and quirky as his depictions of Ed Wood, Willy Wonka and his most famous man-child, Edward Scissorhands.
Indeed, youth has become so prized a commodity in US society that when Hollywood throws up George Clooney, an actual romantic leading man who doesn't look as if he mimes in a boy band or hawks a skateboard line, he is described as a throwback to the days of Clark Gable. No wonder Leonardo DiCaprio keeps going for those roles in which his characters age significantly.
It would be logical to reason that the present perception of masculinity and maturity within American culture has been shaped by the baby-boomers now running the Hollywood studios. After all, the 50-year-old males still squeezing into tight, ripped jeans want to see hipper, younger versions of themselves on the screen. But Hollywood still occasionally needs to enlist old-fashioned masculinity--the sort of aura that a personal trainer cannot bestow alone. In the absence of local candidates, the studios increasingly outsource their old-style movie stars.
It was Britain's Daniel Day-Lewis, who played Hawkeye in that most American of stories, The Last of the Mohicans, and who was so fear some as the unreconstructed Bill "The Butcher" in Gangs of New York. Another Brit, Christian Bale, played the materialism-driven monster in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, as well as that all-American cultural icon, Batman. And it was Australia's Russell Crowe who stepped into the ring for both Gladiator and Cinderella Man, picking up the mantle of butch bruiser from his fellow countryman, Mel Gibson. Meanwhile, their compatriot Hugh Jackman, the gritty hero to John Travolta's smooth baddie in Swordfish, has sewn up the X-Men series. …