Melanie Williams (@Britfilmmelanie)
Working on this project, I’ve spent much of the last three years engaged in research on British cinema during the 1960s, digging in various archival collections and old periodicals to get a sense of how different elements of the film industry operated during the decade. In the course of that work, I’ve also watched a lot of sixties British films; the good, the bad and the utterly bewildering. Now, it’s fair to say that within academia there are certain unspoken codes of practice around how and why we watch films in the process of undertaking historical work, particularly within the specific sub-discipline of British cinema studies, and that moreover matters of visual pleasure and desire are not always paramount within that (which sometimes has a lot to do with the paucity of potential for that in the source materials). And yet, when ploughing through countless films as part of my research process, I found myself sustained not only by the spirit of scholarly enquiry but also by developing many idle crushes – mostly ephemeral but sometimes more enduring – on the many attractive men who appeared in them.
Gosh, what would the AHRC say? This isn’t the kind of thing they stump up funding for, so that I can spend hours gazing longingly at young Oliver Reed (of whom, more later). It’s not like this is a fan studies project either, intending to directly engage with these kind of issues; rather, my film crushes are an inadvertent by-product from spending a lot of time in a certain period, imbibing its culture.
I’ve outed myself previously online as a middle-aged het ‘mum-perv’ and though I wouldn’t want to try to dignify that position with theoretical trappings – it is what it is – I do think it important that voices of female desire, across the range of sexualities, speak up and are heard in film criticism and film appreciation. In the context of British cinema, gay male critics have been far better at eulogising the wonders of British male stars than straight women (I’m thinking particularly here of Andy Medhurst’s formative appreciation of Dirk Bogarde in the 1986 essay collection All Our Yesterdays). In light of all of this, it was exciting to see film critic Christina Newland, in Sight and Sound‘s October 2017 issue, celebrate the feminist significance and ‘subversive joy’ of film-related ‘ogling’ (and what a fine word that is):
“If film criticism has never been objective, neither has desire. There’s a peculiar, individual alchemy to physical attraction – and in that way, it parallels the attitudes, backgrounds, and biases that inevitably colour a person’s film criticism. That’s why talking about desire shouldn’t seem out of place. But talking about female desire is what really intrigues me. While men and women both get pleasure from looking at beautiful film stars, women really have something to gain by fully expressing that pleasure.
Confronted by an industry and artform that has long excluded women’s perspectives, when we share our most deeply individual impressions it puts us back where we belong into the narrative of film culture.”
Newland acknowledges the risks and difficulties inherent in doing this, and in particular how it can jeopardise a female critic’s claim to analytical seriousness, in ways that recall film critic Antonia Quirke’s remarkable 2007 memoir Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers (its more arresting US title Choking on Marlon Brando gives a better sense of its visceral content, and invokes Quirke’s foundational pubescent memory of dangerously hyperventilating upon her first glimpse of super-hot Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire). In one telling moment from the book, Quirke and her boyfriend happen to hear her being interviewed on the radio about Harvey Keitel, and he takes the opportunity to mock her lust-fuelled utterances:
“Tom insisted on listening to me gush (I love Harvey Keitel) and was predictably, if justifiably, scathing. He began to babble in imitation of me, in a little Minnie Mouse voice: ‘Ooh, and he’s just gorgeous he’s got such a sexy chest get that arse cos he’s dead sexy he is he just is!’”
His criticism stings, partly because it echoes Quirke’s own concerns about superficial lust defining how she responds to films and to life more generally. But nonetheless Quirke never wavers from speaking her desires, recognising how they are intrinsic to her appreciation of cinema, and her book’s passionate prosody on her numerous film crushes presents the best possible case for why these kinds of voices should be accommodated in critical discourse.
There, I’ve just included the word discourse, and I said I wouldn’t try and dress up my mum-perving in academic garb. Ah well, old habits.
Anyway, back to the sixties. During our big project conference of September 2017, the voice of hetero male desire for female film stars of that era was very present, with fond evocations of the desirability of Julie Christie, Brigitte Bardot, Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson, and others. But the equivalent voice of heterosexual female desire was conspicuous by its absence (as were other kinds of desirous voices, to be fair). This was in spite of the fact that the 1960s was a decade in which male beauty assumed new significance according to historian Arthur Marwick, for which one of the defining media images is young women screaming themselves hoarse in their appreciation of The Beatles (and not solely for their music), and judging from film magazines of the period, female readerships were eager to envisage what a date with Terence Stamp or Michael Caine or Tom Courtenay might be like. And certainly, in the BFI bar after the conference, there was some lively conversation about the erotic appeal of various male stars of the era. Emboldened by that chat, and a few post- conference G&Ts, the idea for this blogpost had its genesis.
