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The Smooth and the Hairy

WITH HUGH GRANT ATTEMPTING A COMEBACK WITH his mobster comedy Mickey Blue Eyes and Pierce Brosnan floating around the frame like his own ghost in The Thomas Crown Affair, I'm prompted to ask (as a British man), what do you see in this pair? Is it class? It must be, because it can't be about sex, can it? And how to account for our other recent exports, such as the lardy septet in The Full Monty or other, runtier, rougher-edged street-urchin Brits, such as Tim Roth, David Thewlis and Gary Oldman? There are now more British men on American movie screens than ever before, but are they in any way confined or limited by the stereotypes about British actors and British men in general?

Perhaps it's just typecasting, but look at him up there on the silver screen: the effete, perfidious British male of enduring myth. See little Claude Rains, a put-upon mummy's boy in Notorious, and all opportunism and silky deceit in Casablanca. See Ronald Colman and Robert Donat, then ask, where's the beef? And David Niven? When did he ever get laid? See Laurence Olivier in Spartacus portraying Crassus, the nastiest fascist ever put on the screen, as he compounds his degeneracy by importuning clean-cut young towel-slave Tony Curtis with saucy talk of snails and oysters. See, indeed, every tyrannical emperor and sadistic Roman roué since the advent of sound -- all Brits, every man jack of 'em, from Charles Laughton, Stephen Boyd and Jack Hawkins down to David Bowie's Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ. And see James Mason in Lolita -- the most infamous child molester in cinema history -- or Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as embarrassingly camp old hairdressers in 1969's Staircase. So much for sang-froid and stiff upper lips.

This is all of a piece with the hoariest old jokes about British masculinity offscreen, too. Secretly, according to this prescription, we're all as bent as nine-bob notes ("la vice anglaise . . .") and if not, then our idea of good sex is the type one purchases in the late afternoon -- never mind the gender of the merchandise, just guarantee the roughness of the trade. Left to our own devices, we're just as likely to try on the scullery maids' uniforms as we are to impregnate their wearers, and we yearn nightly for the sweet taste of the headmaster's cane or, failing that, the sweet taste of Fotherington-Thomas minor of the Lower Remove, so tautly do his pubescent buttocks press against the seat of his cricket flannels. Et cetera. How the clichés endure.

Wait a minute. Didn't this all die in a nanosecond the moment Sean Connery walked onscreen in Dr. No back in 1962? Or when Michael Caine strutted from one bed to the next in Alfie? What about Richard Harris in This Sporting Life -- scarcely better than a domesticated rapist who transfers the etiquette of the rugby scrum wholesale to his landlady's bedroom? Or Albert Finney screwing his foreman's wife during her husband's night shifts in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning? Or Laurence Harvey as Joe Lampton, fucking his way up to the mansion on the hill in Room at the Top? Best of all, watch Connery himself, a wild animal in Saville Row threads, slinking after Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore in Goldfinger as kung fu becomes lemme-fuck-you, and 007 purrs often and hungrily, "So, Pooossie . . ."

While the nobs were all whipping each other in their country houses, wayward working-class males seemed to be pioneering the notion of sex as a liberating force, or as the best revenge, or as an aid to upward mobility, and much of this insurgent sexuality -- sexual effrontery as a means of eroding social deference -- can be detected in Oldman and Roth, improbable chick-magnets the pair of them. So there you have it. British males are all nancy-boys. Or they're all rutting like stoats. One or the other. Still, one must admit that there is about Grant and Brosnan some lingering residue of the old stereotypes. Grant's screen persona channels all the dithering, uptight Brits of yore, always rendered speechless by a beautiful woman and paralyzed by an inability, in the words of the frankly not-very-sexual John Wayne, "to haul off and plant one on her" like any real man would. And then he ends up shagging all these top-shelf birds? Please.

It's a very confusing, almost sexless sex appeal that Grant exudes, somewhere between one of James Fox's useless toffs and Niven's suave emollience. "Charm is the British disease," Evelyn Waugh once wrote, and Grant is at death's door with a nasty dose. Meanwhile, Brosnan, far from accessing the predatory sexual menace of Connery's Bond, seems unable to add even the merest hint of soul to his own expensively upholstered surface beauty. (Brosnan has thoroughly erased his own Irish origins, which wasn't wise -- they could have been good camouflage for his charisma deficit.) As Thomas Crown, he's an elegant animated ice sculpture, and not just because the script calls for it. Connery, for his part, has long since shrugged off the shackles of Bondage, and even now, at 69, he as much as any actor alive embodies unadorned masculinity seasoned with wisdom and experience, much as Gable once did. If you want someone to play God or Zeus, chances are you'll call him. He's not British anymore; he transcends nationality, which is the hardest trick a non-American can pull off in Hollywood. No wonder New Woman magazine just elected him "sexiest man of the century." Poor old Grant, opined 64 percent of respondents, is "over."

 

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.