When ‘No’ Meant ‘Maybe’

Male Entitlement Fantasies & the Sexual Harassment Epidemic

By Glenn Lovell

When Benjamin Braddock chases after Elaine Robinson in “The Graduate,” he’s cheered on as admirably determined, a diehard romantic who won’t take “No!” for an answer. When Jessica Walter pursues Clint Eastwood’s Carmel disc jockey with even greater fervor in “Play Misty for Me,” she’s played as out-and-out loony, every red-blooded male’s worst nightmare.Graduate2

When Charles Grodin in “The Heartbreak Kid” abandons his new wife on their Miami Beach honeymoon to pursue a spoiled sun goddess (Cybill Shepherd), he’s seen as an incorrigible cad, yes, but one who’s living the American Dream. Literary agent Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction” also knows her mind, but in her pursuit of Michael Douglas and House Beautiful perfection she comes off as deranged, a potentially homicidal stalker.

Is there a double standard here? Of course there is. When an alpha male demands affection onscreen, it’s exhilarating and romantic, perfectly normal. When an aggressive female demands same, alarm bells go off.  “Alert! Alert! Aberrant personality!”

I saw Hitchcock’s “Marnie” when it opened in 1964. I was 15. Sean Connery, working his secret-agent sang froid, hires a private eye to find Tippi Hedren’s troubled title character, and when he runs her to ground, he sounds a lot like a big game hunter Connerywho has bagged a trophy antelope: “I’ve tracked you and caught you and, by God, I’m going to keep you!”

I can still remember the rush I got from Connery’s snarled pronouncement. It reinforced the sense of entitlement that we boomer males learned at the movies, where persistence that amounted to societal-sanctioned harassment was rewarded. Eva Marie Saint attempts to fend off Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.” He breaks down her door and pins her to the wall; her flailing arms soon droop, welcoming the embrace. A similar scenario plays out in “Strangers When We Meet” and half-a-dozen other Kirk Douglas vehicles. Through bared teeth, Kirk forces himself on women who don’t know they want him. (Douglas is a rapist who’s allowed a hero’s finish in Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way.”)

It’s no coincidence that Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Richard Dreyfuss, James Toback and others who have been accused of sexual harassment and assault are in their late 60s or early 70s. They came of age watching, and learning from, movies that equated courtship with force. Studio exec Harvey Weinstein, in a statement following the New York Times’s publication of allegations by Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan, used this as his defense. “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” he wrote. “That was the culture then.”

Dustin Hoffman, who got his start playing Ben Braddock, has been accused of inappropriate sexual overtures toward a 17-year-old production assistant during the filming of a TV adaptation of “Death of Salesman.” Braddock was once embraced as counterculture icon, a product of middle-class greed and hypocrisy. Now, as we wince at his public shaming of Elaine at a strip club and his even more questionable Berkeley “courtship,” the character is more alienating than alienated. Once condoned as funny and irreverent, his behavior would today warrant a fine or jail time.

You have to look to Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974) to find a more realistic portrait of the relentless beau, a guy who initially comes across as boyish and charming but whose fawning manner masks an ugly temper. In other words the kind of sexual predator now being outed daily in the press. He’s portrayed in the Scorsese movie by a scary good Harvey Keitel.

Yes, that Keitel, who has done more than his share of threatening characters. In “Bad Lieutenant,” his debauched, pill-popping cop pulls over two teenage girls and masturbates on the side of their car. An intense method actor, Keitel gets into the moment and then some. What the actor did or didn’t do seven years later to be removed from Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” is still a matter of conjecture. The Web-fed rumor that he earned costars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s wrath by exposing himself to Kidman remains simply that, a rumor.

Even so, Keitel’s “admirers” probably aren’t the best examples of Hollywood’s more honest courtier-creeps.

Glenn Lovell teaches film studies at De Anza College. He is the author of “Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges.”

 

 

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