A good man has always been hard to find, but it's never been harder than in today's movies.
While kind, decent and caring men can be found up on the screen, they're usually a little peculiar. There's sweet and shy Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey), who would never do a mean thing -- or get to kiss a girl -- if he didn't get a new life after finding a mask. There's Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) in "Clear and Present Danger," a longtime CIA intelligence analyst so idealistic and naive that he's shocked to discover the agency indulges in deception and dirty tricks. There's good-hearted New York cop Charlie Lang (Nicolas Cage), who insists on splitting a $4 million lottery jackpot with a waitress. And then there's Jack Nicholson's gentle Will Randall, an editor whose standards are a drawback in the vulgar publishing world, who gets bitten in "Wolf."
Most of these good men are defective, however, in a way that suggests a loss in what we used to consider manliness. The major exception is Cage's Charlie Lang. His performance has been compared to those of the young Jimmy Stewart -- to the characters, paragons of decency and manliness that Stewart created. But from the start, director Andrew Bergman throws a ** veil of fantasy over "It Could Happen to You." He thus makes Charlie's goodness all the more acceptable because -- paradoxically -- we don't have to believe it.
Perhaps the single character in which the traits of most of these men are concentrated is Tom Hanks' Forrest Gump, in the movie of the same name, which seems destined to surpass "The Lion King" as the summer's biggest blockbuster. The success of "Forrest Gump" suggests how deep a chord it strikes in audiences. Forrest is pure of heart, generous, loving and faithful. He cannot tell a lie or perform an unkind act. Hanks' Gump has also been compared to the characters that Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper created in some of the great Frank Capra comedies of the '30s and in such heroic film biographies as "Sergeant York" (in which Cooper played a pacifist turned World War I war hero) and "The Spirit of St. Louis" (in which Stewart played Charles Lindbergh, the quiet man with nerves of steel who was the first to make a solo flight across the Atlantic).
There's an important difference, however. The characters in the earlier films were simple and wise men; Forrest Gump is a simpleton, albeit a wise one.
Gump is the latest arrival in a trend that started three summers ago with "Regarding Henry" and "The Doctor." Harrison Ford ("Henry") and William Hurt ("Doctor") portrayed callous men with questionable values who became transformed by trauma into beacons of sensitivity and goodness. Hurt's unfeeling surgeon is redeemed by an encounter with cancer in which the brutal treatment he receives as a patient makes him a more compassionate doctor. Ford's transformation is accomplished by more direct means: he's shot in the head, and the bullet passing through his brain renders him, to quote the poet John Milton, "stupidly good."
Gump doesn't need such intervention: He's born both good and stupid.
There's an even more significant difference between Hanks' Gump, Cooper's John Doe (in "Meet John Doe") and Stewart's Mr. Smith (in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"). John Doe and Mr. Smith were representations of Everyman, whose goodness was credible because audiences in the 1930s believed in the decency of the common man. Gump is an extraordinary man whose goodness is credible only because he is so unusual; audiences today find it hard to believe in the existence of goodness in ordinary men under ordinary circumstances.
The wise fool has been a presence in the human imagination since the earliest myths, making important appearances in such great works as Shakespeare's "King Lear" and Dostoevski's "The Idiot." But there seem to be more of these wise fools around than ever before.
If we can accept popular art forms such as film as honest reflections of how we feel and what we think, these characters tell us that we believe good men are not just hard to find -- but that it's next to impossible. For a man to be as good as Gump, he simply can not be in his right mind.
The Gump character is also defined by another quality -- or, rather, by the absence of one. As his relationship with Jenny -- the love of his life -- tells us, Gump has no sex drive. That is also true of Harrison Ford's Henry and William Hurt's doctor. Like Gump, these men are, in a sense, castrated: They lack the competitiveness and aggression that has traditionally characterized the male of the human species.
There are those who believe that historically male characteristics may not be adaptive in today's world -- at least not in the United States, governed as it increasingly is by the importance of
maintaining political correctness, gender neutrality, cultural diversity and smoke-free environments. All one needs to do is compare the Robin Hood of Kevin Costner with that of Errol Flynn!
Some characters in today's films are defined by traumas (or by accidents of birth) that render them open to express their sensitive, feminine sides, while some of the younger generation's most widely admired male stars -- Keanu Reeves, Christian Slater, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Daniel Day Lewis and Hugh Grant -- have more than a hint of the androgynous in their beauty.
But what is taken away through the front door sometimes sneaks back through a window.
In "The Mask," the sweet-natured and shy Stanley Ipkiss is a lovable sad sack who's too polite to pursue the woman he desires. But when Jim Carrey's Stanley finds an ancient mask and wears it, he's transformed into a smooth talker who can whisk Cameron Diaz's luscious Tina across the dance floor, jiving with her at warp speed and winning her heart. The mask reverses the process of emasculation: It empowers Stanley's id, transforming him into what he really wants to be rather than letting him remain what he fears he should be.
Then there is the remarkable metamorphosis of Jack Nicholson's Will Randall in "Wolf." Director Mike Nichols, who also made "Regarding Henry," reverses the transformation that gentled the hero of the earlier film. Will, a refined editor in a publishing world characterized by vulgarity, is as passive and forgiving with his sneaky, betraying wife as he is with his writers. A bite from a werewolf, however, transmutes this gentle creature into one who can bare his teeth in a lascivious grin.
But what will happen to the now aggressive and sensual Will, along with his similarly transformed soul mate, Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer)?
The film's conclusion tells us that Will and Laura, fitted as they are for the company of wolves, abandon civilization for a forest in which there are no Forrest Gumps. Will's fulfillment as a man is what renders him unable and unwilling to dwell among men.
If there are very few good -- and whole -- men in films today, it's probably because society itself has so little need for them.