Role Models for the New Male: Beast or Simpleton?

July 19, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston.-- Somewhere in the middle of the movie, Forrest Gump finally proposes to the woman he's loved since first grade. Will you marry me?'' he asks, ''I'd make a good husband, Jenny.''

At that point, anyone worth the price of the popcorn wants to stand up in the theater and tell Jenny to grab him. Never mind that Forrest has an IQ of 75. In the words of countless generations of mothers, ''A good man is hard to find.''

Indeed the bottom line of the movie that's become the surprise hit of the summer is exactly how few and far between good men are.

In ''Forrest Gump,'' Tom Hanks acts as a baby boomer's tour guide through three decades of male roles and man-made disasters. Through the wonders of computer-generated imagery, he is seen next to every flawed male icon from Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon.

He's innocently drafted into everyman's questionable everyrole from football star to soldier to entrepreneur. He's picked on by the good ol' boys when he's young and sent to war by the best and the brightest men when he's grown up.

The males in Jenny's life are an even more dubious lot. They're dysfunctional poster boys. The movie's catalog of Mr. Wrongs includes a father who abused her, sleazy strip-joint customers who heckle her, and an anti-war lefty who slugs her.

Compared to them, Forrest looks pretty, um, good.

Does anybody remember when the great American hero was a Jimmy Stewart character from a small town? Today, the last American hero is a Tom Hanks character with a small IQ.

Is there a message here? If he's good, is it because he doesn't have the brains to be bad or bitter?

Several years ago, Tom Hanks played another appealing New Sensitive Male of the era. His character in ''Big'' was actually a 12-year-old boy magically transported into a grown-up man's body. He was one guy in touch with his inner child.

Not long after that, Mike Nichols directed a movie about the male psyche that offered the hope of male consciousness-raising through consciousness-shattering. In ''Regarding Henry,'' a master-of-the-universe type became a model husband and father getting shot in the head.

Now Mr. Hanks is back as ''Forrest Gump'' and Mr. Nichols is back with ''Wolf.'' Will, the main male of ''Wolf,'' is too benign, even passive. He is a middle-aged literary editor, being eaten alive by yet another set of bad guys in the corporate jungle.

When he's bitten on the hand, Will gets a shot of that old animal spirit. The hero in this movie is a werewolf. What was in that saliva? Testosterone?

So there we have it. Once a man had to choose between the lady and the tiger. Now a woman at the movies can choose between the slow-witted and the werewolf.

Oh, but I almost forgot the lion. The third movie in this seasonal troika of male images is ''The Lion King.'' Disney offers an animated paean to patriarchy. All is well in the world only when the princes like Simba are willing to take their rightful place on the throne.

Do you get the idea that Hollywood is having trouble with heroes? With changing scripts?

If I read what's going on here, there's as much ambivalence about defining a good man as finding one.

Men today are handed any number of mixed cultural messages about who they should be. A good man is expected to be egalitarian and protective. He's supposed to turn away from violence and to be able to defend himself.

We want to raise boys who are strong but not silent, sensitive but survivors. We want our sons to be the men we'd want our daughters to marry. But we're afraid they'll get clobbered by the alpha males in the playground.

The real world, like Hollywood, is still full of bad guys. So we end up with an small, disparate lot of good guys:

Simba, the king of nostalgic fantasies for the old ''natural order.''

Will, the modern man who needs sharper fangs to survive.

And Forrest, the only man allowed to utter the simple verities on the screen -- ''A promise is a promise,'' and ''I'm not a smart man but I know what love is.'' -- because he is a simpleton.

OK, OK, a good man is hard to find. But it's a whole lot harder to find him at the movies.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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