By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
BY THE TIME BRITISH CINEMA STARTED TO PRODUCE ITS OWN homegrown male sex symbols in the mid-'50s, young actors had imbibed all the clichés about upstart, unzippered American male sexuality, but none so thoroughly as Stanley Baker, who anglicized that kind of masculinity and whose short but immensely varied career bridged two eras in British cinema: before sex, and after. Typically for British cinema, Baker became a sex symbol by accident. In 1953's The Cruel Sea, he was gone by the 20th minute, because the filmmakers, busy with Jack Hawkins and the decidedly Grant-y Denholm Elliott, didn't know what they had. British audiences knew better, though, and Baker was the country's biggest star by 1958. He was Welsh, a Celt like the others (bar cockney Michael Caine) who followed him -- Harris, O'Toole, Connery -- and staunchly proud of his working-class origins. His sexuality rested on a mixture of cruelty and beauty: He had thin lips, arched brows and what his female fans called "falcon eyes." American directors Cy Endfield and Joseph Losey turned Baker's working-class origins and his un-Englishness into components of his erotic appeal, thus decoupling desirability from social standing -- all very American indeed. Without Baker's narcissistic onscreen toughness, one wonders how long it would have taken British stars to style themselves as virile erotic entities, or for Connery to start tapping his immense sexual confidence as James Bond. By the time Baker died in 1976, aged 49 and knighted only a month earlier, those of his successors who'd made it in Hollywood, particularly Connery and Caine (who both got early breaks from Baker), were still exploring the myriad possibilities Baker had outlined.
The stereotypes endure, but with some qualifications. Rupert Everett and Hugh Grant will always get the same narrow range of acting jobs, the ones that the spotty likes of Roth, Oldman and podgy Timothy Spall wouldn't even audition for, and vice versa. Like Rex Harrison vs. Albert Finney, it's still a case of stars and character actors facing off, the one group politely humming the Eton Boating Song ("Joll-eee boating weather . . ."), the other drunkenly yelling some footie hooligan dirge like "Chelsea boys, We are 'ere/To fuck your women and drink your beer!" See? Always with the fucking, these limeys.
You get a good deal of baggage when you put a British man into American movies. The Brit will enunciate the American language clearly enough, but retains a degree of apartness, half-familiar, half-alien, but always with the suggestion of emotional turbulence or hidden peccadilloes behind the calm façade. Never mind our shared language, Britons and Americans are as bizarrely foreign to each other as two peoples with such interlinked histories possibly could be. You, the democratic republic, revere our monarchy much more cravenly than we do. We, your erstwhile oppressors, are politically on bended knee before your power and influence. Maybe it's the old Astaire-Rogers equation, on the screen as in life: You give us sex (or its convertible equivalent, money) and we, your unsubtitled cousins, give you class.
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