2017 – Mini Discussion: “The Great American Man”


Today we had a mini discussion about actors of he past who represented not only the desirable looks but also incorporated praiseworthy traditional virtues (righteousness, sense of justice, readiness to sacrifice oneself for a higher cause, empathy, protection of the weaker, mental and physical strength, excellence in skills and leadership etc.) in the American heroes they portrayed in film. One could argue that American movies did successfully carry American culture to foreign countries, and after WWII a part of this was due to “monumental” actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, William Holden or Henry Fonda who became the icons of “The Great American Man” that the world should (and did!) look upon. On the other hand, there existed a group of very handsome actors that embodied the male beauty ideals of their times, and who tended to be cast as rebellious but somehow sensitive and fragile personalities in their films. Their popularity  often surpassed – albeit for a limited period – those of the aforementioned veteran actors, and drew a new, young audience into the cinemas. Some of them had great acting skills, but faced great hardships to get deeper roles in Hollywood. James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando and Tyrone Power, to name just a few.  (Golden Age Hollywood actresses often represented exceptional beauty, but might never have gained recognition as “ambassadors” of American values through film.)

I was wondering in class if you could single out present day actors of the former type: The “Great American Man”, or “Great American Woman”, if you would be able to appoint one. We are so many and did not have enough time, so I would like to give you here an opportunity for additional input! (I feel that “Captain America” is rather the Marvel character who represents this ideal than the actor. I’m more looking for an actor that represents the ideal in a variety of roles, like Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington or Will Smith – you also could describe your feelings if you would believe it is one those mentioned here!) This is a question for Americans as well as foreigners who watch many American movies.




12 thoughts on “2017 – Mini Discussion: “The Great American Man”

  1. Finally a discussion where I can just talk about myself. LOL just kidding. Anyways I think the discussion we started in class was a very interesting one and I’m happy to see Karl continue it on here. I noticed a trend in there being some controversy in many of the lives of the people we look to as the great American hero’s. Everything from untimely deaths to holding their true identities secret.

    One of the men Karl mentioned in class was Charlton Heston. In his earlier days of acting he was much loved and now unfortunately he’s kind of remembered by many as what some would call a gun fanatic because of his relations with the NRA. I think it is quite a shame that this man is remembered this was way. Anti or pro guns, you need to understand this man was born in 1923 and has been dead for almost a decade now. Charlton Heston’s involvement with the NRA wasn’t controversial until he was an elderly man, and everyone seems to forget a more progressive controversy he was involved in.

    In 1971 the film The Omega Man came out, with Charlton Heston playing the lead role. In this film Heston has a relationship with Rosalind Cash a popular Africa American actress. While this may sound insignificant today you have to consider the state America was in during that time period. This is right after the civil rights movement in America and right before forced busing as known as Desegregation busing. Not to mention interracial marriage not even being legal until I think 1967? This wasn’t the very very first movie with an interracial kiss or interracial relationship but it is said to be the first big time production with such events transpiring. This isn’t the first time Charlton Heston’s name was brought up in conversations on race relations in America. Charlton Heston was actually very active during the Civil Rights Movement and there is even some pretty famous photographs of him taken during the March on Washington in 1963. To those whom may not be familiar with Americas 1963 March on Washington you may be familiar with one of the speeches given that day, Martin Luther kings famous “i have a dream” speech.


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    1. Charlton Heston was awesome actor that I will always remember most for his role in Planet of the Apes. He was an iconic actor and you are right that you have to consider the time he grew up in when considering his beliefs. The level or anti gun and pro gun argument that has become mainstream has never been an issue before. It is sad that people may have a negative outlook on this great American hero due to this belief. You point out his support and contribution of civil rights which is a much more important fight than if I can own a gun or not. Alas, sadly the last thing I remember about Charlton Heston is his cameo in Tim Burton’s version of Planet of the Apes.


