Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

He's All Man: Learning Masculinity, Gayness, and Love from American Movies
John M. Clum
New York: Palgrave, 2002.
$26.95, 232 pages, ISBN 0-312-24035-X.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

John M. Clum is Professor of Theater Studies and English at Duke University. He has edited various books and authored a couple of excellent studies, such as Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture (1999), in which he examines much more than musical theater and gay culture, looking at TV shows like Will & Grace in passing, and addressing the politics of "passing". He has also written a number of plays which have been produced all over the U.S. Randy's House was produced in Carmel last fall. Some of his plays can be found in Staging Gay Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Gay Theater (1996), which he edited, and in Asking and Telling (2002).

He's All Man: Learning Masculinity, Gayness, and Love from American Movies is divided into three parts: the first part is called "Learning Masculinity," the second "Learning Gayness?," and the third "Learning Love." The chapter titles are witty and tongue-in-cheek, which does not stop them from clearly announcing the contents. The Foreword is called "Ronald Reagan, Audie Murphy, and I: A Saturday Matinee Education Into Manhood." Clum announces that he intends to investigate the "images of masculinity that Hollywood [has] given us." (xi) He is "particularly interested in the homoeroticism and anxiety that circulate around films that define and maintain conventional masculine roles." (xi) Reagan, Clum reminds us, had a ballet dancer son. This triggered rumors during his first presidential campaign, prompting him to declare at a press conference: "He's all man—we made sure of that." The son found a wife, abandoned ballet to work in television, and America could breathe again. Reagan, of course, was a movie cowboy before he became a White House cowboy (and not the last one either). We know from the title of the book and the Foreword that He's All Man: Learning Masculinity, Gayness, and Love from American Movies is going to be about gender as much as about sexual orientation, and Clum does not disappoint. Judith Butler's name appears on page xv.

Chapter One is entitled "Dicks and Testosterone: What Little Boys Are Made Of." At the beginning Clum states: "Butchness is, after all, a state of mind, not body." (3) Although the book is about American movies, he cannot help discussing Pedro Almodovar's
All About My Mother (1999), nor should he refrain. Few films have offered such fascinating views on gender and sexual orientation, complete with metafictional Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote references. Clum also mentions British films like Peter Cataneo's The Full Monty (1997). "Paradoxically, we live in a society that worships the power and authority symbolized by the phallus but which thinks it shameful, literally 'indecent,' to display the penis." (7) He goes on with films like David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), deeming that the split personality in Chuck Palahniuk's novel (1996) is convincing, whereas "in the film it seems a desperate, unconvincing ploy to erase the obvious sexual desire that holds the two men together." (19) To introduce a passage on Andy & Larry Wachowski's The Matrix (1999), he relevantly remembers a graduate student of his who "once declared that the difference between the straight male body and the gay male body is that the gay body is permeable—things are put in it. The idea of such permeability is terrifying to straight men." (20)

I do not entirely subscribe to the contrasts he establishes between the body of Keanu Reeves and those of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, though, as he seems momentarily to forget that bodybuilders are feminized to an important degree, body obsessing as they do, shaving from head to toe, developing pectorals that end up looking like breasts, offering themselves as sexual spectacle (for the male gaze more than the female gaze), etc.

Chapter Two is called "Father Knows Best: Picturing the Gender Order." To begin with, it offers undeniable observations, such as: "One of Hollywood's most important functions has been to market conventional patriarchal heterosexuality expressed through marriage as the only means to true happiness." (23) He also reminds us that "it is impossible to write of masculinity without writing of the groups against which heterosexual men define themselves—women and gay men." (24), before recalling R. W. Cornell's definition of "hegemonic masculinity." (25) A series of acute observations about all sorts of movies follows, leading to camp classics Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve, and to tremendous insights about Tennessee Williams movies. The chapter concludes with Sam Mendes's American Beauty (1999).

Chapter Three, "Fathers and Cowboys: Teaching Manhood," quotes Susan Faludi, which was not really necessary, but it then covers more Tennessee Williams (great material about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Paul Newman) and Arthur Miller (along with Sam Shepard) while embarking on a splendid John Wayne discussion. Chapter Four is entitled "Manhood Unraveling: Homosexual Panic and Martyrdom." There is more Williams, of course, and among others John Boorman's Deliverance (1972), Derek Jarman's Sebastiane (1976), Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978). "The Deer Hunter can easily be read as a love story between Michael and […] Nick." (86) Chapter Five, "Gay Killers," looks at—of course—Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1930), Rouben Mamoulian's Golden Boy (1939), etc. In both John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Charles Vidor's Gilda (1946), Clum writes, "homosexuals and homosexual desire are crucial to the action of the film, particularly as they relate to the gender order." (109) In my Cercles reviews of Michael Woodiwiss's Organized Crime and American Power: A History (2001), Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (1928/2001) and Romain Huret's Le Crime organisé à la ville et à l’écran: 1929-1951, I spoke of the Agrégation / CAPES syllabus. These words might not mean much to our international readership; they designate, roughly, French post-BA competitive exams that among other advantages secure at least a teaching job in a secondary school. This academic year, one of the questions is "Organized Crime in Fact and on Film: United States, 1929-1951," and I have no doubt the students would greatly profit from the help Clum provides when it comes to pondering the (construction of) masculinity of the Golden Age Hollywood gangster. Chapter Five also examines films like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), Richard Fleisher's Compulsion (1959) and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).

In Chapter Six, "Sex and the City: Nuts, Sluts, and Deadly Queers," Clum addresses urban folk tales and urban horror tales, "films of sex, murder, and revenge." (134) Fritz Lang, Adrian Lyne, Martin Scorsese, Richard Brooks, Alan Pakula and William Friedkin are summoned, and I am glad to say Clum also speaks of not-so-well-known films, like Scott Silver's disturbing Johns (1996) or Gregg Araki's postmodern masterpieces (I personally consider Araki a genius). Chapter Seven, "In the Shadow of Cary Grant: Gay Romance," and Chapter Eight, "Black and White: Ennobling Love," are equally illuminating. Chapter Seven deals with the wish or need to queer romantic comedies of the 1940s and 1950s for boys growing up gay back then, and the possibilities on offer. Chapter Eight, short but effective, shows that things get even more complicated and maybe more interesting when gender and sexual orientation problematics intersect with race.

He's All Man: Learning Masculinity, Gayness, and Love from American Movies is easy to read. While it may be seen as a piece of Queer Theory, and while it is obvious that Clum has read everything he should have before writing such a book, from Michel Foucault to Jonathan Ned Katz to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to Richard Dyer to Judith Butler (and seen every movie and read all the critics), he does not quote too much from other books and steers clear of hermetic jargon, so that the general public and specialists alike can enjoy it thoroughly. There are many movies he has not tackled—only 232 pages—but readers, shown the right analytic path by the book, may continue the reflection. Anyone who has ever wondered after Fredric Wertham, Umberto Eco and Will Brooker just what it is Batman and Robin do when they are not fighting crime, or why emblematic cowboy figures are such (apparent) loners, or how prescriptive today's Hollywood conceptions of masculinity are, or what makes Inspector Harry so appealing, or how different things are from the 1950s will want to read this book.


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.