Is getting beat up a good career move? According to Joe Queenan, every handsome Hollywood actor needs to get his face jacked up in at least one movie if he ever wants to be accepted by male audiences. In this article from the August 1997 issue of Movieline, Queenan examined the benefits of movie stars getting their teeth kicked in.
When the fiercely handsome Ralph Fiennes appears on-screen at the beginning of The English Patient, his face is a hideous collage of burns and lesions, the result of a plane crash in the Sahara. Though the pre-transmogrified visage of this fine British actor is on display throughout most of the film (since the story is told in a series of flashbacks), there are nevertheless long stretches of the movie when Fiennes, approaching death, is seen sporting his hideous scars, rendered yet more stomach-turning by odious tufts of sheeny marsupial fur that seem to have sprung up around his face.
While studying Fiennes’s appalling countenance, it occurred to me that the actor had made a very wise move in his career. Though no one likes to speak about it, there is literally nothing that the moviegoing public enjoys more than seeing a terrific-looking guy get completely jacked up. For reasons that are not entirely clear, but which probably have an awful lot to do with the fact that most male moviegoers don’t look anywhere near as good as Ralph Fiennes, the moviegoing public seldom confers its full blessing on an actor until they have seen him get bludgeoned, lacerated, filleted with razors, burned, flogged, crucified or beheaded.
This is the main reason that male movie stars command higher salaries than their female counterparts: female stars get sexually molested all the time, but when was the last time you saw Goldie Hawn get her teeth kicked in?
I am certainly not arguing that the public only wants to see good-looking guys get their faces smashed in, or even that the public primarily wants to see gorgeous guys get gouged and garroted. The public does not demand that its idols get worked over in every one of their films, or even in most of their films. But if a star is not willing to get that perky puss pounded in at least one film, he can usually resign himself to loitering forever in the penumbra of superstardom. Ask Sir John Gielgud why he never became as big a star as John Wayne and he will almost certainly tell you, “Because I was never willing to get my face bashed in.”
Anyone who doubts the logic of my argument should spend a bit more time at the video store. The record speaks for itself. Jack Nicholson came to the public’s attention by getting smashed across his face in Easy Rider, then achieved megastardom by having had his nose sliced open in Chinatown. Al Pacino got his face hammered by Sterling Hayden in The Godfather. Harrison Ford got the shit beaten out of him in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Tom Cruise got that fantastic face brutalized during the improbable barroom brawl in Far and Away. Kevin Costner got his face and everything else kicked in during Revenge. Ditto Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona. Kurt Russell was beaten senseless, bound, suspended and electrocuted in Tango & Cash. Bruce Willis got thumped good in Pulp Fiction and all three Die Hards. In Black Rain, one of cinema’s most memorable two-fers, Michael Douglas had his face wrapped in a plastic bag by a Japanese thug who would later chop off Andy Garcia’s head. Denzel Washington was horsewhipped in Glory, beaten senseless in Ricochet, and had his face totaled with his own trumpet in Mo’ Better Blues.
Mel Gibson, brutalized in the Mad Max films and the Lethal Weapon series–for a total of six meatgrinding movies–then starred in the self-directed, self-explanatory The Man Without a Face, and later got the mother of all whompings in Braveheart, where even before he gets his innards ripped out he is subjected to a brutal clubbing by a horde of treacherous Brits. More on this later. Finally, in one of the most stomach-turning examples of facial brutality ever filmed, Jeff Bridges had to repeatedly kiss Barbra Streisand in The Mirror Has Two Faces.
As we have seen from a mere random sampling, almost any male star you can name has run the gauntlet of cinematic battering in at least one memorable instance. Then there is Sylvester Stallone. After rocketing to stardom by getting his head handed to him in Rocky, Stallone was then battered senseless in Rocky II, mercilessly thrashed in Rocky III, pummeled into a stupor in Rocky IV, and beaten to a pulp in Rocky V. And that’s not even mentioning all the pulps he got beaten to in films as varied as the three Rambo movies, Tango & Cash and Cliffhanger. Since Stallone conspicuously failed to get his face bashed in during the filming of Rhinestone, Oscar or Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot and all of them tanked at the box office, it is probably safe to say that in Sylvester Stallone Hollywood has finally found a movie star that the public only wants to see getting his eyes gouged out and his teeth knocked loose. And, to his credit, writer/director/producer/star Stallone seems to understand this.
Though I have never seen Stallone or any other of these stars discuss this subject in print, all of them seem to intuitively understand that the public periodically demands the ritual desecration of its most treasured icons. The American public, in this context, is best looked upon as 250 million sick fucks.
