You Can Leave Your Shirt On
Joe Queenan wrote a lot of columns for Movieline magazine. It’s hard coming up with new trends and topics to write about. Sooner or later, he was going to have to get around to writing a piece on shirtless, middle-aged men in movies. In the March 2002 issue of the magazine, Queenan did just that.
On the cover of December’s Vanity Fair, the lanky, still boyish Brad Pitt stands on a sunny beach in an open shirt, gamely displaying his chest. This is as it should be. Pitt is only 38 and he is still a bona fide heartthrob–he clearly possesses the authority to showcase the upper abdominal merchandise. The same can be said about Tom Cruise on the January cover of Vanity Fair.
This is all well and good for thirtysomething actors, but there comes a time in every matinee idol’s career when he should give up the gimmick and cover up. Lately it seems male stars haven’t known when to quit. The clock keeps ticking but they never stop stripping.
Consider Harrison Ford, who has persistently refused to keep his clothes on in recent films. He goes out of his way to show off his abs and pecs in What Lies Beneath, makes a shirtless spectacle of himself throughout Six Days, Seven Nights and also displays his fab abs when his clothing is torn off by Kristin Scott Thomas in Random Hearts. In doing so, he seems to be throwing down the gauntlet to Gen-X he-men and studmeisters to whom he is not yet ready to cede the scepter as one of Hollywood’s reigning dudes. Bring it on, Brad. Bring it on, Ben. Bring it on, Leo.
Were Ford the only post-40 actor to doff his chemise in recent motion pictures, I would dismiss his breast-baring hat trick as a curious anomaly. Alas, this is not the case. Robert Redford does stripped-to-the-waist push-ups in The Last Castle. Kevin Costner repeatedly shows off his naked chest in the otherwise uneventful For Love of the Game. Richard Gere treats the audience to pec shots in Jon Avnet’s garrulous Sino-litigious thriller Red Corner. Alec Baldwin displays his gorilla-like chest in State and Main. Kurt Russell allows Courteney Cox Arquette to feast upon his physique in 3000 Miles to Graceland. And ad man Mel Gibson spends a staggering five minutes and 35 seconds bare-chested while donning pantyhose and lipstick in an effort to get into the minds of female consumers in What Women Want. Admittedly, his chest and pecs look pretty damn good for a man his age, but still.
Traditionally, male audiences have flocked to movie theaters to see beautiful young women, not middle-aged men, take off their tops. Now, that approach has been turned on its head. In films like What Lies Beneath, The World Is Not Enough, Message in a Bottle, Runaway Bride, For Love of the Game, The Tailor of Panama, Six Days, Seven Nights, The Thomas Crown Affair and innumerable others, we see far too much of Ford, Costner, Gere and Brosnan, and far too little of Julia Roberts, Rene Russo, Kristy Swanson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, and, most particularly, the well-endowed Jamie Lee Curtis. Given that the movie industry has traditionally relied upon the shameless exploitation of voluptuous young women, it is perfectly reasonable to ask: What in the Sam Hill is going on around here? Has the moviegoing public suddenly lost its appetite for T&A? Is every director in Hollywood gay? Are female audiences now calling the shots here? Or what?
Perhaps older actors just want to prove that they’ve still got it. Pierce Brosnan spent his best years paying his dues on such trifling TV shows as “Remington Steele” and in such lackluster flicks as The Lawnmower Man. Now that he’s found success in feature films, he most likely wants to do a little showing off. But need he be so relentless in his shirtless crusade? Brosnan first issued a mano-a-mano challenge to the boy-toy competition in Golden Eye, in which he sought to establish a sort of silver-screen pec-ing order. In this, his maiden voyage as Agent 007, Brosnan appears in an extended scene in which he literally tosses the robust Famke Janssen around a steam room, yet, miraculously, her bathrobe never comes undone. Meaning that the audience spends the entire time staring at Brosnan’s hairy chest instead of Janssen’s presumably non-hairy chest. Unnerving.
A similar situation occurs in The Thomas Crown Affair, John McTiernan’s 1999 remake of Norman Jewison’s low-key 1968 Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway caper. Here Brosnan, cast as a sophisticated art thief, steps out onto the veranda of his tropical hideaway to share a drink with Russo, an insurance investigator with a much better behind than one usually encounters in this field of endeavor. Russo, seen from the back, wears a towel over her shoulders, while Brosnan is seen naked from the waist up. We see her back; we see his front. I think I can speak for most male movie aficionados when I say that I wish it had been the other way around. In the words of the immortal Mr. Gaye, what’s going on?
