Roll out the barrel

Where are the gorgeous, leading-man lugs with beefy chests who were the epitome of unforced cool?

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex,

Roll out the barrel

I’m in love with a bigamist.

“The Bigamist,” that is, in which film-noir doughboy Edmond O’Brien plays Henry/Harrison Graham, who courts, impregnates and marries Phyllis Martin (Ida Lupino) while still married to Eve Graham (Joan Fontaine).

After seeing the film 10 times, I began to understand my fetish. I long, and even lust, for something that is nearly unattainable these days: the lug with a barrel chest.

Now by “lug” I don’t mean a thick-necked dumbbell like Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) in Raymond Chandler’s “Murder, My Sweet,” or the mouth-breathing defensive tackle who can’t count to nine, or the thick, sick atrocity exhibitions of Tom Leykus or Tom Arnold. I mean the leading-man, barrel-chested lug as objet d’amour.

The very thought fills me with the intoxicating eroticism of pie crust, beef and a sweaty Burt Lancaster in a white short-sleeved T-shirt. Examples of the lug? Robert Mitchum, William Holden (especially in “Picnic,” where more attention was paid to his chest than to Kim Novak’s), Dana Andrews, Cornel Wilde, Sterling Hayden, Aldo Ray and thick Brit Oliver Reed, who made all those nuns go batty in “The Devils.”

And of course O’Brien, whose Frank Bigelow in the 1950 film “D.O.A.” was blasted by his secretary: “You’re just like any other man, only a little more so.” He was more. More steak, more potatoes and less working out.

Unhealthy? Who cares? O’Brien, like all the other barrel chests, was a lusty, warm, passionate beast. They were men who’d let you sit on their laps and bury your face in their rumpled ties without making you feel like you had some pathetic daddy complex — even if you did. They had meat on their bones, and you could practically knead it through their shirts. They were bigger, so you seemed smaller. They ate, so you ate. Gwyneth Paltrow? Mitchum would tell her to swallow a few doughnuts. These guys were tough and steely on the inside (though they had their moments — think of Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity” getting misty over Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet) and softer on the outside, literally.



These men existed — I know. My dad was one of them. A cop who drove the squad car “Charly 5″ with his similarly barrel-chested partner, my dad looked like a bigger version of James Dean and Captain Kirk (remember his chest?). Eleven years my mother’s senior, he was the late 1950s, early 1960s Real Man. An ex-boxer, Woodstock eluded him. He enjoyed busting “hippie freaks,” loved Elvis, Sinatra and Hemingway and knew how to dance. Following generation-gap difficulties (fighting over the Beatles and wheat germ, I’m assuming), my mother left him for a college professor and moved our hard-boiled butts to a high-minded liberal community. Major anger and confusion for me ensued and became the nascent fetish waiting to gestate.

While other kids had their skinny, sprout-eating, “free to be you and me” Alan Alda dads picking them up after school, I had a guy in a tousled suit holding a bag of Dick’s Drive-In, swirling a toothpick in his mouth. On one occasion a classmate asked if he was my grandfather. I remember being slightly embarrassed, yet secretly proud. I knew my dad could kick their dads’ rye-crisp asses any day of the week. But he wouldn’t have to. No smart man would dare provoke all that understated charm and menace.

Barrels like my dad oozed confidence. Like kindly elephants aware of their capacity to trample any living creature, they don’t need to prove anything. You don’t see barrels instigating obnoxious bar fights where mouth-breathing imbeciles go nose to nose with another guy, pointing and yelling asinine barbs like “Faggot!” Prodded by one of these insipid shit boxes, a barrel might arch an eyebrow and utter, nonplused, “Man, I don’t know what your bag is.” This is a sly warning. If you don’t get it, he’ll take a swing at you. And you will fall down. Even with a high-class broad like Katharine Hepburn in tow, Spencer Tracy’s going to kick the shit out you, and he’s gonna be smart about it.

The brainy Hepburn fell for the muggy Tracy because intelligence is key to the barrel’s allure. This doesn’t mean they quoted Shakespeare or wrote poetry (though some did; nothing’s sexier than a self-educated barrel), but they did possess a wit. To a man who asked Mitchum how he maintained his then-envied physique, the actor replied: “I breathe in and out all of the time. And once in a while I grudgingly lift something — like a chair.”