Generally speaking, the public would really prefer to see a guy get his face kicked in and his teeth knocked out over and over. But if this is not a possibility, they will sometimes accept a flogging, a crucifixion or a ritual beheading as a substitute, provided the victim seems to be suffering a good deal. Yet, here it is important to draw the distinction between sadistic behavior that the public views as psychologically and even morally acceptable, and torture that is sullied by a disturbing, perhaps even gross, homoerotic undercurrent.
Consider, for example, the hideous torture sequence at the end of Braveheart. Just before he is ripped to pieces, Mel Gibson is asked by the royal magistrate if he would like to take this opportunity to confess to his treason and thus be granted a more merciful death. Gibson immediately makes eye contact with a tiny boy in the crowd. Even in his woozy condition, he can see that the wide-eyed boy, the symbolic stand-in for the moviegoing public, really doesn’t want to get cheated out of a good show. So Gibson agrees to be hung, have his bones broken by being stretched on the rack, have his stomach torn open and his entrails ripped out, and then get beheaded. It’s all very disgusting, but at least it’s disgusting in a traditional, costume drama, boys-will-be-boys, macho way.
Because Gibson’s dismemberment is handled in a fashion the public can view as somehow wholesome, no one has to feel guilty about enjoying it. An entirely different situation prevails in movies where the torture scenes contain a homoerotic subtext. Think back to Tyrone Power getting beaten by George Sanders in Son of Fury. Think of Peter O’Toole getting caned in Lawrence of Arabia while flirty Jose Ferrer gets his rocks off behind a partially closed door a few feet away. Most important of all, think of Brando’s bizarre flogging at the hands of surrogate father Karl Maiden in One-Eyed Jacks. In each of these movies, there is a psychosexual subtext to the punishment because one or both of the participants seems to be enjoying things too much. This kind of stuff makes the public feel a bit creepy. Put it this way: the public knows that it is sick, but it would prefer to think that it is straight.
Hollywood history provides several instances of savvy actors who, understanding the rules, deliberately take on spleen-threatening roles purely to satisfy the public’s dark, primordial, sadomasochistic urges, then move on to parts that allow them to be a bit more debonair. This was the course charted by Humphrey Bogart, who adeptly leaped from playing psychopathic gangsters in The Petrified Forest and The Roaring Twenties to guys who smoke stylishly and wear homburgs in films like The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Sabrina. On a much smaller scale, this is also what happened to Charles Bronson, who started out by getting his face battered into hamburger patties in a number of mostly undistinguished American films until the French decided that he could really act and turned him into a brooding, existentialist antihero in a couple of undistinguished films where he did not need to get his face battered into hamburger patties. As usual, the French got things wrong.
Perhaps most prominent among actors who, cognizant of the public’s secret desire to see them pulverized, used cinematic abuse to vault to major stardom is Marlon Brando. Brando was savagely beaten in The Wild One. Then, in the climactic scene of On the Waterfront, Lee J. Cobb and his nefarious henchmen trash Brando so badly that his face looks like minute steak, with huge gobs of viscous material dangling from his eyes, brows, nose and cheeks, creating the unnerving impression that the actor is sporting a Fu Manchu made entirely out of blood. A less calculating movie star might have said that this was enough carnage for one career. Not Brando. Just to make sure that the public wouldn’t write off these ass-whippings as flukes or phone-in jobs, Brando arranged to get himself bullwhipped in One-Eyed Jacks, and for added safety, he also had his hand broken, sealing a lifelong covenant with the public: I took my whuppings when I was young, so you have no right to complain about how fat, cranky and self-indulgent I get when I am old.
It’s the same story with Clint Eastwood. Having started out as a TV cowboy of minor distinction, Eastwood gained favorable notices for getting his face kicked in by a bunch of ornery cowpokes late in A Fistful of Dollars. In fact, the public liked this–particularly the eye half-closed by a sea of caked blood, a much-admired grace note–so much, they immediately began making Eastwood a cult star. But Eastwood, like Brando before him, wanted to make sure that he had the foundation for late-career Life Achievement awards, so he quickly came back for more in Hang ’em High. In the opening scene of this film, Clint is cornered by a bunch of obnoxious, self-involved vigilantes who rope him like a steer, drag him across a river, beat his face in, and hang him from a tree. After being miraculously rescued, he spends the rest of the movie tracking down this passel of substandard lynchers, periodically exposing the garish rope marks around his neck just to get innocent bystanders cranked up. And before the end of this smorgasbord of physiognomic abuse, he gets his face repeatedly smashed into the ground by Bruce Dern.
Why did Eastwood agree to take so much crap in these films? Because he knew that by sating the public’s sadistic urges early in his career, he could maneuver himself into a position where he would be able to wreak vengeance on his tormentors many years later. And in such lugubrious, rain-soaked films as Bird and The Bridges of Madison County, he has done just that. By cleverly manipulating French critics and their American vassals into proclaiming him an auteur, the punching bag of spaghetti Western days has given it right back to the public in spades. You stick it in my ear, says Clint, and I sure as hell am going to stick it in yours. Incidentally, Eastwood is the only certified auteur ever to costar in a movie with Charlie Sheen.