While I do not want to make too much of Brosnan’s senza camicia predilections, I think it is fair to say that no one takes off his shirt with more regularity and alacrity than our suave Irish cousin. Indefatigably bare-chested throughout his burgeoning Bond oeuvre, Brosnan also puts on a daunting upper-body floor show in both The Tailor of Panama and Richard Attenborough’s Grey Owl. Somewhat paunchier than usual in the latter film, a hideously dull paean to a middle-class Englishman who briefly passed himself off as an Ontario-based Apache back in the 1930s, Brosnan unwisely appears shirtless in a series of ludicrous tribal dance routines, creating the impression that he is engaged in a Depression-era tryout for an all-middle-aged Anglo-Canadian Village People tribute band.
Sure, it would be nice to believe that all this pectoral preening is merely an accident. It is not. In many cases, it is clear from the cinematic context that the actors’ female costars are literally driven wild by the sight of all this grizzled flesh. From Anne Heche checking out Ford’s primordial pecs in the early moments of Six Days, Seven Nights to Michelle Pfeiffer being riveted by the sight of Ford’s chest in What Lies Beneath (Pfeiffer is also smitten by Jack Nicholson’s carbon-datable torso in Wolf), it is clear that whatever these guys are selling, these women are buying. Forget about what lies beneath. It’s what lies above that counts.
Consider what transpires in The Jackal, Michael Caton-Jones’s underrated 1997 thriller. Halfway through the film, FBI honcho Sidney Poitier forces affable Irish terrorist Richard Gere to open his shirt to see if he is concealing a dangerous weapon. Gere complies. When Diane Venora, playing a KGB officer with a hideous facial deformity, wakes up, she is stunned by the sight of his chest. To her, his chest is a dangerous weapon. Immediately, she develops a crush on him, envisioning a relationship that can almost certainly not be consummated because of the divergent career paths they have chosen. Well, that and the scar. Significantly, The Jackal also features a shot of the remorseless terrorist Bruce Willis spray-painting his van without a shirt, perhaps Willis’s way of reminding Gere: “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
A bare-chested standoff also appears in The Tailor of Panama, in which Geoffrey Rush, totally without rhyme or reason, unveils his abs and pecs. Why? I can only theorize that Rush, himself no spring chicken, felt that Brosnan’s serial shirtlessness was a bit of a dare, that he had no choice either qua man or qua actor but to respond to that taunt by taking off his shirt. (Though, since he also took off his shirt in both Shine and Quills, this theory is probably completely indefensible.)
Dueling chests also play a pivotal element in Six Days, Seven Nights, Ivan Reitman’s 1998 Polynesian-based comedy. Harrison Ford takes off his coveralls in front of Anne Heche and her wan fiancé David Schwimmer as soon as he meets them. To my way of thinking, this is a cross-generational taunt: I got the abs, I get the girl. Later, when Heche visits Ford (who is getting a massage from a tropical heterosexual cutie), you can see her eyes dropping to his chest to check him out. Interestingly, Schwimmer is also briefly seen topless and actually looks pretty darned good. Which is why you have to give Ford a lot of credit; when he decides to get it on, he doesn’t back down from the competition.
By this point, the reader may well be fuming: “What’s your problem? Who cares if a bunch of middle-aged actors suddenly, simultaneously decide to show off their abs and pecs?” This is a classic case of the general public’s undervaluing the work of the film critic. Like the Capitoline geese who honked when invading Gauls approached the sacred precincts of ancient Rome, it is the sworn mission of the film critic to warn the public about dangerous trends before they have a chance to overwhelm the Republic. So, I’ll tell you what the big deal is. The ab-flab phenomenon is spreading. Not only is the pretty much in-shape, over-40 crowd doing it, but the over-50, over-60, and, sometimes, over-70 sets are taking off their Ts as well.
Consider Anthony Hopkins. Yes, a case can be made that in playing the most famous painter of the 20th century, a man frequently photographed in the bare-chested mode, it was perfectly appropriate for Hopkins to repeatedly take off his shirt in Surviving Picasso. Still, it was a sight I could have done without, especially since it would have been even more appropriate for Julianne Moore, cast as one of Picasso’s disposable mistresses, to also appear topless. Which she most certainly did not.
