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Masculinity in Film: The Emergence of a New Literature (February 2014): Masculinity and Stardom

By Gerald Butters Jr.

Masculinity and Stardom

Many studies of cinematic masculinity analyze an individual male motion picture star in his relationship to the construction of “manhood” on the screen.  Clint Eastwood has been one of the most iconic male figures on the American screen for the past fifty years.  In his dual roles of actor and director, Eastwood has perhaps done more to shape the iconography of American cinematic masculinity than just about any other figure.  Drucilla Cornell delivers an invigorating look at the role of masculinity in the auteur’s oeuvre in her Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity.  She focuses on the films that Eastwood directed—those in which he had the most significant creative control.  A self-described “ethical feminist,” Cornell centers the book on “the connection between masculinity and the struggle to be ethical” that seems to be at the core of Eastwood’s films.  Cornell’s interrogation of moral conflict in Eastwood’s films and its connection to constructions of masculinity are valuable for those working in gender studies and those who are simply intrigued by Eastwood’s cinematic legacy.  Cornell has a decidedly positive view of Eastwood’s critiques of masculinity, particularly in relationship to trauma, the horrors of war, fatherhood, and friendship.  Her use of philosophy, literature, and cinematic theory makes this an intriguing (yet still surprisingly accessible) work.  Interdisciplinarity is one of the hallmarks of recent superior work on cinematic masculinity, and Cornell is an example of those who go outside their narrow field of study and use a wide variety of disciplines to make their point.

Another extensive examination of Eastwood is Howard Hughes’s Aim for the Heart: The Films of Clint Eastwood.  Hughes’s impeccable research is evident in his documentation of the genres in which Eastwood was active.  One of the most substantial chapters contrasts the iconic persona of Eastwood with that of the towering figure of John Wayne (who also worked across genres) and addresses each man’s contribution to the cult of cinematic masculinity.

Frank Sinatra was an icon in the worlds of both American popular music and motion pictures for much of the twentieth century.  In When Frankie Went to Hollywood: Frank Sinatra and American Male Identity, Karen McNally delivers one of the first substantial cultural analyses of this complicated, mercurial entertainer.  Looking at the years from 1944 to 1966, McNally theorizes on five aspects of Sinatra’s masculinity and its context in U.S. society: his working-class roots, his Italian American cultural identity, his civil rights activism, the vulnerability of his persona and its connection to damaged World War II veterans, and his swingin’ bachelor/Rat Pack iconography.  Although McNally focuses on Sinatra’s films, she also uses his relationship with the media, political activity, star image, and recording and extra-cinematic performing career to make her argument.  All of these made up Sinatra’s persona and his relationship to the culture at large.  McNally also explores Sinatra’s career trajectory in relationship to contemporaneous U.S. culture and the “appeal” of Sinatra to various populations.

Jacqueline Reich explores the mystique behind one of the most iconic Italian actors of the twentieth century in Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema.  In this theoretical study, the author places the actor in the context of the anti-hero, claiming that his uber-masculinity was simply a façade that was acknowledged on the screen.  Reich considers Mastroianni throughout his long career and demonstrates how his masculine persona was impacted by his aging and by his female co-stars.

The final “star” to receive an extraordinary treatment in relationship to cinematic masculinity is landmark comedian Richard Pryor.  In Richard Pryor: The Life and Legacy of a “Crazy” Black Man, editor Audrey Thomas McCluskey assembled a substantial number of critical essays on this influential twentieth-century American comedian.  This collection attempts to give Pryor his due by considering the ways in which he influenced not only comedy but also U.S. television and entertainment as political statement.  Essays are divided into four sections: “New Essays,” “Biography,” “Reviews,” and “Social and Cultural Criticism.”  McCluskey herself is the most significant contributor to the volume.  Her analysis of Pryor as both comic genius and tortured soul, her description of the censorship of his influential 1977 television series (The Richard Pryor Show), and her interview with frequent Pryor director Michael Schultz illustrate both her fine writing skills and her understanding of the importance of this seminal figure.

These studies of Eastwood, Sinatra, and Pryor demonstrate that there is much work left to do.  Richard Dyer laid the groundwork with Stars in 1980, yet contemporary scholars have been slow (or perhaps resistant) in attempting to examine pivotal cinematic figures and their relationship to popular culture.  To do this work is indeed daring, and since there is often little research or published scholarship to borrow from, it is exploratory.  The recent demise of stardom in American cinema and its replacement with special effects is perhaps one subject that needs to be addressed.

Works Cited