Anyone who doubts the validity of my theory about the public’s passion for seeing leading men getting fucked over should take another look at Martin Scorsese’s rambunctious remake of Cape Fear. The unsophisticated viewer could easily be forgiven for thinking that Cape Fear is a movie about revenge, sexual repression, class warfare, or glaring inequities in the judicial system. But in reality Cape Fear is a movie about two good-looking guys who get a rush from jacking up other guys’ faces.
Cape Fear is a bonanza for closet sadists because it features not one, but two, leading men getting physiognomically nuked. First, Robert De Niro, previously fucked up royal in Raging Bull, gets the shit beaten out of him by a bunch of goons in Nick Nolte’s employ. But then De Niro turns the tables on his adversary by strangling him, kicking him in the head while he lies bound helplessly on the ground and, just to add a little flourish, spitting revolting cigar fragments into his face while getting in the mood to rape his entire family. Luckily, Juliette Lewis, never to be trusted in situations like this, surprises De Niro by setting his face on fire. The surprisingly resilient De Niro reemerges from the watery depths into which he has plunged to cool himself off, so that he and Nolte can batter each other’s faces with heavy rocks.
The movie seems ready to achieve a highly satisfying apotheosis when Nolte raises a boulder high above De Niro’s head and prepares to smash it wide open. But just then, the boat fragment that De Niro is chained to drifts off into the storm, and we never get to see the blood and guts and fragments of the sinus cavity and caved-in orbital lobes that we’ve all been waiting for. This is a classic case of what is known in the trade as coitus interruptus cinematicus: the audience feels cheated because it doesn’t get to see De Niro’s brains trickling out of his eye sockets. Next time out, Marty should bear in mind the famous adage: If you’re going to start with cannons, you’ve got to finish with dynamite. Otherwise you can end up making interminable, star-less epics about Buddhists in tiny, mountainous Third World countries that nobody but movie stars cares about.
Let me emphasize one point here: I am not arguing that all onscreen beatings are a sign of psychosis on the part of the moviegoing public. Nor am I suggesting that movie stars getting beaten or mutilated is always a bad thing. I was happy to see Eric Roberts get his thumb chopped off in The Pope of Greenwich Village. I have never been upset by the amount of abuse Chuck Norris takes in his films. I, like many other viewers, was more than happy to see Spike Lee get his face smashed in near the end of Mo’ Better Blues. And personally speaking, Jean-Claude Van Damme couldn’t get crucified often enough to suit me.
Nor am I arguing that a good beating or mutilation is always a passport to international stardom. Kyle MacLachlan got beat up pretty bad in Blue Velvet and he’s still scuffling around in the vestibule of stardom. Jeff Daniels got the shit kicked out of him by Ray Liotta in Something Wild, then took a weird detour into comedy where he literally ended up on the shitter. Chuck Norris has been whipped on good for more than two decades, yet he still remains little more than a poor man’s Charles Bronson. As for Mickey Rourke, well, I’m sorry I brought it up.
Since physical abuse does not guarantee a successful career, I would discourage young actors who might be reading this article from deliberately subjecting themselves to on-screen beatings in their upcoming projects. Although it would be nice to see Luke Perry get his teeth knocked out, it cannot be stated with absolute certainty that such activity would make the public any more receptive to his films.The public is cruel, but it is also fickle. As for David Schwimmer: hey, don’t even bother trying to salvage this career with an ass-whipping. The public is cruel, but it is not stupid.
Throughout this essay, I have repeatedly drawn attention to the public’s creepy yen to see great-looking guys get totally jacked up. In doing so, I have perhaps created the impression that I myself am impervious to such dementia. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love to see movie stars get worked over by a two-by-four. I love to see a handsome guy’s head get opened up with a power saw. I love to see a glamour boy go headfirst into the woodchipper. Where I part company with the public is in the choice of people I’d like to see get worked over.
Most Americans, being xenophobic little toads, only want to see homegrown movie stars get their faces smashed in. Perhaps because I studied at the Sorbonne, have read the complete works of Pierre Comeille, and have spent years learning how to pronounce the words “Notre Dame,” I prefer to see French movies stars get jacked up. For as long as I can remember, I have always harbored a secret desire to see Gerard Depardieu get his teeth kicked in. I would also love to Jean-Louis Trintignant get utterly totaled before he retires. Indeed, one of my greatest regrets in life is that I never got to see debonair Yves Montand lying in the gutter getting his head stomped in by malevolent street urchins.
On the other hand, I did get to see Streisand kiss him.
Joe Queenan wrote about dentists in the movies for the July ’97 issue of Movieline.