Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties

Article excerpt

Steven Cohan. Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997. 346 pp. $39.95 ($18.95 paper).

Steven Cohan's comprehensive study of masculinity and star images adroitly debunks the image of the masculine conformist of the 1950s, that is, the masculine identity formed by a middle class sexual ideology polarizing heterosexual and homosexual. Drawing from Judith Butler's influential work on the performativity of gender and sexual roles, Cohan offers a more nuanced vision of the male star, and by extension the male, constituted by a range of social and personal influences. As such, the text presents a range of masculine representations for the male movie stars of the era. Often the contradictions and confusions inherent in a single star image reflect the larger social formation and possibilities for male identity during the period. As Cohan states, his historical analysis is sensitive to the fields obscured (homosexuality), included (class, ethnicity, age), and excluded (race) in the establishment of "normal" masculine identity. Rich in detail and exceedingly sensitive to the larger contextual factors at play in the creation of these male star images, Cohan's book is invaluable for understanding the social climate of the 1950s which served to create these star images and the conflicted roles for men during the period.

The text develops as several case studies, falling across the fields of star studies, gender, and institutional analysis. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths in this compelling work is the method through which Cohan builds his argument, moving between the social, the institutional and the sexual in a series of interlocking analyses. Cohan starts by situating masculinity in crisis. The first chapter addresses the unstable masculine identity of North By Northwest's hero Roger Thornhill through close analysis of shifting identities and the theatrical star image of Cary Grant in the context of cold war ideologies. Similarly, crisis also defines the subject of the second chapter: the prototypical Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a pivotal role that clearly splinters the male. As Cohan suggests, the role offers the "paradox" of hegemonic masculinity: while the breadwinner, the father, and professional-managerial class were being validated by Hollywood in the Gregory Peck film, the "traditional" masculine (read "aggressive", "stoic", "adventurous") roles were being subordinated in adjoining films. This dynamic was also evidenced in the '50s career of Humphrey Bogart. Bogart shifted from the 1940s film noir tough guy to a variety of "troubled" characters as evidenced by the homoerotic and misogynistic dynamic in Dead Reckoning, the sexual dysfunction of In a Lonely Place and the psychopath in The Desperate Hours. Cohan illustrates that the psychopathic and homosocial characters portrayed by Bogart served to regulate the heterosexual conformity of the era.

The remainder of the book also engages masculinity in crisis, but more directly through the focus of the male body as spectacle. In a chapter that at times strays from its thesis by offering an account of the biblical cycle and religious boom of the 1950s, Cohan contrasts the stars of The Ten Commandments. Yul Brynner (under a section titled "baldness brings its own rewards") and Charlton Heston ("But size counts even more") are presented as cold war binaries, representing America and the exotic "alien" through body shape, size, costuming, and even body hair. Moving into the realm of beefcake from the era, Cohan illustrates how William Holden in Picnic was designed to visually exploit the male star for a range of gendered/sexed viewing positions, placing Holden as the object to be looked at. Other prominent stars-Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando-are more disruptive in their postwar star images by appearing as softer "boys" rather than as men in melodramas, effectively allowing them to pass between the binarized categories of male/female, straight/gay, and young/mature. …


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