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.

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.

Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz

More

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in The Sexes

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In