Testosterone Tempered with Vulnerability in Oscar Contenders

The crustiest U.S. Marshall ever to step foot in the Indian Nations is rounded up to aid a willful 14-year-old girl seeking to hunt down and punish her father’s killer. A repressed and stammering soon-to-be king is rescued by an eccentric speech therapist who refuses to bow down to the royal and becomes his BFF. And in the virtual wild west of social networking, a Harvard misfit and his geek cohorts execute an online scheme for profiling and hooking up with cool chicks – an idea “borrowed” from hulking twin brothers on the Crimson’s crew team.

The bonding, wrangling and retribution underlying this year’s Oscar contenders – The King’s Speech, True Grit and The Social Network – all strike a familial chord with male film goers who grow tired of a bucket of popcorn with compassionate mothers, wedding tales and child loss grief – common fodder of book club faves spun into celluloid. While I shudder to use the phrase dick flick – which is arguably as sexist and minimizing as chick flick – it just might fit the bill, especially when you toss in an Irish American fighter saga with a Rocky-rise and feckless half brother in need of extreme rehab.

Christian Bale already took the Golden Globe for his stunning performance as the weaker half of the Mickey Ward story, while bets are on Colin Firth over the ripped Wahlberg in the best actor title. As George VI, Firth also displayed how containing one’s temper yields tremendous results, and was crowned with the gold for his role.

Manly, yes, these yarns, but I like them too, and with the exception of violence, torture, rattlesnakes lurking in caves, severed limbs and blatant child neglect, the testosterone pulsating through the veins of these films doesn’t make them any less entertaining, or even enjoyable, for most women. It is the vulnerability revealed in the exceptional performances that strikes a chord.

We want our men to open up and get it out, as Firth’s “Bertie” eventually does with the gentle nudging of his loving wife and the tactical prodding of Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue. We fantasize about our daughters having the uncanny resources exhibited by Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross when confronted with the worse elements roaming the planet – those that threaten to bring physical harm to the innocent. She isn’t dependent on males but finds it works better to interact and do business with them on her rough and tumble journey.

And while the domain of billionaire achievers in the entrepreneurial tech field has largely existed as an exclusive man’s club, we look for inroads while tapping the benefits of social networks to further our professional and personal lives. We may not come to love the founder of Facebook but we are grateful to have reconnected with our friends from junior high.

What allows these films to cross the genders in appeal is they don’t smack of the usual gratuitous violence that makes past Coen brother films too gross for comfort, the Fargo credo of a mucked kidnapping and slaughter of a North Dakota housewife – senseless murder deconstructed as black humor deemed as genius. In 1991, when Silence of the Lambs was crowned best picture, many of my women friends threw their hands up in total disgust. Sure, the suspense in the psychological thriller mounted to an edge-of-your-seat crescendo, but it didn’t negate the fact the basic plot surrounded the serial torture and killing of women.

In the Coens’ remake of True Grit, the female protagonist is empowered on cartoonist proportions, yet empowered nonetheless, and like Clarice Starling, she perseveres when finally confronted with the devil in the flesh. We are able to root for her throughout the film without being exposed to horrific scenes that haunt us when we are alone and hear things going bump in the night. This is what separates Grit from the maiming scenes of Quentin Terantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction or the gut wrenching bloodshed in Oliver Stone’s Platoon or Natural Born Killers.

In terms of The King’s Speech, it is the tender, feminine side of these men that eventually comes to define their lifelong friendship, the stripping of the egos and the trust that allows us to be vulnerable enough to grow and to be loved. While the performances of the British cast are perhaps the most Oscar worthy of any of the contenders, I wonder if the subtleties of the film’s message are powerful enough to win over the academy – one that has embraced past winners: The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Unforgiven, Bravehart, The Departed and Gladiator in recent years.

If Speech walks away empty handed (Firth was the only winner at the Globes), I for one will be left asking if the film could have benefited by a riveting dueling scene among the princes, a raping or beating of a chambermaid or visuals depicting the starvation the prince claimed to have suffered under the watch of a sadistic nanny.

Should Grit or Social Network, other good films, take the big prize, it will validate something I have felt for years, that vulnerability in men is a much harder thing to reward than corruption and violence, at least in Hollywood. It’s a shame because in the end, discipline and diplomacy over cheating, scheming and brawn will reign supreme in ensuring the survival of the species.

Images: True Grit; KingSpeech; The Social Network; The fighter

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.