Eric Shapiro on six positive male pop culture role models.
Film history is loaded with rotten men: criminals, hustlers, cheats, scoundrels, liars, wimps, maniacs, idiots, overgrown children.
I’m not looking down in judgment. Good characters are flawed. The bigger the flaws, the better the character. (See: the complete works of William Shakespeare.) That said, there’s nothing more touching than a character who, whatever his flaws, reaches for the good.
Now, such characters call for a delicate balance. If the storytellers pile on too much goodness, the result can seem obnoxious and/or righteous. But goodness depicted within the context of flawed, vulnerable humanity can not only move us, but sharpen our very sense of what it means to be human.
Or in the current context, what it means to be a man.
Following is a list of six movie characters from whom I learned valuable principles of good manhood. None of them are perfect, and some of them leave much to be desired, but without question, all of them embody what it means to be a “good guy.” Note: This isn’t a “top six,” there’s no inner ranking, and the list spans the time-frame of my own life, which began in 1978. Nonetheless, these are guys I hope to someday share with my son, when he’s old enough to appreciate and understand… (Final note: Some spoilers do lie ahead, but mostly for those who’ve just relocated from caves.)
1. John McClaine in Die Hard (played by Bruce Willis, 1988)
Before we discuss this, a brief meditation: Cleanse the sequels from your mind. He progressively becomes a cartoon character in them. Act as though those things never existed. Then recall that…yes!…he was a three-dimensional character in the first one.
The key to understanding John McClane’s goodness is that he did not have to be proactive. He was a stray particle in that building; he could have found a broom closet to hide out in for the night. But that wasn’t John McClane’s nature. He may have been up against a dozen terrorists, but he decided – hey, what the hell? – I’m gonna take ’em all out. Save my wife. Save her coworkers. Save the motherfuckin’ day.
Key Good Man Values: Be proactive. Solve the problem. Deal with the fact that sometimes the buck stops with you, and nobody else is gonna swoop in and clean up the mess.
Bonus Good Man Value: Sometimes, somehow, a blood-covered T-shirt is really sexy.
Due respect to the late, great John Candy – but I kind of believe that on a metaphysical level, John Candy existed on Earth to play this character. Every character before Del Griffith was preparation. Every character after walked within a great big shadow. This was John Candy distilled to his essence.
Sure, Del Griffith talks too much. He’s annoying. He even steals his only friend’s credit card! But he knows he talks too much, knows he’s annoying. Pays the money back. And more importantly: He’s hell-bent on getting Neal Page (Steve Martin) home in time for Thanksgiving. He shakes the trees. He plays the angles. He devotes every shred of his loudmouth-Buddha essence to taking good care of his pal. And even more importantly – per the theme of the movie – Del Griffith sees the goodness in Neal Page that Page himself doesn’t entirely know is there. Steve Martin plays the judgmental, uptight, upper-middle-class jerk to a T, front-loading his arrogance while concealing his gentle heart. Griffith hones in on that heart, however, and rips it up through the surface like the unsubtle walrus he is.
Key Good Man Values: Be your brother’s keeper. Make it home for the holidays. Seek the goodness in everyone you meet.
Bonus Good Man Value: Del says it himself, “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings.” So, yeah, don’t ever do that.
This one’s extremely important.
Reason being, Garrett Breedlove does something a lot of men do (and something I’ve been guilty of countless times): He works too hard to always be on. He reaches for charm when substance will do just fine. He flirts and he grins and he says scandalous things (and he’s played by Jack Nicholson, so the grin’s a thousand miles wide, and will probably swallow you whole).
It takes Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) to guide his feet to the ground. He’s spent his whole life as a playboy, trading on his fame as an astronaut to lure women into bed, but Aurora unearths the noble heart within. And when her daughter becomes ill and – despite himself; despite his habits, his instincts, and his fears – Garrett shows up to be by her side, it’s so touching I could buy stock in Kleenex.
Key Good Man Values: Give up the “charm show” every once in a while. Calm down and be yourself. Because that’s who your loved ones need the most.
Bonus Good Man Value: Funerals are a drag. Sometimes you gotta be original, take a break from the funeral, and go show a sad kid your pool.
It was kind of a shock, at the end of the ironic ’90s, to see a character like this in a major film. Officer Kurring has zero pretense. At first glance, he might even seem a little slow. Silly, even. But the first time I saw this character on celluloid, something deep inside me moved. His decency was served up so straight, I was close to weeping before he even said a word. The mustache, the haircut, the way he carries himself: John C. Reilly created a portrait of goodness so complete and lived-in you could spot it from across the sea.
