Most women I know think Johnny Depp has about as much sex appeal as a China doll or a Siamese cat-too
pretty, too passive. It’s male reviewers who’ve gone ga-ga over him as the
hippie pusher in Blow , rhapsodizing
over his delicate features and limp blond tresses. And of the exquisite
transvestite prostitute he plays in Before
Night Falls , John Turturro was quoted as saying he’d be available to play
love scenes with him anytime. He’s cute, but … I’d rather play opposite a wet
mop. I find him more interesting as a sort of New Age Peter Pan, the epicene
elf of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
and Edward Scissorhands , but a
Ditto Jude Law. A male critic of my acquaintance, a lifelong
heterosexual and connoisseur of women, says he’d happily deviate from the
straight-and-narrow for the chiseled British star with the ice blue eyes. His
wife and I shrug. Too beautiful, too narcissistic. We’d prefer a man who would
fuss over us, not require that we worship at his altar. Perhaps a choice
between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. The shy, awkward suitor and the sleazy
womanizer in Bridget Jones’s Diary
bespeak a virility lacking in Mr. Law, a too-humid hunk. Does that mean we’re
behind the times, not yet into chic amorphous sexuality, still hung up on some
antiquated notion of La Différence?
Or could it be that more and more, the men on-screen are a
projection of what men imagine they’d want if they were women? Lately we’ve
seen a cinematic revival of the supposedly universal androgynous seducer, the
person who walks into the room and has everyone begging for his bod. I say
“his” because this quasi-mythic embodiment of Eros is generally a man, thought
up by men for men. For men, the feminine male appears to offer some kind of
eating-your-cake-and-having-it-too fantasy, temporary relief (if a rather
disturbing one) from that primal textbook horror: castration anxiety. The
unabashedly feminine fellow is the uncastrated female-not woman as an
incomplete and threateningly “wounded” male, but man as woman with a penis.
While the male characters in films have become more sexual,
the women have become more miserable. Terence Stamp, in Pasolini’s Teorema , walked into an Italian country
house with toxic effect on everyone in the family. Billy Budd, recently given
cinematic life in Claire Denis’ Beau
Travail , is a triangulated male homoerotic dance. The Irish philanderer in
Gerard Stembridge’s About Adam -a
chameleon who intuits the erotic needs of, in turn, three sisters and their
heretofore hetero brother-is a cannier and more bisexual version of Mel
Gibson’s woman-attuned ad man in What
Women Want . In With a Friend Like
Harry , a mysterious stranger, claiming previous friendship with the
husband, descends on a household with homoerotic designs. But in The Talented Mr. Ripley , the filmmakers
had to create a new female character (Cate Blanchett’s ditzy expatriate) to
offset the dreary doormat of a woman played by Gwyneth Paltrow and invented by
the profoundly misogynistic Patricia Highsmith. In Blow , Mr. Depp’s harpy mother and druggie wife (Rachel Griffiths
and Penélope Cruz) are truly grotesque. And Enemy
at the Gates is really, as the ads suggest, a face-off between two
different kinds of rugged male beauty, Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law, with Rachel
Weisz as the beard.
These days the female enchantresses, few and far between,
are rarely as charismatic or pansexual as their male counterparts. Liv Tyler,
the none-too-persuasive cynosure in Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty and Harald Zwart’s One Night at McCool’s , has AC pull but no DC (or is it the other
way around?). And Hilary Swank’s transsexual in Boys Don’t Cry so threatens men that she gets herself murdered.
Where are the women-in-pants roles like those played by Dietrich, Garbo and
Katharine Hepburn, who dazzled men and women alike?
Suddenly, even on-screen, we are many people, many sexual
selves at once. But how to keep track? How to even know or acknowledge what we
want? The challenge to discover and explore one’s innermost fantasies is set
alongside the binary impasse between men and women in Wayne Wang’s absorbing The Center of the World . The title means
one thing for the Vegas showgirl (Molly Parker) and another for the computer
nerd (Peter Sarsgaard). The twain meet, their fantasies intersect, but briefly
At a recent dinner party, we spent the first half of the
evening talking about The Sopranos
and the second about transsexuals-a not-so-strange pairing of subjects that
push the envelope of spectrum-thinking into the grayest of the gray areas, one
making us morally queasy, the other physically so. With The Sopranos , we ask ourselves: How can we be charmed by this brute
who-contrary to fan-on-the-street responses-is not “a nice guy underneath”? One
layer of cruelty and brutality merely masks another, darker layer. Tony
Soprano’s a bully and a bigot as well as a murderer; and yet, co-existing-another
self-is a man who loves his wife and children, fears for them, makes himself
vulnerable to his therapist and has sex appeal. On the physical front, with
transsexuals we can’t help wondering what it feels like to be convinced you’re
in the wrong body. And to be so desperate to get out that you’ll put your whole
life at stake-job, position, family-to make the change.
These two border states are complementary. We are good,
law-abiding liberals who have no trouble endorsing the right of a person to
live as the other sex, but we’re still uneasy with the brave new world of
sexual fluidity-while The Sopranos ,
for all its moral ambiguity, is clear-cut about sex: Its men are men and its
women are women, right out of the 50’s. Tony sees himself as a
captain-of-industry type, while to the women in his life (housewives and
hookers, good mothers and bad mothers), he’s a Rottweiler, a sadist, a dominant
alpha male, a thug. An old-fashioned guy of a guy. One who doesn’t spend a lot
of time looking in the mirror.
I’ll take Tony Soprano over Johnny Depp if I have to (my
husband doesn’t look in the mirror either, though sometimes I wish he would).
But what does it mean that these are the yin and yang of contemporary maledom?
Does it mean that Tom Hanks’ channeled World War II veteran is our only hope
for a resurgence of modest manliness?