Much was made in the media about the conspicuous maleness of the Academy Awards this year. Not a single woman was nominated for either Best Director or Screenplay. Ava DuVernay (Director, Selma) and Gillian Flynn (Writer, Gone Girl) were amongst the most obvious – and egregious – snubs.
But more than that, the Oscars 2015 was dominated by films about men and about masculinity itself. I’d like to talk about this, with reference to two of the biggest awards season movies – Whiplash and Foxcatcher.
Note: This post contains plot spoilers for both Whiplash and Foxcatcher.
Drumming up drama
Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating drama Whiplash tells the story of Andrew (Miles Teller) as he struggles to become the lead drummer in his music school’s decorated jazz band, run by tyrannical musician Fletcher (JK Simmons). Andrew practises hard and knows he’s pretty good, but he needs to be validated.
His mother left when he was young, so Andrew has been brought up without a female figure in his life. He craves approval, but has a somewhat sterile relationship with his father, who doesn’t seem to understand what Andrew is doing. The notion of being approved by Fletcher – a recognised alpha male – excites Andrew to the degree that he is prepared to do just about anything.
Fletcher represents everything that Andrew idealises. He’s a whirlwind of acid-tongued testosterone and is 100% sure of his talent. Fletcher doesn’t need validation from anyone because he sits at the top of the food chain – both in terms of music and masculinity.
Even Fletcher’s appearance is one of masculine performance. He is stripped down, in terms of his shaven head and his plain black clothing, with no sort of flourish upon his body. For Fletcher, there’s no need for the kind of style-conscious appearance so favoured by the modern “metrosexual” man. Notably, Andrew is a baby faced youngster who seems unkempt in appearance. He doesn’t have the same focus as Fletcher.
Andrew’s acceptance into Fletcher’s band early on in Whiplash marks, in his view, his ascent to the table of masculinity. It is significant that merely being a member of the band transforms Andrew from a taciturn loner to the arrogant man who immediately attempts to enter into a relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist). Andrew believes that being in a relationship is a part of his duty as a man and so he simply asks for a date from the only girl he ever meets – the box office girl at the cinema he regularly visits.
Nicole is nothing but lovely to Andrew. However, he decides to give her the chop when he realises that she impedes his path to success. For Andrew, his first real female connection is nothing more than a distraction from his work at winning the approval of the uber-macho Fletcher. When he realises that his relationship with Nicole is an inessential part of his masculine performance, he sees no reason to keep it going. For Andrew, it was never about love – or even lust.
Critics have bemoaned the underwritten nature of Nicole’s role in Whiplash and it is irksome in such a male-dominated awards year, but her character in the film is a reflection of how the protagonist sees her. For Andrew, just like every other kind of human connection, she’s barely a human being and merely a utility on his path to masculine utopia.
Wrestling with the truth
There’s something incredibly chilly about Foxcatcher. It’s a film that keeps its audience at arm’s length in telling its dark story. However, just like the considerably warmer Whiplash, it’s a film about characters attempting to reach an ideal of “masculine utopia”.
In this case, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) is the figure to whom both John du Pont (Steve Carell) and Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) aspire. He is a champion in the masculine arena of wrestling, but also maintains the epitome of the balanced American nuclear family with a loving wife and kids. Neither Mark nor du Pont can claim that level of stereotypical normality and both are enormously envious of Dave.
For Mark, that resentment of Dave’s perfect life leads him to move to the Foxcatcher ranch owned by du Pont. He believes that, by being the figurehead of du Pont’s wrestling school, he can finally move out of his brother’s shadow. Mark is equally in awe of du Pont, who he initially sees as another successful man as a result of his extreme riches. Little does he know that du Pont is a long way from the masculine ideal Mark covets.
John du Pont is a character who is surrounded by opulence and money. The only thing missing is human contact. As a result of du Pont’s lack of female companionship, his attempt to attain masculinity relies entirely on the approval of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). He believes that by pursuing a sport as inherently masculine as wrestling, he will convince his mother that he is “a real man”.
Du Pont’s battle to win his mother’s approval comes to a pathetic head when her nurse brings her to visit the Foxcatcher wrestling school. The previously inactive du Pont calls the sparring competitors over and begins to demonstrate a basic wrestling hold to them. It’s a scene of nothing but performance, as every other man in the room becomes complicit in du Pont’s desperation to attain what he sees as pure machismo – his own masculine utopia.
After the death of his mother, unimpressed by du Pont’s forays into the wrestling world, du Pont becomes unhinged. He loses the adulation of Mark and finds his wrestling school becoming something bigger than he imagined under the guidance of Dave. In a fit of icy rage, he takes a gun and shoots Dave dead in front of his wife. It’s pure, unbridled jealousy.
Both Whiplash and Foxcatcher focus on the opaque nature of male feelings. Each film has one scene that encapsulates this notion, in which masculinity becomes a performance and a competition between two figures battling to out-alpha the other.
In Foxcatcher, that scene occurs early in the film. Dave and Mark are depicted sparring together. Mark is visibly annoyed with Dave, and Dave is aware of that frustration, but both men choose to air their grievances physically, in the ring, rather than with words.
It’s a wonderful scene, in which two men lock horns like stags in an attempt to prove which is the better man. As with so much masculine conversation, emotions are articulated through physicality.
That scene’s counterpart in Whiplash is the film’s cacophonous finale. In an attempt at revenge for Andrew making a complaint about Fletcher’s treatment, the latter sets him up for a fall at an important concert. After initially fleeing the stage, Andrew returns and defiantly leads the band himself, defying Fletcher’s authority and indeed his masculinity.
Just as with the sparring sequence in Foxcatcher, the scene showcases two alpha males locking horns in an attempt to outdo each other. In fact, the Whiplash scene is even more effective as a result of its conclusion – the two men go from full-blooded war to grudging respect in the space of a single scene. At the start of the scene, Fletcher has the malevolent upper hand over Andrew, then the tables turn, and then finally there’s a kind of musical symbiosis between the two.
Whiplash’s bravura final sequence focuses on how masculine conflict can turn abruptly into magic. Andrew finally succeeds in earning the respect of Fletcher by beating him at his own game. He proves that he can hold his own in a masculine arena by taking on the alpha. In that scene, Andrew finally succeeds in achieving his own personal masculine utopia.
What did you think of Whiplash and Foxcatcher? Do you agree with my views on their portrayal of masculinity? Let me know in the comments section.