The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men

Few possess it, and few want to. Explaining men's ambivalent relationship with an amoral virtue.
Thomas Allen

If one were to recast The Rockford Files, as Universal Pictures is intending to do, would the Frat Pack actor Vince Vaughn seem the wisest choice to play Jim Rockford, the character James Garner inhabited with such sly intelligence and bruised suavity? Universal apparently thinks so.

One can say many things about the talents of Vaughn, and were Universal embarking on a bit of polyester parody—remaking, say, Tony Rome, among the least of the neo-noirs—Vaughn’s gift for sending up low pop would be just so. But to aim low in this case is to miss the deceptive grace that Garner brought to the original, and prompts a bigger question: Whatever happened to male charm—not just our appreciation of it, or our idea of it, but the thing itself?

Yes, yes, George Clooney—let’s get him out of the way. For nearly 20 years, any effort to link men and charm has inevitably led to Clooney. Ask women or men to name a living, publicly recognized charming man, and 10 out of 10 will say Clooney. That there exists only one choice—and an aging one—proves that we live in a culture all but devoid of male charm.

Mention Clooney, and the subject turns next to whether (or to what extent) he’s the modern version of that touchstone of male charm, Cary Grant. Significantly, Grant came to his charm only when he came, rather late, to his adulthood. An abandoned child and a teenage acrobat, he spent his first six years in Hollywood playing pomaded pretty boys. In nearly 30 stilted movies—close to half of all the pictures he would ever make—his acting was tentative, his personality unformed, his smile weak, his manner ingratiating, and his delivery creaky. See how woodenly he responds to Mae West’s most famous (and most misquoted) line, in She Done Him Wrong: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” But in 1937 he made the screwball comedy The Awful Truth, and all at once the persona of Cary Grant gloriously burgeoned. Out of nowhere he had assimilated his offhand wit, his playful knowingness, and, in a neat trick that allowed him to be simultaneously cool and warm, his arch mindfulness of the audience he was letting in on the joke.

Grant had developed a new way to interact with a woman onscreen: he treated his leading lady as both a sexually attractive female and an idiosyncratic personality, an approach that often required little more than just listening to her—a tactic that had previously been as ignored in the pictures as it remains, among men, in real life. His knowing but inconspicuously generous style let the actress’s performance flourish, making his co-star simultaneously regal and hilarious.

Only the self-aware can have charm: it’s bound up with a sensibility that at best approaches wisdom, and at worst goes well beyond cynicism.

In short, Grant suddenly and fully developed charm, a quality that is tantalizing because it simultaneously demands detachment and engagement. Only the self-aware can have charm: It’s bound up with a sensibility that at best approaches wisdom, or at least worldliness, and at worst goes well beyond cynicism. It can’t exist in the undeveloped personality. It’s an attribute foreign to many men because most are, for better and for worse, childlike. These days, it’s far more common among men over 70—probably owing to the era in which they reached maturity rather than to the mere fact of their advanced years. What used to be called good breeding is necessary (but not sufficient) for charm: no one can be charming who doesn’t draw out the overlooked, who doesn’t shift the spotlight onto others—who doesn’t, that is, possess those long-forgotten qualities of politesse and civilité. A great hostess perforce has charm (while legendary hostesses are legion—Elizabeth Montagu, Madame Geoffrin, Viscountess Melbourne, Countess Greffulhe—I can’t think of a single legendary host), but today this social virtue goes increasingly unrecognized. Still, charm is hardly selfless. All of these acts can be performed only by one at ease with himself yet also intensely conscious of himself and of his effect on others. And although it’s bound up with considerateness, it really has nothing to do with, and is in fact in some essential ways opposed to, goodness. Another word for the lightness of touch that charm requires in humor, conversation, and all other aspects of social relations is subtlety, which carries both admirable and dangerous connotations. Charm’s requisite sense of irony is also the requisite for social cruelty (see, for example, the excruciating interrogations to which Grant subjects that virtuoso stooge Ralph Bellamy in both The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday).

