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.

In the old days, the phrase a charming man was often code for “a gay man,” and undoubtedly the undying but unfounded speculation about Grant’s bisexuality is based on the suspicion that no man so charming could possibly be heterosexual. There is no getting around the basic womanliness of charm. One of the three most important virtues in a man, according to Christopher Hitchens—among the very few charming men I’ve known—is the ability to think like a woman. (The other two are courage, moral and physical, and a sense of the absurd.) Certainly this is one reason many men find charm so alien and alienating. But a man’s ability to think like a woman, and its concomitant—an understanding of and interest in women—is probably rooted not in sexuality but in a sympathetic relationship with his mother or other women who raised him. That today foppishness, campiness, and a proclivity to dish get conflated with male charm indicates, as does the notion of Vaughn as a contemporary Garner, the culture’s incomprehension of that quality.

In fact, it’s precisely his uncomplicated heterosexuality that makes Garner such an important American man. Garner—who possessed a casual wit, a good-natured ease, a liking for and appreciation of women, and a quizzical detachment—is unambiguously straight. But unlike Clooney—who, though raised in Kentucky and Ohio, has never been, thanks to his Aunt Rosemary, provincial—Garner, the hardscrabble Oklahoman, is at once worldly and untainted by sophistication. (Gable’s roots were similarly rustic, but he could never overcome the talk about what it took to vault himself out of his circumstances—a stint as a long-lashed rent boy.) Strikingly unlike Clooney, Garner is impossible to imagine comfortable in black tie—and, really, how many men are?

Cliché has it that a charming leading man appeals equally to both men and women (although for different reasons). That’s immensely difficult to manage. Even if American men could appreciate charm, they still wouldn’t trust it—and it’s impossible to really like a man whom you can’t trust with your wife. But as an actor, Garner had a magical ability to convey his offscreen persona of red-blooded, hardworking, plain, and thorough decency, even as his charming onscreen persona didn’t fully gibe with it. He thereby made a light touch and an ironic stance qualities that men found not just appealing but worthy.

That capacity to simultaneously inhabit a role and remain outside it epitomizes charm. Garner always played likable rogues, although the accent sometimes fell more strongly on the likable (Maverick, Rockford) and sometimes more on the rogue. In The Great Escape, he was able to turn an ingratiating scrounger and operator (a type familiar to and pretty much universally loathed by mid-century American males, weary veterans of both military life and the corporate office) into a Great Guy, but in The Americanization of Emily (Garner’s own favorite among his movies), he deployed the same charm to pimp for lascivious admirals.

The dearth of charming American leading men seems acute, but only for a brief cultural moment did American movies elevate male charm.

The movies and the most-discerning actors in them showed us charm’s allure—and its menace. For men and for women, encountering a charming man is a moment of unique delight in the pictures, as in life. It prompts a heady mixture of exhilaration and the ease that accompanies the recognition that one is in good hands. The opening 66 minutes of The Third Man hurtles the audience through war-scarred Vienna with the ineffectual and doggedly callow Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a man clearly out of his depth in the chilly cafés with their aged, stone-faced Mittel-European gigolos. But just as we begin to feel intolerably oppressed by the weight of all that bleak Atmosphere, Martins’s eyes, and ours, fall on the Face of Charm—Orson Welles’s Harry Lime, briefly illuminated with one knowing, self-mocking eyebrow raised; and with the ironical lilt of the zither, we are ineffably but unforgettably uplifted. The effect of that glimpse of Welles’s charm is just as Pauline Kael described the effects of Grant’s: “We smile when we see him … It makes us happy just to look at him.” It’s the one joyous scene in the movie, and it’s among the most enchanting in any movie. Our delight intensifies when we meet Welles, who bounds up to Cotten with a theatrical hint of apology (“Hello, old man, how are you?”). He envelops us along with Cotten in his relaxed assurance, his amused, trusting manner. He draws Cotten in as a confidant, even as he maintains his seductive command. It’s the greatest moment of flirtation between heterosexual men in cinema. We feel Cotten’s desire to be taken in hand by Welles, and we half want him to be. Of course, by now we, and Cotten, know that Welles is an evil opportunist who must bend Cotten to his needs. Never mind, because even as Welles charmingly, openly confirms all that, he forever wins us over with his parting words to Cotten: that cuckoo-clock speech, the most-famous lines in the picture (they’re not in the Graham Greene book; Welles wrote them).

Pampered and petted as a child of profligate gifts, Welles throughout his life was a man who knew just how to exploit his immense charm. As a young man in a hurry, the energetically heterosexual Welles exercised a beguiling power on a series of influential gay men (Thornton Wilder and Guthrie McClintic among them), and on stage and in the movies his fellow players and crew were captivated by the abundant evidence of his devotion, even as they knew that his only loyalty was to his self-promotion—a project that was both entwined with and in opposition to his art. Grant and Garner, on the other hand, had to haul themselves out of circumstances in which charm counted for nothing; they came to their charm only in film, and perhaps as a consequence, they, like most men, had a far more troubled relationship with it. In the first two pictures Grant made with Hitchcock—Suspicion, in which he played an amoral bounder apparently intent on murder, and Notorious, in which he played a spy-pimp—he was purely, genuinely charming, even as he established that the line between charmer and sociopath is very fine indeed. These performances, by far his most technically accomplished, are so brilliant and daring not merely because Grant risked upending his carefully built film persona but because he conveyed how those performances were in fact true to that persona.

The genius of Garner and Grant was the way they expressed both their delight in their charm and their own suspicion of charm, and so spoke to men—and to women, who, to survive in this world, have always had to know in their bones the truth of Anita Brookner’s assertion that a true man of charm must be a liar. One could reply that our suspicions should be raised only by the superficial charm that psychiatrists attribute to psychopaths (see Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt). But Grant and Garner knew that charm in all its guises is ultimately, if not merely, superficial—“real charm” is an oxymoron.

Most men’s obliviousness to charm supports the proposition that the quality is not essential, even as that obliviousness makes for a decidedly less pleasant world. Charm is a social—a civilized—virtue. But its very refinement, the weight it places on self-presentation, means that it is inherently manipulative. All of Grant’s characteristic winning expressions—the double take, the cocked head, the arched eyebrow, the sideways glance—signaled that he was pulling something off. The charming man (or woman) always knows that he (or she) is pulling something off, no matter whether that charm is used to put the wallflower at ease, to get the soccer dad to exchange some pleasantries, or to close the sale. The charmer knows that he or she is manipulating—and in the end, it’s impossible not to be at least slightly contemptuous of the object of one’s manipulation. Welles, a real charmer, insouciantly and cynically took all this for granted, which made his portrayals of charm the most offhand and naturalistic, and also the most sinister. Grant, the greatest film actor, could methodically show charm’s double face, an exquisite balancing act that simultaneously subverted and enormously enriched his appeal. But Garner—Garner could amble up to the American Man, put an arm around his shoulders with the sort of good-natured nonchalance that the best salesman attempts for a lifetime but can never achieve, squint in an open but jaded way while looking him straight in the eye, grin in that crooked, easy, worldly-wise manner, and, well, confide to him: Charm is charming. Just don’t be charmed by it.

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