The key scene in Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, opening this Friday, has Eastwood, playing a character named Walt Kowalski, taking his reluctant teenage protégé, Thao, to the barbershop. Kowalski, who is grizzled, cranky, old, racist, and haunted by his memories of the Korean War, is in a rare good mood in this scene as he tells this kid that he's going to learn "how guys talk to each other," which, at the barbershop, means trading back and forth casually offensive banter.
But Thao, who is introverted and shy, doesn't quite take to the code at first. Imitating Kowalski, he calls the Italian barber some awful racist names, and that won't fly. (Keep in mind, this is after an hour of Eastwood's character muttering and growling epithets from gook to chink Thao's way.) Kowalski makes him go back outside and try again, so he can speak to the barber with a modicum of respect, and then they can properly gab and complain about the hardships of life. Before this scene, Kowalski may have just seemed to be an old racist coot—Dirty Harry gone to seed—but there is a method to the way he approaches the world. He's been around enough to demand respect.
Audiences will be divided on Torino: whether it's a grandly moving humanist tear-jerker or a strangely retro piece of 80's camp depends on what you bring to the table. However, like many recent Eastwood films, it takes apart Clint-the-badass-icon, and shows the sweat and the decisions behind what makes a man—as Eastwood's reported last role, it serves as a final coda to Dirty Harry and the Man with No Name. Taking its cue from Eastwood's career-long subversion of the classic John Wayne ideals of manliness, this week's Reelist looks at other films that ask the question (often receiving Oscar nominations and classic status in the process): What makes a man?
Dir. Howard Hawks (1938)
This zany 1930s classic accomplishes something that few current romantic comedies can get away with—Cary Grant, as the stuffy paleontologist Dr. David Huxley, is the ingenue in this comedy. As madcap heiress Susan Vance, Katharine Hepburn is chasing after Grant, and when they set off to find a leopard, a dog, and a dinosaur bone, screwball madness ensues. While a disappointment upon its release (Hepburn wasn't going to shed her "box office poison" label until The Philadelphia Story two years later), this film reaches hilarious, ridiculous highs that are hard to find in modern cinema.
Dir. Elia Kazan (1954)
Do real men snitch? Do real men throw boxing matches? Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy most famously "coulda been a contender," and in Kazan's reworking of Malcolm Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning series of New York Sun articles, this born loser comes out on top by naming names. While Kazan's reading of the film does appear to be defending his own actions in the McCarthy era, the issues in the film still resonate—what would The Wire's David Simon have to say about Terry Malloy?
Dir. Kimberly Pierce (1999)
"I'm an asshole," Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank, in her first Oscar-winning role) says to his reflection in the mirror. It's a scene where the audience can see the layers of pretending that Swank had to take on for this performance, as she plays a girl playing a boy, determined to live life as a man, even in the brutal, downtrodden world of the Nebraska heartland. While the tension between Teena's desires and the cruel world that he lives in may provide the backbone of the film, it's the way that Teena chooses to act as a man—treating the girls with respect, providing some love and hope in an impoverished nothing of a town—that gives the film its weight and magnitude.
Dir. David Fincher (1999)
As befitting any film of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, Fight Club is obsessed with manliness and how to be a man in a society that is constantly emasculating. In this take, office worker drones and sexy blue collar figments of the imagination take control by anarchy, whether it's beating other men senseless in an underground fight club or commenting on capitalism with organized violence. Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are absolutely iconic in their roles, and ten years later, a film that was "too dangerous" for its time (after all, anarchy in a post-Columbine era wasn't allowed) still has insightful, biting relevance. And people are still trying (and sometimes succeeding) in bringing Palahniuk novels to the big screen, as in this year's Choke.
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (1999)
"Respect the cock." That's Tom Cruise blowing his career wide-open as Frank T.J. Mackey, the author of Seduce and Destroy, and a self-help guru partially based on real-life pick-up artist Ross Jeffries. (Jeffries' creepy expertise was also outlined in Neil Strauss' book on "pick-up communities," The Game. Also profiled in that book? VH1's Mystery, the host of The Pick-up Artist.) In a film filled with brilliant performances, Cruise's empty bravado as an insecure guru is the most memorable part of this epic work; not for nothing did he get an Oscar nomination.