A more infuriating example is Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys. In a pivotal scene in which the four geriatric astronauts report for their NASA physical, we see Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, Donald Sutherland and Eastwood naked from the rear. Not since the bare-assed Brian Dennehy pranced around the locker room in North Dallas Forty have I seen a more disturbing sight. Immediately thereafter, we see Jones, Garner and Sutherland from the front. Jones, the youngest and buffest of the crew, looks fine, as he does in a subsequent locker room scene with Marcia Gay Harden. Except for slight love handles, he still looks like the baddest motherfucker in the valley. Frankly, I would love to look that great when I am his age. On the other hand, Garner and Sutherland look terrible. Especially Garner. Here I take issue with director Eastwood. Call me old-fashioned, call me a curmudgeon, but I don’t think forcing actors as post-studly as James Garner and Donald Sutherland to pose nude is appropriate. I’m not even sure it’s legal. It’s certainly not nice. Forcing a man as old as James Garner to pose in the altogether borders on senior abuse.
Curiously, Space Cowboys contains no shot in which Eastwood himself is fully seen without his shirt. Why? Because Eastwood had already made his definitive shirtless statement a few years earlier. Less gifted film critics than I generally believe that the senior shirtless phenomenon is a throwback to the days of Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quinn and Charlton Heston, all of whom continued to bare their chests on-screen long after it was considered appealing. A small minority of critics maintains that pre-geriatric chest-baring is homage to Sean Connery, who turned up shirtless and puffy in his 1983 Bond swan song, Never Say Never Again. Some cite Jack Nicholson’s brief shirtless scene in Wolf as an invitation for other aging thespians to follow suit. If Joltin’ Jack, already pushing 60, could still get away with this stuff, why not everybody else?
These theories, while plausible, are nonetheless wrong. It was Clint Eastwood who inaugurated our modern era of middle-aged shirtlessness when he shed the chemise in his surprisingly touching 1995 adaptation of Robert James Waller’s god-awful novel The Bridges of Madison County. Quite early in this moving tale of the doomed love affair between a charismatic, globe-trotting photographer and a culturally marooned Iowa-Italian plowgirl, Meryl Streep invites Eastwood to stay for dinner while her family is away at the state fair in some even more forlorn region of the Great Plains. Accepting the invitation, Eastwood steps outside to wash up at the old pump. Why outside? Are we supposed to believe that there were no bathrooms in rural Iowa back in the early ’60s? Of course not; we see Streep in a bathtub later in the film. No, the reason Eastwood goes outside is because it gives him an excuse to peel off his shirt and show off his bulging biceps, his preponderant pecs, his taut tummy. He’s well aware that he already has the fish on the hook; now he merely needs to reel her in. Taking off his shirt is the way he closes the deal. The shirtless-wonder gambit works like a charm. Gazing longingly from the second-story window, Streep not only takes it all in, but actually goes back for a second look.
Clint Eastwood was already a mature 65 when Bridges was released, yet he still felt confident enough to primp the pecs without fear of being ridiculed. More important, by showing off his physical gifts at such an advanced age, Eastwood established a disturbing precedent that has encouraged every other middle-aged actor to follow in his shirtsteps. I think any levelheaded reader can see where this is leading. Nobody minds if Bruce Willis takes off his shirt now and then. Nobody’s going to get upset if Harrison Ford or Kevin Costner puts on an occasional “Crocodile” Dundee impersonation. But Donald Sutherland? Anthony Hopkins? James Garner? It’s like watching grandpa Rollerblade. And who’s next? Joe Pesci? James Caan? Rod Steiger? Or, God forbid, Woody Allen?
Clearly, a case can be made that because I am a paunchy, middle-aged man with no upper-body strength to speak of, this article is merely sour grapes, the demented ramblings of a disintegrating sourpuss who is pissed off that his chest can’t compare in size, shape or overall muscle tone to those of Costner, Willis and Ford. Yet let me say in my defense that I most assuredly am not jealous of the pecs James Garner and Donald Sutherland display in Space Cowboys, and would not trade my chest for Richard Gere’s puny scaffolding. The face is a different story.
No story about middle-aged male upper-body vanity would be complete without mentioning Sylvester Stallone. Tellingly, the customarily vain Stallone does not take off his shirt in last year’s Driven, generously forgoing a golden opportunity to upstage his costar Kip Pardue. However, Stallone does briefly appear in a sweaty athletic shirt in Get Carter, a woeful remake of Mike Hodges’s 1970 film noir classic. Having scrutinized 35 movies in which Sly’s contemporaries part with their shirts, I found it a great relief to see a movie in which a guy showing off his shoulders finally had some shoulders worth showing off. Rippling, taut, enormous, those granite-like Rambo-era pecs and biceps still say it all. Built like the proverbial brick shithouse, Stallone doesn’t need to primp and preen in front of a mirror to get his message across. All he has to do is stand there and let the camera do its work. As a famous man once said, when you get to the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.
In a future issue, we will get to Arnold.
Joe Queenan wrote about movie accents that don’t ring a bell in the December/January issue of Movieline.