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Friday, May 24, 2013

Have American Men Lost Their Charm?

Benjamin Schwarz, writing in The Atlantic (5.22.13) has pondered why there are no more any charming leading men on the screen today.  What happened to James Garner,. Clark Gable, and Cary Grant, and why is there but one remaining, classy, alluring, charming star – George Clooney?

It is because charm is not virtue, says Schwarz, and thus eschewed by more impatient and demanding men for whom results not process are important.

The quintessential modern American hero, the eternally jejune and earnest Charles Lindbergh, who became a god when not yet a man, was in every way the antithesis of charm. America’s entire political history has been in some basic way a struggle between Jefferson—self-righteous, humorless, prickly, at once intellectually ardent and woolly—and Hamilton, a man foreign-born, witty, stylish, coolly brilliant, generous, possessed of a rare rapport with and an understanding of women

Charm is lacking, Schwarz goes on, because the market economy (always a culprit) has commercialized relationships, and in their compulsion to close the deal, men have overlooked the importance of simply paying attention to women. Also our society has also become sexually polarized, and being charming is somehow being gay and not a masculine ideal. 

One of the three most important virtues in a man, according to Christopher Hitchens—among the very few charming men I’ve known—is the ability to think like a woman. (The other two are courage, moral and physical, and a sense of the absurd.) Certainly this is one reason many men find charm so alien and alienating. But a man’s ability to think like a woman, and its concomitant—an understanding of and interest in women—is probably rooted not in sexuality but in a sympathetic relationship with his mother or other women who raised him.

Add to that the pervasiveness of the youth culture which got its first charge in the Sixties and is still going strong. Free love was the mantra of the day, and nothing was more charmless that hopping from sleeping bag to sleeping bag for a quickie.

The essence of charm is attentiveness to women – not the effusive dandyish attentiveness hilariously portrayed by Michael Caine in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but an expression of genuine interest and affection.  

Perhaps the most common complaint of women of any age is that men don’t listen to or pay attention to them.  There is enough residual female insecurity or some gene-wired sensitivity to others to make women want to be appreciated, loved, and admired.  Women have had their fill of self-centered airbags, posturing machos, and blind ignoramuses; and respond quickly and easily to a man who, in a non-threatening, but confident way charms them.  The ideal, of course  is to find a man who not only is interested in them, but downright sexy.  Eduardo Noriega, playing Carlos in Transsiberian seduces the Emily Mortimer character because of his charm and his confident sexuality.

I don’t think that charm has disappeared from the screen in younger actors, it has just acquired a virility that it never had.  Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, William Powell, and Fred MacMurray were all charming in their way, but were sexless compared to overtly virile and sexually persuasive men like Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful.  The Diane Lane character cannot resist Martinez and cheats on her husband Richard Gere.

Confidence has been a characteristic of charming men whether the Cary Grant or Olivier Martinez model, and it is that trait, along with attentiveness, which appeals to women and gives them their sexiness.  Women know that not only are these modern charmers interested in them, but want them.  Watching the films of Grant, Gable, or Garner, one is often struck by their antics and not their pursuit.  Today’s charming men have jettisoned playfulness and gotten down to business.

There will always be some deception involved in charm, notes Schwarz.  Men who have charm know they have it, are aware of its power, and are skilled at using it.  There will always be a trace of manipulation in all exercise of charm:

Charm is a social—a civilized—virtue. But its very refinement, the weight it places on self-presentation, means that it is inherently manipulative. All of Grant’s characteristic winning expressions—the double take, the cocked head, the arched eyebrow, the sideways glance—signaled that he was pulling something off.

Women don’t seem to care because they assume that if the charmer is up to no good they can handle it; and if he is the real item – an attentive, sexual man – they see his deceptiveness as an expression of his powerful sexual desire, exactly what they are looking for.

If modern men have given up on charm because they consider it a bourgeois affectation, old-fashioned, and meaningless; they are missing a lot of great opportunities.  Of course you can’t learn to be charming.  A man might be able to acquire some of the trappings (again, see Steve Martin’s burlesque on learning to be suave), but unless he is really interested in women and truly likes them, his charm will be nothing more than an obvious, transparent charade.

A friend of mine once told me that he gave his son only one piece of advice – “A silver tongue and a little bit of charm will get you farther than anything else”.  He was not being cynical, just realistic.  Whether in the sexual arena or the corporate world, everyone likes to be flattered and charmed.  It works wonders.

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