This hasn’t exactly been a great year for men. The male brand has seen better days. The product is still the same as it’s been for the last few millennia — the patriarchy is one hell of a preservative — but its iron hold on the marketplace is slipping. Society as a whole is finally coming to grips with a grim fact that so many people had already learned the hard way, that so many people had been silenced and shamed into keeping like a secret: Men are defective.
That’s not to say that all men are broken, but rather that all men are capable of the abuses for which the worst of us are now being ex-communicated, that all men are culpable for allowing those abuses to continue, and that all men are corruptible when endowed with the power that we have always assumed as a natural right.
Women: It’s regrettably safe to assume that you understand this problem all too well. Fellow men: Here’s a helpful analogy involving cars! Vroom-vroom! Think of what’s going on right now like a huge recall. Auto companies are never thrilled to discover that the engine inside their flagship sedan is liable to explode under certain conditions, but — as you learned in “Fight Club” — these massive corporations don’t take action at the first sign of trouble. The issue is only addressed when the cost of covering it up starts to exceed the cost of actually solving it.
In this case, we flipped into the red with Harvey Weinstein, and the math quickly soured from there. So while billions of us are still on the road, and some can go for 100 years without any sign of trouble, it’s necessary to recognize that we haven’t been manufactured with our passengers’ safety in mind.
That’s hard knowledge for a lot of us to internalize, but the movies are making it easier. The irony is almost too much to bear, but in a year when Hollywood has become ground zero for sexual violence, many of the best films the industry has produced hinge on male characters who are defined by the grace of their basic goodness. People have become rightly skeptical of the entire male gender, and these seismic changes may leave some men feeling as though maleness is now seen as intrinsically amoral. But decency is never more valuable than in a world of doubt, and so it’s no surprise that certain performances are striking a chord.
It’s possible — even probable — that this year’s entire field of Best Supporting Actor nominees will be recognized for playing flawed but fundamentally decent men who are made beautiful by their empathy. Stranger still, all of the frontrunners play fathers. Several of them are fathers of daughters, even. None of them are Matt Damon.
Even before the Harvey Weinstein story broke, there was a clear appetite for seeing great actors sink their teeth into kind souls.
Willem Dafoe in “The Florida Project”
Dafoe’s profoundly refreshing performance has been tipped for Oscar glory since “The Florida Project” first screened at Cannes, and it’s easy to appreciate why. As Bobby Hicks, the manager of a rundown Kissimmee motel that’s home to a motley crew of transients and their kids, Dafoe weaponizes our most cynical expectations against us.
Bobby is the caretaker of an unforgiving place, tasked with keeping an eye on a group so overlooked that they’re designated as “the invisible homeless.” He’s a salt of the earth type who’s found himself in a position of power, presiding over a community of extremely vulnerable people who have little to lose. And if that weren’t enough to form a perfect storm for potential abuse, he’s played by Willem Dafoe, a man whose Green Goblin was made significantly less frightening because he was forced to wear a scary mask.
And yet, Bobby is pretty much the best. Always struggling to reconcile the fact that he thinks of the motel’s residents as both customers and family, Bobby is only empowered to do so much for the film’s destitute heroines, but his virtue never wavers. We only witness so many acts of outright heroism — “The Florida Project” would be a lesser film if every scene was like the one where Bobby chases off that pedophile — but there’s a palpable righteousness to how valiantly he serves as an intermediary between these people and a world that doesn’t want to see them. He’s an incredible example for his son (Caleb Landry Jones), who seems to be following in his father’s footsteps. Day in and day out, Bobby is their last line of defense. By the end of the movie, the mere sight of Dafoe going about his business is enough to make you cry.
Michael Stuhlbarg in “Call Me by Your Name”
The same is ultimately true of Stuhlbarg, the actor so sneakily evolving into the MVP of “Call Me by Your Name” that to even explain how he does it would constitute a spoiler. Luca Guadagnino’s masterpiece is too pure to be ruined here, but it’s safe to say that Stuhlbarg — playing the academic father of the film’s young hero — spends most of the story at the edge of the frame, an unassuming presence in the periphery. The scenes where he actually speaks are few and far between, but it never feels like he’s far away.
And then, in a monologue that will outlive us all, Stuhlbarg takes center stage. The text of his speech is a prototype for how any dad should respond to his son in that situation, but it’s the way Stuhlbarg delivers those words — how he tempers his earned authority with a natural empathy, and not the other way around — that cocoons the entire film in a warm layer of love.
Photo by Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24
Tracy Letts in “Lady Bird”
The perfect dad is also an instrumental part of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” which invites Letts to complicate the archetype in a handful of heartbreaking ways. Letts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose roles in films like “Indignation” and “The Lovers” have made him as indispensable to the screen as he is to the stage, steps into the role of a man who’s caught between two indomitable women. Cowed into playing the good cop, Letts’ character is left to mediate the volatile relationship between his frazzled wife and their free-spirited teenager daughter — by the time the movie begins, that job is the only one he has left.
The character is defined by his quiet desperation (we’re told that he’s been living with depression for years), and it’s clear that he’s deeply hurt by his inability to provide for his family. At the same time, there’s something so moving about how delicately he intervenes, always doing what he can to bridge the gap between his wife and daughter and show them how much they love each other.
Sometimes, that responsibility is played for sweetness (the scene where he brings Lady Bird a cupcake on her birthday is a heartbreaker). Other times, it’s tweaked for comic relief (his “Oh, fuck” at the dinner table after graduation might be the line delivery of the year). In either case, and in all the nebulous spaces in between, Letts creates the embodiment of a man who loves women too much to let them hate each other.
Photo by Nicole Rivelli
Ray Romano in “The Big Sick”
The TV comedian plays a dad who hasn’t always worn that pressure so well. One of the film’s most affecting scenes finds him confessing to his comatose daughter’s ex-boyfriend about the time that he cheated on his wife. We’ve all been there. The character isn’t entirely sure why he’s recounting this painful story, but Romano endows the moment with such raw honesty and humiliation that the details start to matter less than the sincerity behind his decision to share them.
It’s the first hint in the movie that he and his wife haven’t had a perfect marriage, and it changes how you see him — he’s not just this awkward dad whose voice makes it sound like a frog died in his throat, he’s a guy who’s clawed his way back from the abyss. The term “survivor” is too loaded a term to use here, but he’s a man who messed up real bad, rededicated his life to making things right, and battled through the lesser angels of his nature.
Forgiveness is possible, but you need to mean it, and Romano’s goofiness has never felt more genuine. If only men could parse the difference between right and wrong before we screwed up, then we’d really be in business. But we can’t all be Mark Rylance in “Dunkirk,” sailing his little pleasure boat into the middle of World War II just because it’s the right thing to do. On the other hand, the beauty of Rylance’s performance — the beauty of all of these performances, really — is that he leaves us thinking that yeah, maybe we can.