Since the personal is political, a good place to start is with yourself. So in that spirit, here goes: my own reflections on the men I’ve especially fancied while watching sixties British movies. I’ve kept it to a top ten and just to make it more clickbaity, I can say confidently that you won’t believe number 5. And don’t get angry with me if your fave doesn’t make the cut: my list, my rules. I look forward to seeing everyone else’s, male, female, gay, straight, and everything else between and besides – let a thousand flowers of sneaky surreptitious ogling bloom.
- Albert Finney. Stocky, bullish New Wave roaring boy par excellence. Rocks a quiff and a check shirt with rolled up sleeves and belligerent attitude with real panache in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He’s guileless charm itself as Tom Jones in spite of his character’s rapacious roister-doistering (and is that ‘Sun-In’ in your hair, Alby? Because you suddenly look rather delightfully highlighted). Reveals surprisingly (and enchantingly) hairy legs during his hotel tryst with Liza Minnelli (of all people) in Charlie Bubbles. Funny how quick he was to embrace padded and bald-pated roles as Scrooge and Hercule Poirot; I guess it’s not easy being that cute when you’re trying to be a ‘serious actor’.
- Tom Courtenay. My other British New Wave bae. Scrawny and whippety in contrast to Finney’s brawny solidity. Kind of jolie-laide, in that sometimes he looks rather handsome but other times a bit less so (sorry Sir Tom). Totally hilarious in Billy Liar and Otley which might explain why he’s able to punch above his weight and hook up with Julie Christie and Romy Schneider in those films. Very strong singlet and shorts work in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Ah me.
- Peter O’Toole. That conversation in the BFI bar revealed a lot of love for the burning blue eyes of his T. E. Lawrence set off beautifully by desert skies and white robes – bravo David Lean and Freddie Young, you deserved Oscars for that wonderful bit of colour composition alone. Perhaps more gangling and physically awkward in other roles, but nonetheless, as all the girls chasing him in What’s New Pussycat? comment, there was ‘something about the way the light hits his face’ that made him ‘almost handsome’.
- The Beatles: a human selection box of sixties boycuteness. My particular favourite changes as often as the weather. Paul: hyperaware of his own big-eyed beauty and mega talent but beautiful and mega talented enough to be able to get away with it. John Lennon: topless in the bathtub in A Hard Days Night – why is this screamworthy moment so rarely commented on in accounts of the film? Ringo: best actor as well as best drummer, adorably funny and vulnerable as the band’s loveable loser. George: slightly vulpine skinny boy with best accent and best haircut. And each one even more alluring in their holiday civvies (more shorts! I guess I really like shorts) in Help!‘s Barbados sequences than in their smart Dougie Millings suits. And probably the best bloody band in the world at that point – I guess that counts for something too.
- Christopher Plummer. I firmly approve of the current trend of drafting him into films to replace undesirables, and only wish it was the sixties version of Plummer that was being imported into anything and everything. And yes, I know The Sound of Music was a Hollywood film made in Salzburg and that he’s Canadian, but did you really think I could leave the Captain off this list? That sardonic twinkle, the hint at a life of debauchery with ‘the Baroness’ prior to falling in love with Maria (and making her all hot under the dirndl when he dances with her), his winning way with flag ripping which was to launch a thousand subsequent internet memes: this is a guy worth leaving a nunnery for, make no mistake. And not only is he the necessary grit in the oyster of that potentially saccharine kids-and-nuns-and-singing saga, still one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, he also made a few British films too, hence inclusion here (pedants go home). Judging from my cursory Googling, he spends most of The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969) just wearing a rather fetching Aztec loincloth. I wonder if it’s available on DVD..?
- Peter Finch. Madly attractive older man with gorgeous greying temples of The Pumpkin Eater and Girl with Green Eyes. I do love the moments in that latter film, shot from the perspective of Kate (Rita Tushingham) as she takes in various physical details of this distinguished mature man she’s about to get involved with: the poise of his hand holding a cigarette, his ear and cheek in profile, close enough to see his stubble and laughter lines, the rueful Finch trademark smile. The actor made equally great films in the 50s and 70s but was never more appealing than he was in the 60s. And clearly the strongest contender in the three-way battle for Julie Christie’s affections in Far From the Madding Crowd. Terence Stamp and Alan Bates are all very well but Peter Finch – come on. Talking of which, and backtracking slightly…
- Terence Stamp. Obvious but yeah. Not as high ranking in my estimation as in others’ perhaps (which I’m sure he’d be devastated to know) but that kind of prettiness is hard to argue with (and he does well cloaking it so effectively in The Collector). Lushest in Poor Cow I reckon. Even manages to make strumming a Donovan song on an acoustic guitar attractive, which is no mean feat.
