Where Are the Men of My Dreams?

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

turn-on? Hardly.

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

and precariously.

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?