Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Alphas Through the Ages

I’m on record as not liking some kinds of alpha heroes: heroes whose main qualifications are big muscles, membership in some elite military group and thinly disguised misogyny just don’t do it for me. But I think a lot depends on how alphas are defined. And I recently had a chance to take a look at alphas in a historical sense.

A few weeks ago I picked up one of those big omnibus DVD collections, this one including all the Ocean’s films including the very first one with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Now I loved Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Thirteen (could have done without Ocean’s Twelve, but that’s the way it goes). And I’d seen the original Ocean’s 11 several years ago, but I’d mostly forgotten it. However, I think the comparison between the two versions of the same basic set-up says a lot about what’s happened to our concept of alpha males over the past thirty or forty years.

To begin with, I’d argue that Frank and Dean (and Peter and Joey and Sammy, et al.) were definitely alpha in their day, although a different kind of alpha from John Wayne or Clark Gable. They represent the type I think of as the “frat boy alpha.” The Rat Pack were, after all, the definition of cool in the fifties and early sixties—the “in crowd.” To me, that’s alpha. Ocean’s 11 was first of the Rat Pack movies they made. The eleven men in this first film aren’t professional crooks; they’re a former WWII platoon at loose ends and looking for excitement. And while they wait for their plan to fall into place, they have a great time in Las Vegas, with the obligatory booze, gambling, and, yes, “broads.” The women in this movie are basically either accessories or bitches. Angie Dickinson plays Sinatra’s wife, but she doesn’t have the integral role that Julia Roberts has in the remake. Instead she basically sits at home and wishes she could still have a relationship with her former husband. There’s another woman, an estranged girlfriend, who tries to make trouble, but Angie tells her off good and proper. Then she goes back to pining.

In terms of the movie’s attitude toward women, the most significant line may be a joke from Dean Martin. He fantasizes about becoming a member of the Presidential Cabinet (this was close to the 1960 election involving Peter Lawford’s then-brother-in-law JFK). His first act, he says, would be to repeal the constitutional amendments giving women the vote and outlawing slavery. Then he’d turn all the women into slaves. Everybody laughs, of course (and I picture some woman watching this movie when it first came out and gritting her teeth while her boyfriend guffaws).

So what you’ve got here are, basically, jerks. Guys who think robbing casinos would be a gas and who think women are basically inflatable dolls who need to stay out of the way. Groovy. I can’t say I’m too upset when things in the film don’t work out for them.

Now let us turn to Ocean’s Eleven. I must admit, going in, that I love George Clooney, but that’s beside the point. The guys in the remake are professional thieves and con men, taking on the casinos because 1) they can make a lot of money that way and 2) they can put one over on slimy Terry Benedict who owns the casinos in question. There’s something about their calm professionalism that’s really sexy (even if it is a bit, well, anti-social). The crime they plan is insanely complex, but it doesn’t involve holding anybody at gunpoint (Frank and company do that). It’s more reminiscent of The Sting than of your average bank robbery. And Clooney, far from being a player, is hopelessly in love with his ex-wife whom he ultimately wins back from the evil casino owner.

The attitude in Ocean’s Eleven is completely different from Ocean’s 11. Clooney is affable rather than snide, professional rather than creepily thrill-seeking, and so besotted with Tess that he apparently hasn’t even considered the possibility of loving anyone else. Now that’s cool!

If you’re willing to accept Clooney and the guys (or at least Brad Pitt and possibly Matt Damon) as alphas, I’d have to say bring ‘em on! But if we’re still stuck with the Rat Pack version of what an alpha is supposed to be, uber-cool and vaguely hostile, I’m afraid my objections to alpha obsession still stand.


Debra St. John said...

I've never seen the older version of the movie, but I do adore Brad Pitt, so I'll take almost anything with him. And I did love those newer movies, although I agree, I could have done without 12!

PG Forte said...

I think the line between Alpha and Jerk is really thin and probably even the best Alpha is going to cross it at some time or another. But there's a world of difference between straying into jerk territory occasionally and making it a permanent residence.

Also, I have to say that I can forgive a whole lot of jerkiness in a hero who's out-of-his-mind-in-love with the heroine.

Kinsey Holley said...

Bingo. What PG said; jerkiness will at times be unavoidable with an alpha.

That being said - oh yeah, I don't miss the 50s style alphas at all. Now, when it comes to the old movie stars, I'm more partial to Robert Mitchum and the macho guys like that - I've never liked the frat boy types, even the modern day ones. But even the upright, heroic macho guys of the 50s (and 60s, and 70s) had that streak of misogyny.

Don't get me started on the Old Skool romances of the 70s and how alpha heroes behaved in them. Pretty awful.

Mad Men might exaggerate the sex and drinking, but the sexism is spot on, according to ladies who lived through it.