  2. I might ruffle some feathers by saying this but, the concept of the Great American Man concept in cinema has somewhat been vilified over that past several decades. Outspoken feminists rail against the film industry for not representing certain types of female characters, but they also rail against the industry for promoting what they feel is ‘toxic masculinity’ in its portrayals of macho, man-splaining, sex crazed, do-no-wrong, violent center-of-attention males.
    While certain complaints on the feminist’s part might be completely justified, the idea of a great American man (or a great man in general) is one that I think should not be abandoned in artistic mediums as a character or subject of exploration simply because there might be an imbalance in the ratio of male to female characters or an issue with so called ‘toxicity’ in certain aspects of dramatized masculinity. Yes, I firmly believe that it is unfair and an injustice that women do not get to have great on-screen role models in anywhere near the quantity that young boys do, but having been born as apparently the more fortunate gender in this specific regard, I can honestly say that male characters in film had an incredible impact on me as a child (although I do feel that it is worth debating whether that impact was entirely positive in the long run).
    I also completely understand the outcry over the somewhat socially unacceptable aspects of dramatized masculinity in films over the past century. But, can we find examples of male characters that are healthy for young boys? This answer to this question, personally, is undoubtedly yes. However, the type of male character that I feel is a healthy a role model for young boys may not meet the expectations of those pushing the initial complaints.
    When I was a child, I literally was Indiana Jones. I just was. There was no question. Many of the male tropes that we discussed in class are present in the three Indiana Jones films and it would be an understatement to say that my personal and below the surface ideals for my own masculinity come from that certain swagger, confidence, and intellect that Harrison Ford gave to that character Indiana Jones.
    The filmmakers more or less merged the Western genre with the great British spy films to create an even larger than life male paradigm, one that fascinated me. Indiana Jones is an alpha male. He punches hard, he is incredibly brave, and he never wants for female attention. Yet, he often gets beat up and loses the fight. He experiences adversity. This is something that is not typical of heroes in film all the time (although in the end he always triumphs, which is typical). He is also clumsy with women, making him a far cry from the Sean Connery portrayal of James Bond who could simply will intercourse to take place with whomever he chose. Both of these things make the character imperfect when seen against the backdrop of other male perfection paradigms, but this imperfection is what combats any idea of toxicity in masculine character. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any 1980’s male tropes that perpetuate potentially problematic male caricatures, but by in large the character is utterly decent. Perhaps the noblest trait that he possesses is his dedication to the preservation of history. The guy is a straight nerd on a rampage, and I loved everything about him when I was growing up.
    By no means is Indiana Jones the only good example of when film seems to have gotten the male character right, but admittedly, most of the time when I hear about examples of ‘acceptable masculinity’ in film, they are usually not alpha males. Although some might take exception with the term ‘alpha male’ as itself being a toxic idea, what I mean by using the term is a male that commands the respect of other males. Usually when American film wants to portray ‘alpha’ qualities, they cross over into toxic territory. They show males unabashedly objectifying women, women being the prizes of the males rather than a mutually agreed upon union, sex being the ultimate goal for the male, violence solving all problems for the male, and suggesting that the male must never show any emotion (although anger is an convenient exception). We do not need these traits in a male character to consider him ‘alpha’. We don’t need to elicit a reaction of admiration and respect towards a male character by making him utterly toxic to society. However we also don’t need to decrease the healthy masculine traits in our cinematic male characters in order to inoculate masculinity completely.
    I think film still has a long way to go on giving girls great on-screen role models and, of course, film can better avoid toxicity in the males characters shown as role models for boys. All this said, I do not believe that in the last hundred years of film making have filmmakers always failed on offering great depictions of the American male, and I feel that many of these depictions have been a useful cultural conduit through which many American boys over the years have learned appropriate masculine aspirations.

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    1. I agree with you whole heartily. Films are in many ways a sort of escapism from modern life. When we allow politics into films it tends to destroy in a way that separation of reality and fantasy. On the topic of feminism why many points of toxic masculinity in older films may be justified I believe that to take away or the image of The American Man. Now let me be straight I do believe that women deserve to be represented in a light that is fitting to the modern woman and in doing so in a way that promotes the ideals of gender equality. However, both sides should find a compromise that can be fitting as the creation of roles models as stated above are an important part of film. Now maybe we could move away from the sex craved male trope and move into a more equally beneficial male role that depicts both strength and intelligence that could stand side by side with a women whether in a leading role or a secondary role. What I think I am ultimately getting at is men and women should be equally treated in film and for either side to try to force down the other is not right. If a man and a woman are both caste in the same film as leading roles then they should not appear to be dominate over each other in one way or the other.


