Men: Better Dead Than -- What?

July 16, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. Discontented with your hard-driving, overbearing, workaholic Fella? Tired of having your family life dominated by Master of the Universe? Sick of sharing your pillow with Gordon Gekko?

Don't despair. Even if your man won't accept that gift certificate to the next Robert Bly seminar, he may yet change his evil ways. If you're lucky, he could get shot in the head.

This is the ever-so-upbeat message that comes from ''Regarding Henry,'' the latest in a series of movies that offer us practical up-to-date tips on how to transform the American man. In this one, our Henry starts out as your basic rich, ruthless and stereotypically '80s guy.

He strides through his domain -- a law firm that makes ''LA Law'' look mellow -- uttering the war cry of Manhattan macho: ''Come on guys, let's break some balls.'' He treats his daughter with roughly the same degree of sensitivity.

This of course, won't do in the 1990s; Henry must change. But he is spared the hard, uncertain task of consciousness-raising. Instead, he is blessed with consciousness-shattering.

Talk about your magic bullet. Henry's history and memory -- you might say Henry's obnoxious self -- are wiped out when he's shot trying to buy cigarettes. He is born again and reconstructed as a tender, honest, hand-holding non-smoker who loves his family, hates his profession and is as sweet as his new puppy.

Indeed, by the end, Henry's marriage is rejuvenated, his daughter is rescued from the pressures of prep school, his soul is saved. And they all move to the suburbs.

Sitting in the darkened theater watching Henry, it occurred to me that if Thelma or Louise had shot him in the head, this movie would be on the cover of magazines and on talk shows featuring learned lectures on the perils of male-bashing. One of the myriad objections to the female buddy flick was that men were unredeemably awful. Bad guys were best off bumped off. But even the movies by men that seem to redeem men, transforming the bad guys into brave new ones, aren't exactly reassuring these days.

For one thing the only good men are often dead men. Remember in ''Ghost,'' how Patrick Swayze hung around in his postmortem state to protect his lady and finally say I love you? In ''Defending Your Life,'' Albert Brooks only improved in his afterlife. In ''Switch,'' the macho-stud-man only came around after he'd walked a reincarnated mile in Ellen Barkin's high heels.

If they're not dead, they are magically reborn. Who was the only lovable live man in Manhattan in recent memory? Tom Hanks, a 12-year-old boy grown ''Big'' but truly in touch with the child in him.

There is, I fear, a message mingled in the popcorn. As Henry's doctor says about his patient, ''In some ways he's starting from scratch.'' So is Mike Nichols. The director has been trying to help men escape since ''The Graduate.'' But in ''Henry,'' he seems to have given up on his gender. He's come to the conclusion that the only hope is going back to zero.

Most of these ghostly, redemptive and reincarnated stories are variations on the theme of the mid-life male crisis. They fit in part into the theory behind the new men's movement with its focus on fathers, fathering and the lack thereof. Henry's dad was fondly named ''the old bastard.'' In the hospital, this son gets what he needs most for a new life. He gets a new father -- a savvy, strong, randy, former jock and physical therapist -- to raise him all over again.

The good news is that there's an acknowledgment of the need to change. There is an understanding that killer instinct at work doesn't set well at home. The '80s glorification of the Wall Street lone wolf has shifted to '90s praise for dad in his baseball cap. Women -- like Henry's wife Sara -- who were wowed by a man's dominance in his 20s are seen looking for a little tenderness in his 40s.

But Hollywood seems stumped about how men can make the passage. The guides to accompany men from one place to the next are as rarified as a guardian angel or a father-figure physical therapist.

The process of change is either magical or lethal. It implies there is nothing worth saving, nothing to build on. Want to be a new man? The movies offer a choice: death or brain damage.

What are they telling women? Annie get your gun?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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