Friday, January 20, 2012

The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of the Bad-Ass

To a modern movie watcher, the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s seem like the nadir and the end, at the same time, of the cinematic bad-ass. The era of the tough-minded, ass-kicking protagonist in movies reached a high point, and then tapered off almost right away before almost disappearing entirely. I was born in 1966, and so was too young to understand the subtleties and charms of the movie bad-ass until much later. But I’ve often wondered why that sort of character fell out of favor.

I’m talking about actors like Lee Marvin, or James Coburn. Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson. Guys who generally played quiet, intense men of action who faced whatever challenges arose with a sort of stoic directness. You know… the sort of men you secretly wish you could emulate. Their characters didn’t take any guff. They didn’t engage in pettiness or double-speak. Their directness of action overlaid what you couldn’t help but feel was a complicated interior.

They had precedents, actors like Robert Mitchum (in some films), or Bogart, or Gary Cooper. But against the backdrop of the Peace and Love movement of the ‘60’s, this new breed of tough, stoic characters emerged. Was it in direct response to the hippies? Certainly there’s an underlying conservatism in characters like Dirty Harry, or Bronson’s vigilante hero in Death Wish. But could it really be that simple? Many of them also appear to be a response to an encroaching distrust of authority—Steve McQueen in Tom Horn, for instance, is clearly playing a man rebelling against the gradual erosion of his liberties. And Lee Marvin in Point Blank is certainly not on the side of law and order.

I think it has less to do with politics and more to do with the fact that America (and the world) at the time was in the process of devaluing masculine qualities.

I have no bad feelings about the hippy movement of the time, nor do I dislike the surge toward feminism and equal rights that came with it. Those were all things the world needed, desperately. But I can’t help but think we threw the baby out with the bathwater. In our zeal to make amends to the people in our culture we had marginalized, we couldn’t help but dismiss anything that was thought of as purely masculine.

Although the cinematic bad-ass held on for a while in Blaxploitation movies (you don’t get much more bad-ass than Jim Brown in Slaughter or Richard Roundtree in Shaft), in mainstream culture the tough guy died a slow, ignoble death. Guys like Alan Alda in M*A*S*H became the standard-bearers. Women, maybe tired and bored with decades of tough, stoic (and non-communicative!) men grew infatuated with “sensitive” men.

When I was ten or twelve, an even newer type of male hero became the rage—the smirking, wise-cracking rogue. I and all my friends didn’t give a shit about the whiny and annoying Luke Skywalker; we all wanted to be Han Solo. The easy grin, the snappy comebacks, the charm with the ladies. Han Solo spawned Starbuck, on Battlestar Galactica, and Gil Gerard’s take on Buck Rogers. In cop shows, we had Jim Rockford filling that role. The only “old-school” tough guy I can remember at all from that era is Robert Blake as Baretta.

These were the only heroes, male role models, we had when I was growing up. Basically, female fantasies as much as male ones. Like Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, we were a generation of men raised by women… and we sort of lost something.

But I get a sense that popular culture is beginning to miss that stoic, tough-minded male protagonist. You can see a glimmer of it in the way Daniel Craig plays James Bond—a refreshing return to bad-ass form after decades of smirking, wise-cracking Bonds. Liam Neeson in Taken. And, most recently, Timothy Oliphant as Marshall Raylan Givens in Justified.

And it’s not really about being able to kick-ass and chew bubble-gum, by the way. It’s about characters who have such a sense of single-minded purpose that nothing can stop them. They are committed and stoic (there’s that word again) and willing to see it through to the end.
And that’s not such a bad quality to have, is it?


  1. It amuses me that most of the really badass actors now come from England or... France. Luc Besson and company have made a career out of making great films starring badasses.

  2. Excellent post. The feminization of our culture is pretty advanced at this stage. Not sure we can do much about it. Shopping and grooming and protect the children. And that's my weekend.

    Oh well.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

  3. I loved Lee Marvin and James Coburn when I was a kid, and still have a "soft" spot for both actors. Nice one, H.

  4. Lee Marvin was a hero you could believe in. No one today quite captures this.

  5. Nothing makes me roll my eyes with a fucking hero with a fucking bad childhood or a dead girlfriend or dead parents or all of the above. How original. I think as a byproduct of the self-esteem movement and the popularization of psychotherapy, it's an established fact that nobody is "normal" and "happy". That emotional baggage is a part of life.

    To me, it makes the seventies and eighties heroes age very well, culturally speaking. They were guys that came to term with their emotional bullshit, knew who they were and what they wanted. They built a strong identity on the ashes of who they were.

  6. I think this topic is an interesting and a problematic one. But I don't have the energy or time at the moment right now to dig into it.

    But I want to offer up a name. An actor who I think fits in that classic mold. Denzel Washington.

  7. Feminization in this country has resulted in exactly what you point out, Heath. Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and before them, John Wayne, Robert Taylor, Humphrey Bogart...they were men. Today, the leading male actors are boys. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Matthew Broderick, Owen Wilson, I could go on and on. They all started their careers playing students or something and calling grown men "sir".