You’ve heard, of course, that Channing Tatum was named the Sexiest Man of 2012. Or maybe you heard the gossip that The Goz turned it down — how very Goz of him. Even if you don’t put much stock in People’s middlebrow taste, if you’re a male-desiring subject, you still have your objects of desire: old favorites Denzel, Damon, Pitt; new favorites Fassbender, Gordon-Levitt, Renner. Sexiest Men, of course, rise and fall with cultural tastes: the bulk of Tatum paired with the dexterity of his body create a gender Frankenstein. We want a man who looks like “a man,” all biceps and square shoulders, yet doing traditionally feminized things with his body. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch him doing “Pony” in Magic Mike — and then you’ll have every idea what I’m talking about).
But these men are playthings. Even the sturdiest and worldiest of them — even that silver fox Clooney, with his Italian villa and global philanthropy and immaculate suiting — fall short. They lack history; they lack gravitas. They are firmly rooted in the present. I’m not saying it’s their fault. I’m just saying it’s the truth. They’re perfect crystallizations of contemporary American taste, which, if you look at these men, is so very white and, with the exception of Tatum, flatly acultural. In other words, they’re hunk Splenda.
But again, it’s not their fault. In fifty years, they’ll be weighted with history — as Daniel Day-Lewis says in Lincoln, time does thicken all things, including the heft of sexy. Tatum’s encapsulation of working class masculinity won’t seem quite so ham handed, nor will Pitt’s multiculturalism. Robert Pattinson’s affect-less stare will be less ubiquitous, and, as such, far more compelling. Their bodies and our fetishization of them will be beautiful, fascinating relics of the early 21st century.
So if adulating these men is tantamount to getting excited over a dinner of baked potatoes, on whom can you displace your fantasies? Whose photo can you subtly make your screen saver? Whose body can you talk about with your friends when you’re two glasses of wine in? Who gets to become an overdetermined symbol for abundance?
Old, dead, movie stars, of course.
As part of my scholarship, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about stars past and present, with hours pouring over old fan magazines and promotional stills of classic stars. I also devote an incommensurate amount of energy to reading contemporary celebrity gossip, so allow me to reaffirm: Tatum’s smoulder has nothing on Young Marlon Brando’s. Placed side by side, Tatum doesn’t even look like he could start a fire.
But it doesn’t end with Brando. You want rugged handsomeness? Try Gary Cooper. Androgynous, ethnicized beauty? Valentino. Suave charisma? Cary Grant. Simmering ennui? James Dean. Upright morality meets side part? Gregory Peck. Hottest thing in the universe? Paul Newman. Tell me your pleasure, and I will give you a classic star.
My proposal, then, is this: trade your full-color, over-paparazzied fantasies for these black and white would-be grandpas. They are resplendent with history, overloaded with meaning. Frozen in time, each has come to represent something robust and complicated about a given time period. To some extent, their images have been flattened: Dean’s, for example, has become a poster, a catchphrase, and little more. Your rediscovery of them — and not just as visual images, but as stars with meaning — reanimates them, rescues them from pastiche. Suddenly, you’re Gregory Peck’s savior. You introduce him and his high-waisted trousers to your friends. You talk about him, reintroduce him to the lexicon. With your help, he exists outside of TCM. He and History are so profoundly grateful.
By appropriating these stars as your own, you reactivate their meaning and appropriate their significance for your own designs. Their images become a palimpsest of desire: your own layered over that of the contemporaries of your great-grandmother, grandmother, mother. Take Valentino: back in the ‘20s, women fainted from the feeling he gave them. Sex dared not speak its name. Now you can speak it loud and clear. Your fetishization recuperates the muted, denigrated fetishization of old. It is, in other words, an implicitly feminist act.
But you can’t just ogle the Google image. Learn something about your new star boyfriend. Ask your grandma who she loved, and why, and what that star meant to her. Watch one of his movies with fresh eyes, and watch yourself react. Buy an old fan magazine off eBay and read the sugar-coated gossip, then imagine what he was really doing off-screen — with men or with women, the choice is yours. Because these stars are dead, their meanings are both fixed and unfixed, established yet open for interpretation. They won’t publish a memoir and prove you wrong. There’ll be no sudden revelation, no paparazzi shot, no scandal that reverses his meaning and unmoors him from you. The scandalous whispers that circulate after a star’s death challenging their established image simply prove how malleable that star is in your hands.
We are, to some extent, what we love. Taste becomes us. Your taste in celebrities can demonstrate your love of surfaces: the slight, the always at risk of going stale, the unencumbered with history. These are the rice cakes of celebrity affection, and there’s certainly a time and place for them — namely, when you’re starving and there’s nothing else in the house.
But your taste can also represent a robustness. You like the seasoned, the well-aged: the glass of bourbon you savor, not shoot, with the complexity that only comes with time. You have put away childish, waifish things and move on to the main course. Your desire goes black and white but could not be more colorful. Your love of the classic movie star is, in itself, sexy: a feminist, empowering, historicizing act. The star becomes electric, and that electricity becomes your own, to do with as you please. The same principle can of course be extended to desire for the female: trade Megan Fox for Barbara Stanwyck and just try and tell me you’re not more satisfied.
And as for the fate of Tatum and Clooney, have no fear. Fifty years from now, your grandchildren will make them their own. The countdown to watching “Pony” side-by-side begins: now.