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"Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire. You're just going to have to make up your own mind one day about what's right and wrong."
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Once upon a time, whether we knew it or not, we went to movies for instruction -- on what to wear, what to strive for (and not to strive for), maybe even how to live. Or rather seem to live. For once upon a time the American movie theater was a palace of illusions -- a Cinema Paradiso -- and looked it with its rococo architecture. We didn't go to the movies looking for life, for life happened elsewhere. We went looking for, awful word, lifestyles. For the look of life.
That was before our movie theaters became just a way to get the most people in and out to buy the most popcorn for the most showings. That is, multiplexes. But they were once landmarks and a Saturday night habit, offering a weekly selection of the latest role models. And what a variety of styles men could choose from over the years. Especially young men, impressionable and malleable, still searching for themselves. The role models on display would change over the years, from Tom Mix to Clark Gable to whoever's the rage just now. I lose track.
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At a certain age, a man loses interest in the latest thing and the past becomes more vivid than the present, which may be why the TCM channel is so popular. Not because the movies were better or much different then, which is a popular conceit among an older demographic, but because the viewer is. And the times are.
Movies aren't just entertainment but a kind of shopping expedition, a catalogue of manners and mannerisms to choose from. You can tell a lot about a country and where it's headed by the role models its men adopt for a time.
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Once upon a time the model was Cary Grant, whose style passed away long before he did. His last movie was made in 1966, some 20 years before his death. His was a style that made words like charming, debonair and urbane seem not only compliments but goals to strive for. Which is what role models provide.
If there was a single word to describe Cary Grant's style, it would have been elegant. He was elegant not in the way fashion writers may use the word, with its connotation of self-conscious superiority, but in the way scientists and mathematicians use the word: Simple. Neat. Precise. Above all, economical, as in the shortest distance between two points.
Cary Grant's is not a style as much appreciated in these more histrionic days when self-absorption is more accepted, and emoting considered the mark of the true. See our politicians, who have always had to be part actors, and sometimes not just part.
Today's political leaders seem to talk more about themselves than what they stand for, if anything. A word-count might reveal that the most common word in their speeches is the first-person singular. ("I did this, I did that, I, I, I....") Even when delivering an obituary tribute, their first emphasis may not be on the dear departed but on what the deceased did for them. ("He was one of my earliest supporters when I ran for Congress....")
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Cary Grant advertised himself by not advertising himself, yet as soon as he walked into a room, every eye would go to him. His simplicity was carefully crafted, which may be the key to any craft. The end product, like a fine violin, must seem simple, natural, consistent, all of a piece ... elegant. ("Art begins with craft, and there is no art until craft has been mastered." --Anthony Burgess.)
In his films, Cary Grant, nÃ© Archibald Leach, might change character but not style. The plots, in which he often seemed trapped, might be complicated, but never his manner. He was expected to stay simple, easy to look at ... elegant. Cary Grant's finest work was Cary Grant.
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Cary Grant would soon enough give way to a different breed of hero, one required to be complex, or at least sufficiently inarticulate to be thought so. Marlon Brando made mumbling an art, but there's no doubt he was in sync with the confused times. Which made him a role model. And to compare role models is to compare times.
Michael Kelly, the still-missed columnist for the Wall Street Journal, once summed up these changed times by our changing taste in performers. At the end of the 1990s, when Frank Sinatra died, Old Blue-Eyes himself, the country went into the customary binge of nostalgia expected of it on such occasions, but not Michael Kelly. He despised Sinatra, or at least the Sinatra that had made the Rat Pack the model for male behavior. Someone who was Cool. Neat. Far Out. And always looking out for No. 1.
Michael Kelly much preferred Humphrey Bogart, or at least Bogart's Rick in "Casablanca": "He possesses an outward cynicism, but at his core he is a square. ... He is willing to die for his beliefs, and his beliefs are, although he takes pains to hide it, old-fashioned. He believes in truth, justice, the American way, and love. ... When there is a war, he goes to it. ... He may be world weary, but he is not ironic."
Michael Kelly himself would die in Iraq, embedded with the American troops there. There was a time when newspapermen weren't "embedded" but war correspondents -- Ernie Pyle's time. There was something more honest, more civilian, about the term. Words, too, are markers of style.
Where can young men look for role models today? The choice remains just as wide -- from Tom Cruise to Jon Hamm's Don Draper on "Mad Men," which once cast a hypnotic glow Sunday nights. Its images stuck. Now it seems to have substituted vulgarity for style. Style, at least in the old fashioned sense of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, seems to have gone out of style.
Style is an acquired trait. And which style men choose to acquire may determine who they are.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)