Slouching off any obstacle or victory, these men embodied unforced cool. Again, think of Mitchum and his famous pot bust picture (as seen in Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon”). What was the attitude on his face? Amused indifference.

What do we have now? We’ve got that skinny Tommy Lee solemnly simulating penance for parole violation or adorning himself with another stupid tattoo representing how totally badass he isn’t. What’s happened to our world? Cocktail culture has been embraced. Everyone’s nuts about retro. So what happened to the barrel?

Yes Alec Baldwin and John Travolta have aged into the barrel (well, Travolta’s just getting kind of portly), but where are all these men now, or rather, where are the young barrel-chested men of today?

They are in the gym, sculpting what could be a perfect barrel into the “six-pack” — one of the worst things to happen to men’s style since bag-off-your-ass pants.

I don’t care what your oiled-up, fake-tanned, curiously heterosexual trainer at the gym tells you, if you are not meant to have a six-pack, you will look gross. And so will your veins. Why are the same things that bulge out of old ladies’ support hose all of a sudden sexy when they’re on a man’s body? I understand heroin chic, but varicose chic?

There’s no denying that there is an enticing universe of anti-barrels who would never be sexy if fleshy: Bruce Lee, Johnny Depp, Ray Liotta in “GoodFellas” and, of course, rock stars. Granite-hard Iggy Pop is a thrill, Marc Bolan was all elfin animal magnetism and Keith Richards has always been a slinky skeleton. However — and I know I’m perverse — Gary Glitter looked pretty damn good marching in those silver platform boots all hairy and paunchy in the early 1970s.

The tough babe of yore did have muscle, even some veins, but you had to squeeze him to find them. Nowadays you just walk right into a man’s muscles — and break your face on them. How comforting. Is this the “nice guy” that feminism wanted? The guy who read those drippy John Gray and Robert Bly books to understand himself while becoming a little too inquisitive about locating muscle mass? Did the combination of feminism’s half-assed attempt to get men to treat women with equality and the wild popularity of the 1980s’ Soloflex bod morph the average barrel into a perplexed man who doesn’t understand women?

I would say yes.

Men are now being raised to be harder on the outside and softer on the inside. Strutting around with that shoulder-to-shoulder walk, men are supposed to be tight-lipped (the ubiquitous threat of sexual harassment) and tight-abbed. How perfectly dull. How perfectly depressing.

No wonder Bud White (Russell Crowe) was such a tremendous turn-on in 1997′s “L.A. Confidential.” Director Curtis Hanson made him meat up in the 1950s way; Crowe ate a lot of steak and watched Aldo Ray and Sterling Hayden movies. He didn’t train with a kickboxer or get a “body by Jake” — he porked out and studied how Hayden or Ray would walk through a door (doorknobs serve no purpose; you just shove it open). Consequently, he allowed women (and men) the pleasure of watching one of the most insanely sexy performances in cinematic history. You had to gasp when Bud grabbed Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) and with no questions, no playing around, just kissed her. He confused many women who think they are supposed to be in love with that dumbshit from the gym or that spindly-legged bicycle messenger/musician/poet. Fuck those guys. Crowe’s broad-chested lug had more passion oozing from his uptight white cop shirt than any young, sensitive guy who pretends to understand his boundaries with women.

I understand that men are freaked. Obesity is a problem in this computer age. From the average dude to the Hollywood “leading man,” men feel that to be beefcake, they can’t eat cake (only protein shakes). But this isn’t so, would-be barrels. Eat your cake, have a belly, just do some manly exercises: situps, chin-ups, maybe a run around the track wearing solid gray sweats. (Think “Rocky” — the first one.) Think how much easier life would be. You’d have more time, more brains (more time to think, see?) and more women. Trust me. Because nothing is more unattractive than trying too hard. That’s why Max Cady (Mitchum) scored even when playing a psychotic in “Cape Fear” and why O’Brien’s Graham could get two women to marry him and, damn it, still love him at the end of the movie. The barrel-chested men had time for working and loving — and not the stupid gym.

As for seriously working out — or thinking too seriously about women — refer to Mitchum in “Out of the Past,” responding to beautiful double-crosser Jane Greer as she pleads excuses for her past, corrupt relationship: “I didn’t know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn’t take anything … Don’t you believe me?”

The greatest barrel of them all sexily murmurs: “Baby, I don’t care.”

Kim Morgan is film critic for The Oregonian.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>