      1. I have to disagree with you on something, mainly compromise. The moment you start to force or enforce a constraint like this would hinder the natural changes that take place over time and when it is lifted it is more likely to revert.

        An option that has more of a lasting impact and a better chance to work is to target things at a lower level. I think this is already in the works and partially because of the news talking about Wonder Woman and its success. It is surprising that a successful movie generated a lot of negative kickback, probably because it is arguably the best DC work since Christopher Nolan’s Batman and people involved in the failure had to vent. By bringing attention of the industry to the next generation we will make headway into a positive change that lasts. This is by no means a quick answer to creating the equality and therefore both voices being heard, but it is a lasting one.

        The same plan would stand to help other problems within the industry. None of these are to force or restrict, but to expand. Expanding viewpoints and adding them to the films people see, the audience can then see the views and voices to expand their own voice on what they want. This is how growth and normalization work while also making the money in sales to support the industry as a whole.


  3. I was really interested when this topic was discussed in class. It’s very interesting to know what was the ideal American hero back in the day and the evolution of it now. It was also interesting to know that there’s another group that existed that certain actors standout mainly for its desirable physicality such as what the example mentions, James Dean. However, I think if I were to pick one man that stands as The Great American Man that would be fairly difficult. I say that this could be challenging because America now is even more diverse than it was before. So picking one that represents as a whole is quite difficult. This is not only for the men but also for the women. This would also vary on what does really the “Great American Man/Woman” qualifies of. Like what Karl showed in class that when some people think about modern great American man they think Denzel Washington or Will Smith etc. I think that’s a very interesting shift. These men would not have been on top of the list back in the day because of the racial disputes that were happening. However, now the world are acknowledging African American men to represent America. I would also have to actually agree with going for Will Smith. I know there are a lot of great actors in Hollywood but Will Smith stands out. He has a vast variety of roles that he has done in the spectrum of different kinds of genres from comedy to sci-fi to drama. I also think that Leonardo Dicaprio would still be a good fit for the Great American Man role. I was actually thinking of Ryan Gosling and which category does he fall into. I think Gosling falls in the same category as James Dean somehow just because he is so famous for a lot of women and he has that bad boy/ romantic aura into him. So I think in a sense he falls in the other group where people look to him more because of his physicalities which is sort of similar with Channing Tatum. However, they are still both very good actors.

    I like that women are included in this discussion now because I don’t think back in the day people actually thought of women that would represent a patriarchal society in the film except if the topic was about sex symbolism. Another interesting change that we see now. My personal pick would be Meryl Streep hands down. I think she is a very strong representation of an “American Woman” and another would be Jennifer Lawrence. She has continued to prove his capabilities in acting and widened the range of her skills. She also has maintained a strong reputation as a person and in the business just like Meryl Streep. They are both very strong women but stands with such poise and grace.


