We hear a lot nowadays about how Hollywood sets unreasonable standards of physical beauty for women, but what about us poor men? The physiques of Zac Efron or Brad Pitt look suspiciously like the product of special effects – plastic bulging muscles defined to the point of pain – and, for some peculiar reason, none of them have any body hair. Every trip to the cinema leaves this average Joe feeling rather depressed. My own physique is classically English: bow legs, scrawny arms and the torso of an inflated balloon. The only six pack I come close to is the kind I drink to make myself feel sexier.
It wasn’t always this way: there was a time when Hollywood stars looked a bit more like the rest of us. Consider that Roger Moore was still playing James Bond when he was 58. Despite the flabby chest and turkey neck, he still seemed to have no trouble attracting women (although one account has it that he quit the role when he discovered he was older than his co-star’s mother). By contrast, the contemporary Bond is played by the man-mountain that is Daniel Craig – with a compact, muscular body that might make men and women weep for very different reasons. How did we get to the point where Hollywood is as demanding of men as it is of women? And is it entirely healthy?
Of course, there have always been musclemen in the movies. One of the pin-ups of the Thirties and Forties was Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympian athlete who swung into women’s hearts playing Tarzan. In the early Seventies, Italian stallion Sylvester Stallone made a screen debut in a soft-core pornographic film, The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970), before playing the boxer who wouldn’t stay down in Rocky (1976). But the muscle-bound stars of old were genre characters, rather than all-round actors, and whenever they tried to break free of the sweaty-men genre, critics were usually unimpressed. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1994 comedy, Junior, was widely panned – partly because it was about a man who falls pregnant, but also because it required Arnie to play a scientist.
Most pre-millennial actors were athletic or healthy rather than buff, while the more “manly” stars tended to be defined by rugged good looks, rather than brawn. Physically, it is hard to imagine what Ingrid Bergman saw in the chain-smoking Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942), or why the 34-year-old Audrey Hepburn so desperately wanted to snag the 59-year-old Cary Grant in Charade (1963). Those actors who did draw big crowds when taking their tops off were permitted to go on doing so long after they had lost their youthful physique; the Charlton Heston of Ben-Hur (1959) was considerably more defined than the Charlton Heston of Earthquake (1974) – yet the age of his onscreen lovers remained the same.
The problem was that movies were made by male-dominated studios in a sexually conservative era. Up to the early Sixties, the ideal woman was still perceived to be chaste and therefore their capacity to lust was undervalued by the marketing boys. Some male stars still managed to draw huge crowds on sex appeal (from Rudolph Valentino to James Dean), but they were rarely subject to the same degree of objectification as female actors. The sexual revolution of the Sixties was supposed to change all this; suddenly men and women were encouraged to show more flesh and enjoy each other on more equal terms. But Hollywood took a long time to catch up. Tastes and standards continued to be set by men who were thrilled at the new level of sexual possibility, but rather ignorant of what women wanted.