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Once upon a time, Hollywood believed that men and women could be powerful

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In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Sexism remains alive and well in Hollywood, as Cate Blanchett pointedly noted while accepting her Oscar for Blue Jasmine recently. When people bemoan the gender imbalance, they tend to focus, as Blanchett did, on the need for more movies that concern female characters. A quicker way to convey the same idea is the frequently employed phrase “strong female characters.” Rarely mentioned, however, and equally important, is the converse: We also need more weak male characters—or, at the very least, guys who aren’t constantly asserting their masculinity. The industry seems afraid to emasculate its male stars, and it’s hard for their female co-stars to appear genuinely strong when they almost never get the opportunity to be more formidable and in control than the fellas. Ideally, in a movie with both a male and female protagonist, the balance of power would be shifting constantly; in practice, even a movie like Gravity, in which Sandra Bullock is front and center, sees her character require the imaginary presence of calm, collected George Clooney to solve her problems.


Oddly enough, this is a relatively recent phenomenon that arose in direct response to ’70s second-wave feminism. Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, not only were there many more movies for and about women, there were also major male stars confident enough to let themselves look plenty vulnerable. For an extreme example, take a look at an early scene from Preston Sturges’ 1941 masterpiece The Lady Eve, in which Henry Fonda plays a herpetologist (specializing in snakes) who becomes romantically involved with a con woman played by Barbara Stanwyck. The two characters have only recently met, and Fonda’s Charles doesn’t yet know that Stanwyck’s Jean is after his inherited fortune, nor does she know that she’s in love with him. Those complications come later. This is the initial seduction, which plays out in a way that’s all but unimaginable from today’s perspective. Find me a contemporary male superstar who’ll do what Fonda does here:

A bit of context: By 1941, Henry Fonda had already made Jesse James (playing Frank James to Tyrone Power’s Jesse; he’d also starred in the sequel, Fritz Lang’s The Return Of Frank James), Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along The Mohawk, and The Grapes Of Wrath, for which he’d received his first Oscar nomination. He wasn’t (and never would be) one of the country’s biggest box-office attractions, but he was very much a star on the rise and would likely have made an even bigger splash had the U.S. not entered World War II 10 months after The Lady Eve was released. (Fonda enlisted in 1942, serving in the Navy for three years and then taking some time off after the war ended.) We’re not talking about the ’40s equivalent of Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio—that would be Clark Gable and James Cagney—but he was roughly on the same level as, say, Bradley Cooper is today. (Note: That’s not meant as a direct comparison of talent. I’m strictly talking about fame relative to the amount of time spent in the industry. Calm down.) Point is, he had something to lose, yet he wasn’t worried about tarnishing his image by playing weak.

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As I said earlier, though, the ideal is a balance of power. At the beginning of the scene, as they approach Charles’ cabin, Jean is very much in control, having deliberately manipulated him into inviting her into his room. (The way Stanwyck drums her fingers over her purse—as if they were talons and she were a bird of prey—is magnificent.) Upon entering, though, he notes that one of his snakes has escaped its cage, and Jean instantly turns into a cliché, letting out a terrified shriek before running at top speed to her own cabin, several decks below. When Charles follows her there, apologizing, she has him search her room for snakes, even though, as he points out with amusement, the idea that the snake could have somehow passed them en route and now be lying in wait is laughable. It’s never been entirely clear whether Jean’s reaction is genuine fear or whether it’s just part of her act—probably the former, I think, since they’re now in her cabin and that’s where they were presumably headed to begin with—but either way, it’s not as if The Lady Eve is a stridently proto-feminist message movie. Sturges is just out to get laughs and generate pathos, by whatever means necessary; if he needs Jean to be “girly,” then she is.


All the same, what follows is rather remarkable even by ’40s standards. Jean pulls Charles over to a small easy chair, inviting him to sit beside her, but the seat is too narrow and he immediately falls to the floor. She then wraps her arms around him (saying “hold me tight,” as if it’s not the exact opposite that’s happening), and remains in a dominant position for the rest of the scene, playing with his hair and ears as he practically melts before our eyes. Fonda’s willingness to look subservient here has no modern parallel that I know of—it’s not just that he’s sexually discombobulated (which contemporary males are happy to play, especially in a comedy), but that the traditional gender roles have been completely reversed, with the woman holding the man in her arms, while he remains passive and visually diminished. It’s such an odd arrangement that Sturges, as a gag, includes more dialogue that refers to the traditional setup, having Jean tell Charles “Don’t let me go” even though he’s not embracing her at all. (He does chivalrously pull her dress over her exposed thigh, though, as decorum must be maintained.)

The rest of the movie is a superb battle of wits, in which Charles rejects Jean after learning her true identity and Jean takes on another identity in an attempt to either win or swindle him all over again. Fonda gets plenty of opportunities to be masculine later, and Stanwyck can be plenty feminine. They’re equals, and that’s largely because Fonda was secure enough to let Stanwyck roll right over him for a while, in the interest of a better story. He even plays a fair amount of this lengthy dialogue with his eyes closed, just lying back with a blissful expression on his face while Jean talks of her “practical ideal.” When he does speak, it’s with pronounced gulps and a shaky voice. Would any of today’s stars be willing to appear so fragile in the company of a woman? (The one recent instance that occurs to me is DiCaprio being sexually submissive in The Wolf Of Wall Street, but that’s rather blatant role-playing—not really the same thing.) If we’re ever going to level the playing field, it’s going require a return to the days when men were prepared to truly share the spotlight. Maybe one of these days Clooney could even seem a tiny bit frightened at the prospect of his imminent death.