American audiences prefer their heroes invincible, sexless

MACHISMO IN THE MOVIES

August 04, 1991|By Stephen Wigler

Countries without heroes are said to be unhappy -- those that need them unhappier still.

What are we then to make of a country that has installed a machine -- Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film "Terminator 2" -- as the greatest hero on movie screens today? The film has emerged as the biggest hit of the summer, pulling in $133 million in just four weeks and likely on its way to an all-time box-office record.

Whether we do or do not have cause to be pitied, movie heroes tell us quite a bit about ourselves.

In the last 40 years three male stars with overlapping careerhave occupied a similar niche and c,13p10 fulfilled certain needs -- for excite- ment and for reassurance -- in our moviegoing lives. Schwarzenegger is the most recent of them; his two pred- ecessors were John Wayne, who was at his peak from the '40s to the '60s, and Clint Eastwood, who began to wax as the Duke began to wane and whose cinematic presence has diminished as Schwarzenegger's has grown.

These three can be called icons rather than narrowly defined as actors. They are big men -- Schwarzenegger, the shortest of the three, makes up in muscle mass what he lacks in height -- who essentially play themselves (or what the public perceives as their private personae) in roles that demand carrying guns.

Over the years, though the men did not get bigger, the guns certainly did, reflecting an increase in violence in society at large. Although he played in Westerns all his life, publicity photos rarely show Wayne with his six-shooter in his hand. And when they do, that gun looks like a pea-shooter compared to the massive .44 magnum handgun that Eastwood ("Go ahead -- make my day") first brandished 20 years ago in "Dirty Harry."

Technology jumps several quanta in the latest Schwarzenegger film. Not only does Arnold wield weapons so heavy that one can scarcely believe Clint could lift them, but Arnold himself is a machine sent from the future to save man from Armageddon. (Even in Schwarzenegger's non-Terminator roles there is always the suggestion that he is a machine; such physiques are not found in nature -- they are machine-made in gyms.)

What makes Schwarzenegger unique today -- as it once made Wayne and Eastwood unique -- is a sense of invincibility. This has to do with more than either the heat they carried or their physiques. (Other tough guys such as Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster or Robert Mitchum never seemed so indestructible.) Like his two predecessors, the Austrian-born actor has an extremely limited range. The images that Wayne created in 1948's "Red River," that Eastwood perfected in "spaghetti Westerns" nearly 20 years later or that Schwarzenegger has created more recently were repeated by the actors again and again. There is a certain dependability in such repetition, and the roles themselves suggest rocklike stability.

That's exactly the quality one wants in a father and that happens to be the role that Schwarzenegger plays in "Terminator 2": He is the surrogate father and protector of John Conner, the boy who will go on to lead the humans' guerrilla war against the hegemony of the machine in the 21st century. Now it is entirely possible that this is a result of "Terminator 2's" provenance in the last decade of the 20th century -- an era in which social scientists have identified children raised by single mothers in homes without a strong paternal presence as one of our greatest social problems.

But honesty compels one to note that Wayne and Eastwood were also paternal figures. In "Red River," Wayne loses Joanne Dru to Montgomery Clift and -- with few exceptions in his films that followed -- he never competes for the girl again. In movies from "The Searchers" to "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" to "True Grit," he continues to take the role of a man who protects others.

And Eastwood -- though he tends to be a loner -- usually plays a tough cop who protects other people, often is a mentor to a younger man or woman (as in "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" or "Magnum Force") and sometimes even collects an adopted family around him ("The Outlaw Josie Wales," "Pale Rider").

The heart of the matter is that all three actors are relatively sexless -- even though Wayne was beautiful as a young man, though Eastwood remains handsome as a man in his 60s and though Schwarzenegger, even with so massive a mandible, is not unattractive. That's because they have work to do -- and work, in the action movie, often demands celibacy. It is almost as if the symbolic weight of the guns these men carried precluded phallic energy of a more direct kind.

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