It occurs to me now, contemplating this character, that Jim Kurring actually offers something one degree finer than goodness: He offers innocence. It’s an ironic trait to find in a cop, but Kurring’s an anomaly in his world. Amidst all the grimness – the poverty, the dead bodies, the gunfire, the pissing rain – he bears a humanity so vast that no hardship could ever dampen it. And when Jim Kurring screws up on the job, he doesn’t do so like other movie cops. He doesn’t beat somebody too hard in an interrogation room, or kill too many pedestrians during a car chase. No: Office Kurring loses his gun. He makes a fool of himself. And upon recalling the mistake later on, he says he’s scared, and starts to cry.
It’s as though the weapon ran away, having had no place within the grip of such an innocent man.
Key Good Man Values: Keep your innocence intact. Wear your heart on the outside. Forgive all people. Don’t sweat it when you lose your gun.
Bonus Good Man Value: After you say your morning prayers, there’s no shame in clapping your hands together, just to psych yourself up.
Before Jeff Bridges gave us The Dude in The Big Lebowski, thus branding himself as a lovable bearish hippie type, he sported a different, more mysterious brand. In his earlier films, he was tough to pin down. Masculine but cat-like, spirited but moody, speaking in a voice at once airy and thick. When Fearless came along, I felt that at last his soul was visible. Max Klein is a shaman: One who emerges from trauma not destroyed, but liberated.
Klein survives a plane crash early on in the film, and comes away feeling invincible. From a psychiatric standpoint, it’s clear he’s in the grip of mania: His mind has chased away the trauma by telling him to live onward minus fear. So he behaves irresponsibly: He eats strawberries even though he’s allergic. He walks into heavy traffic. He dances on rooftops high above San Francisco.
These things, of course, do not make Max Klein a good man.
Klein’s goodness is not exactly of the moral sort. In his traumatized state, while acting out, he alienates his wife and kid…and almost everyone else around him. But what’s inspiring about Klein is that he’s compelled, having survived the crash, to live out his life without being a coward. Bare reality becomes a narcotic for him. He’s after pure truth. An unusual good man, Max doesn’t wear his heart on the outside; he wears his soul on the outside.
And in the end, indeed, he does prove good in the moral sense. He aids his fellow survivor, Carla (Rosie Perez), in overcoming her own trauma. He begins to realize you can’t live life in the sky, so he gathers his mind and seeks the ground. And while doing so, he reaches out to his wife, asking her at last if she will save him.
Key Good Man Values: Live beyond your fears. Walk with ease through this life. Know you’re safe in the hands of something greater.
Bonus Good Man Value: Just don’t let the above values kill you.
I saw this movie in the theater with my parents. Before then, I had only known Al Pacino as the dark spirit lurking gloomily through the Godfather films. In fact, the Christmas before, we’d gone to see the third Godfather film, wherein he fully embodied the soul-rotted captain of “industry,” Michael Corleone. So it came as a shock to my 13-year-old mind to see Pacino in Frankie and Johnny, oozing humor, charm, and ferocious energy – and embodying a modest short order cook just as fully as he’d embodied a wealthy mob lord. I almost didn’t recognize the man.
The range is worth noting, because Johnny taught me two lessons in that theater, one of which was funny and playful, and the other of which was on the heavy side…
The playful one: Johnny taught me that it’s okay to make your feelings known to a girl you like, so long as you don’t do so in a needy or humorless way. When he tells Frankie (Michelle Pfeiffer) early on, “I have a crush on you,” it’s effective because he’s telegraphing his own craziness in the process. He’s essentially saying, through his wide, gleaming eyes, “I know I’m not supposed to just say it like that, but what do you want? I can’t control myself.”
And believe me, that actually works just fine, if you can manage the right note (see: my relationship, now in its sixteenth year).
The heavy one: In one of the sweetest, warmest, and most touching instances of movie-male-goodness I’ve ever seen, Johnny learns, upon growing closer to Frankie, that her last boyfriend physically abused her. That’s why she was trigger-shy with Johnny. So Pacino – I mean, “Johnny” – meets the moment with sheer grace. Embraces her. Speaks gently. Tells her he would never, ever hurt her.
If only every man could be so good.
Thirteen years old, I sat there looking up at the screen, thinking to myself, That right there’s a really good guy.
Key Good Man Values: Tell her you like her. Just be cool about it. Then later on, tell her you love her. And be gentle, always, for the rest of your life.
Bonus Good Man Value: Skip the elevator on the first date. Run up the stairs and show the girl you mean it.
Last thought: Impassioned artists wish to save the world. Nonetheless, works of art – especially ones found in pop culture – aren’t ever credited with doing so. We look back through human history, and regardless of all the landmarks and game-changers and masterpieces we find in the creative realm, no work bears a stamp that reads, “This one saved the world.”
Meanwhile, however, we continue to feel on some level that art does save us.
The disparity between these two perceptions is owed to the fact that art enhances our species one life at a time, in ways that are quiet, hidden, and subtly vibrating.
It ignites me to contemplate such power. And it inspires me to witness all the good it brings our way.