At breakfast, just before going onstage with Diane Lane to talk about oceans in crisis, Jane Fonda answered a question about the intersection of environmental politics and feminism. The veteran actor and advocate observed that women had always gravitated towards working together in the collective interest.
"It's not that we're better than men," she quipped, quoting her friend Gloria Steinem. "It's just that we don't have our masculinity to prove."
Classic Steinem. And it turns out to be apropos, not just in the world of activism, but in movies. Among the dozens of awards contenders that are crowding theatre screens between now and the end of the year, a significant number seem to be grappling with men's roles. When the white male gaze is being challenged as Hollywood's default setting, the very essence of manhood — the postures, attitudes and behaviours that movies have portrayed as "male" for more than a century — is being reappraised. Films that once might have been positioned as celebrations of brotherhood, bonding and bromance instead are examining their hidden costs.
There was a time, after all, when part of the enjoyment of watching a Martin Scorsese film was being seduced by the same codes of honour among thieves he romanticised in films such as Raging Bull and Goodfellas. In his new movie, The Irishman, which began streaming last week on Netflix, Scorsese rep players Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci go through many of the familiar rituals of violence and mayhem. But now they're slowed down, repeated to the point of boredom, leeched of vicarious pleasure. The threats, hair-trigger arguments and ruthless hit jobs that once exuded the thrill of a liberated id feel predictable and pathetic. The film ends with the whimper of an assassin whose inability to communicate through anything but brute force has left him alone and unloved.
The perfect dinner-table debate for cineastes might be whether Scorsese intended The Irishman to be a treatise on "toxic masculinity". Although the phrase is often used to describe bullying, bellicosity and general bad behaviour, it more specifically refers to the damage done to men by social expectations that limit their emotional range to wordless stoicism or explosive aggression.
A chief vector for those values has been the movies, with the cowboys, vigilantes and gangsters who let their guns do the talking. And nowhere are those values more mythologised than in service to fraternity: the sports teams, military squads, crime outfits and other companies of men where brotherly allegiance permits unapologetic emotionalism that would be ridiculed in any other context. Think of the "get out your mankerchief" moments in The Shawshank Redemption, Hoosiers and Saving Private Ryan. As moving and escapist as they can be, they have perpetuated forms of male identity that have been relegated to two archetypes: square-jawed paragon or overcompensating antihero.
The Irishman wants to have it both ways: Scorsese is clearly still fascinated by the impunity and seedy glamour of the mafioso's life. But the visceral set pieces have been toned down and muted, not to mention the shiver-inducing needle drops that produce that Scorsese-esque blend of queasy admiration. Still, the cipher-like protagonist, De Niro's lonely, psychologically damaged Frank Sheeran, would no doubt find common cause with Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck in Joker, who is driven to a life of crime by being chronically taunted, dismissed and abused. And they would both recognise the isolation and longing for connection expressed by Brad Pitt in Ad Astra, in which he plays an ultracompetent astronaut not as a fearless interstellar explorer, but as a broken man coping with deep-seated abandonment issues.
"I think we need to redefine it," Pitt told me in September, referring to the remote, shut-down image of masculinity he grew up with alongside his dad, whom he compared to the Marlboro Man. And, in several new movies, we can see it being redefined almost in real time: in Waves, Sterling K. Brown's controlling, competitive character learns an agonising lesson in the wages of fathers passing down poisonous ideas about manhood to their sons; in the crime drama Queen & Slim, Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith flip the script on gender roles, with Turner-Smith's character emerging as the alpha partner who towers over her male counterpart, literally and figuratively.
Happily, the current crop of movies also includes glimpses of manhood that nudge the paradigm more playfully. In some ways, Ford v Ferrari offers a bracing, look-at-the-bright-side complement to The Irishman. Both films reveal their protagonists' World War II experiences as being pivotal to their fiercest loyalties. Ford v Ferrari — about the 1966 Le Mans race and the invention of the Ford GT40 — views the generation through a more forgiving, optimistic lens.
Ford v Ferrari might look like just another ode to macho strutting and cars that go vroom.
But it's a touching chronicle of camaraderie, competition and common enterprise that detoxifies masculinity to its purest, most humane elements.
In one of the film's most clever scenes, lead actors Matt Damon and Christian Bale engage in a hilariously uncool fight that intentionally undermines their invincible personae in the Bourne and Dark Knight films. As they scrabble and scrap, they look angry, then ridiculous, then sheepish, then over it. Like real men.
The biggest referendum on masculinity at the movies this year may turn out to be A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, in which Tom Hanks plays children's TV host Fred Rogers. Warm, open and spiritually attuned, Rogers is the antithesis of lawlessness, rampant ego and empty swagger, a model of manhood at its most empathic, compassionate and emotionally secure.
Can Mister Rogers go toe-to-toe with Arthur Fleck? Can kindness be as captivating onscreen as kicking ass?
If A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood becomes a hit, it will bode well for smart, soundly crafted movies aimed squarely at the mainstream. But it will also confirm that, in movies as in life, it's amazing what you can do when you don't have your masculinity to prove.