Male charm is all but absent from the screen because it’s all but absent from our lives. Most men hold charm in vague suspicion: few cultivate it; still fewer respond to it; hardly any know whether they have it; and almost none can even identify it. Women commonly complain about the difficulty in gaining any conversational purchase when, say, trying to engage the fathers of their children’s classmates or the husbands of their tennis partners. The woman will grab from her bag of conversational gambits—she’ll allude to some quotidian absurdity or try to form a mock alliance in defiance of some teacher’s or soccer coach’s irksome requirement. But the man doesn’t enter into the give-and-take. The next time they meet, it’s as though they’ve never talked before; the man invariably fails to pick up the ball, and any reference the woman might make to a prior remark or observation falls to the ground. Men don’t indulge in the easy shared confidences and nonsexual flirtations that lubricate social exchange among women. Even in the most casual conversation, men are too often self-absorbed or mono-focused or—more commonly—guarded, distracted, and disengaged to an almost Aspergerian degree. (Garner’s futile efforts to engage the unengageable—be they flinty triggermen from Detroit or by-the-book feds—is a running gag in Rockford.) Men consistently fail to meet the sort of obvious standards set by guides to etiquette and to the art of conversation common 50 years ago.

This isn’t to attribute the dearth of charm to some cultural and social declension, although clearly charm—with its emotional, even aesthetic, detachment—could hardly have retained its social sway after that most overwrought of decades, the 1960s. Any culture that celebrates youth necessarily provides stony soil for charm, which is by definition a quality reserved for adults: the young can be charming, which is an inadvertent attribute; they cannot have charm.

Most men hold charm in vague suspicion: few cultivate it; still fewer respond to it; hardly any know whether they have it; and almost none can identify it.

Of course, all of these social and cultural shifts, which are themselves inimical to charm, are rooted in a more basic change—the ever-widening infection of social relations by market values. That development, whether good or ill, indisputably makes for blunter and more crudely utilitarian manners. After all, in a way, charm is just small talk.

More important, charm, for all its appeal, isn’t a moral virtue—it’s an amoral one. Americans, especially American men, have always been, for some very good reasons, ambivalent about charm. It’s an attribute alien to many men because they are ingenuous, a quality that can itself be either admirable or unlovely. Many American military men deserve our esteem; the many I have known indeed do, but I have never met one with an ounce of charm. Indeed, what American hero has possessed it? 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. And just as Hamilton’s political vision triumphed, so did Jefferson’s political style. To be sure, we’ve always had sports heroes—Sonny Jurgensen, John McEnroe, Jim McMahon, Arnold Palmer—whose sly irony and authority-defining insouciance lends them the adolescent glamour of Peck’s Bad Boy, a posture that, while sometimes winning, can be mislabeled as charm. (Its limits are clear in the persona of a non-sportsman exemplar, Bruce Willis.) Indeed, sports—youngsters’ games pursued in earnest—essentially lack charm. The seriousness with which American men take sports both confirms and exacerbates their suspicion of charm.

The movies and the most-discerning actors in them showed us charm’s allure—and its menace.

So there’s nothing new about the troubled relationship between men and charm. The dearth of charming American leading men seems acute now, but only for a brief cultural moment, from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, did American movies elevate male charm—not coincidentally, during a time when middle-class women made up the pictures’ largest audience. Even then the roster of charming lead actors was pretty much limited to Grant (foreign-born and -raised, and entirely self-invented—a man without a country), Gable (endearing, although his charm was always at war with his compulsion to establish his masculinity), William Powell (a bit asexual), and—strange but true—the perennially underrated Fred MacMurray. As for most other male stars, even of romantic comedies, which was the only genre that celebrated charm, the distinction that separates youth from age applies: Jimmy Stewart in his fumbling ineffectuality and Gary Cooper in his galumphing diffidence could be charming—the modifier boyishly naturally appends itself—but they didn’t have charm.

Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz

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His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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