- Calvin Lockhart. Sadly underused Bahamian actor who got far better chances in 1970s Blaxsploitation films than he did in 1960s British films but who gets a moment in 1968’s Joanna which is screen-stoppingly stunning. As he’s introduced to his girlfriend-to-be, the eponymous Joanna, the film pauses and makes one of its periodic shifts into black and white as we’re treated to some of the most gorgeous close-ups of male beauty in the whole of British cinema. A moment to treasure but also a frustrating reminder of the exclusionary nature of British film stardom, symptomatic of a big ‘what if?’ in its canon of male stars (cf Johnny Sekka, Earl Cameron, Paul Danquah). After Leo the Last (1970), America was Lockhart’s destination, and their gain was Britain’s loss.
- Sean Connery as Bond. Hardly original but I’m only human, and that is some serious charisma kitted out in a perfectly tailored suit. Wears a challenging powder-blue towelling onesie with real panache in Goldfinger, as you’d expect of a former model. Strong ‘saucy quip’ game too.
- Oliver Reed. Forget the bewhiskered, pissed up national joke of the 80s and 90s. I’m talking about 60s Ollie, when he was Hammer’s glamour boy of the early sixties before starring in surprisingly good Michael Winner films like The System and I’ll Never Forget What’s Isname, brooding beautifully throughout all of them. He thought his appeal was that of the neanderthal, a caveman throwback which contrasted piquantly with angelic-looking pretty boys like his contemporaries David Hemmings or Michael York. But it’s all a bit more complex than that, hinging on the counterpoint between his patrician poshness and his scar-faced roughness, his physical intensity and its containment. He’s not afraid of being an unremitting bastard in Oliver!, the sinister still centre among all the song and dance, totally mesmerising. He is equally marvellous as the gruff French Canadian fur trapper La Bete (with a weird Celine Dion-ish accent) in The Trap, the beast undone by his streak of vulnerability as in all good fables. Now, you see I’ve got through this whole paragraph and not mentioned the naked wrestling in Women in Love once, have I? (actually one of his least erotic screen moments in that film or in his career in my opinion, and I must confess that Alan Bates has always left me cold).
It was one of the great sorrows of my academic life that I had to miss Caroline Langhorst’s lavishly illustrated presentation on Oliver Reed at our conference, and I do not make that statement lightly.
Must I end it there when there’s so much more masculine gorgeousness to pore over and eulogise? The freckles and long lashes of young Michael Caine, framed beautifully by his spy specs when playing Harry Palmer. David Hemmings, for goodness sake! Residual Dirk, appealing in new ways as he outgrew his youthful ‘idol of the Odeons’ phase. The jack-the-lad spivviness of Ian Hendry. Dashing young blondie James Fox. The ravaged beauty and sonorous sound of Richard Burton. Stanley Baker in Eve, despite the toupee. Walnut-faced Carry On love-god Sid James! John Stride in Bitter Harvest. Dudley Moore in 30 is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia – as cute as a button. Peter McEnery (Hayley Mills’s first screen kiss in The Moonspinners, lucky girl). Richard Warwick. Did I mention Michael York? (probably, I usually do). George C. Scott in his various British forays, as immortalised in Paula Morgan’s poem about her crush on the star in Petulia: ‘With his broken nose, spindly legs, neck like a truck driver,/ And, in his shorts/ Well/ He is a man!/ He made me forget poems, prose, and my intellect./ I mean he was, and is, gorgeous […] I notice Julie Christie has never been the same’.
And I didn’t even include young Ian McShane (sorry Laura).
Of course, some of these men didn’t always cover themselves in glory in their private lives, and the characters they played were often cruel or callous towards women, born of the deeply misogynistic culture in which they were mired (Harry Enfield’s sixties film parody Poppet on a Swing, ‘starring Michael Hemmingstamp’, is pitch-perfect on this matter).
Some of the on and off screen stories circulating some of these male stars are enough to make a feminist feel slightly uneasy about taking her pleasures there. Film may be a fantasy realm but it still speaks of real world determinants and there are some disconcerting parallels between what’s on my list and the ‘magnificent brute’ persona of a star like James Mason in the 1940s, beloved by female audiences of that time precisely because of and not despite his sadistic tendencies. This is murky territory. But that’s exactly the value of talking about this stuff, and bringing questions of female desire, sometimes quite awkward ones, back into the conversation. Passing fancies can have lasting significance; they’re a valid and important element of how we all respond to films and that ought to be acknowledged somehow in our criticism and scholarship.
And that isn’t a robust defence of the intrinsic value of mum-perving, I don’t know what is.
Project blog editor’s note: the following picture of young Ian McShane has been included to address the above oversight.