  4. In our class, we touch a lot of great old movie in America. Those stories support an idea called “great American man.” I think that is a good time to me to think and talk about with. Frist of all, masculine is the significant element to create a movie story. And, men’s status is obviously higher than women. As a result, man mostly is main character in most of the movie. However, The idea of “great American man.” Still stay until now and future movie. In my opinion, I would say, this idea is kind of developing a stereotype for men. It illustrates men are powerful, great and good at combat. Additionally, in our movie industry, they need to follow this frame and the gender role to get a better income and box. This idea shouldn’t change as it helps to keep American ideal and men’s status. It creates an inequality for women, conversely, it saves the movie industry in America and around our world.
    I am a student comes from eastern Asian. I touch few Asian films from another class. And, I totally feel the powerful of the idea “great American man” because all the movie stories structures are following this idea to make. All the men are protecting women and save the world. Those movies come from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Those movie directors are affected by the American culture for sure. Finally, masculine idea is realized around the eastern Asian. But, it shows women status is slightly decreasing. However, “great American man” is not influence America, and it changes the world. We suppose to keep this idea as I think it helps our movie’s development.
    After World War II, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart etc. They perform a lot of great movie at that time to support the idea of “great American man.” And, those films combine heroism and masculine together. It totally pushes men to another level of achievement. Also, it points out the fundamental idea of American man; that support to the status of the country, America. Finally, the culture of American movies slowly inserts to eastern Asian movie. It makes a big Turning point for our international movie maker. I would like to say keep the idea, it supports industry in America and around our world.
    In this 30 years, Hong Kong products a lot of great movie. And, they follow the frame of “great American man” to make movie. “Infernal Affair” is one of the famous movie from Hong Kong in 1990’s. It is a gangster movie. As I can see, in the movie, men are dominating the story, there are just one woman in the story. And, she is a phycologist, a doctor. Her character being is helping the man getting out of sick and she helps to relaxing the man. It is a good point to realize woman is the support. Men are the heroes. Few year later, the movie “Infernal Affair” reproduce in the American movie industry. It also got a good respond from audience if the ideal of our topic. It illuminates people from everywhere, as Hong Kong movie industry are successful. In a similar way, our teacher said, “’Captain America’ is rather the Marvel character who represents this ideal than the actor.” I think the audience need those idea of get into cinema to watching a movie.
    I believe the American movie gets today achievement, the power comes from the gender being in the movie. I think the reason why the movie successful is those movies attract men and women to spend time to focus on those movies because women enjoy the story, the majority part of women are not care about the gender inequality as they just enjoy the story. What they want is seeing men are powerful and save everything. Also, men enjoy the most is they are being a man. It could kill women’s heart. That’s the basic concept for our society. I think the gender equality is not that significant for the story because that’s a creation, that’s not a reality. The original thing of movie is giving people to enjoy, there is nothing to care about. People are saying that racism, gender inequality are killing the movie industry. As, they do not know, what people really want to see in cinema.
    Finally, if I have a chance to choose a real “great American man.” The movie Titanic, Jack Dawson is the best choice for me. Since, he saves rose to get out of the evil husband. And, using his life to save a woman’s life. It really touches audience heart and realize the heroism. However, his personality and feeling to me; it is a real American as there are lot of scenes to show us what actually American man does in their real life.


  5. Great American man huh? I’m not so good with names, so I can’t recall the names of the actors, or the names of the movies for that matter, my mom would have me watch with her when I was little. But I do remember her crooning at the screen and telling me how wonderful the movies were and that’s how real men should be.

    I remember when I was about to enter high school, though it might not have been for the idea of the great American man, my mom sat me down and made me watch two movies to prepare me for the possibility of dating. I wasn’t allowed to date, but my mom wanted me prepared just in case I decided to date behind their backs. Those movies were Romancing the Stone and The Princess Bride. Her idea was that I should pay attention to the leading men and use them as an example of what a good man to date was like. Even at the tender age of 14 or something I could tell she was a little off her rocker on that one. Real people weren’t going to be exactly like the movies.

    Picking up from there, I would say the great American man is a similar case. We know how the actors look on camera, but off camera can be entirely different. So we choose to keep casting these actors in these roles not for who they really are, but for what they represent. An ideal we want to exist but can’t have in reality. And as these actors get more roles, their representation of this only grows. It’s addictive in a way.

    Looking to other countries, I’m trying to think of other stars that might fit a similar role but to another country. I suppose anyone who’s played James Bond could be seen as the Great British man. I suppose there’s also Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee who were seen as the great asian men, but that’s only in America, so I’m not sure if it crosses over to other countries as well. Plus lumping them together as just asian isn’t so great. Bruce Lee was actually born in America, though his family had moved there from Hong Kong. Jackie Chan was born in Hong Kong and then began to work in films outside of Hong Kong later. So, they’re both from Hong Kong, not just ‘asia’. So it’d be interesting if Hong Kong saw them as their “Great man” personality, or if it’s only in the states we see them as such.

    I suppose this is a class focused on America specifically, so focusing on other countries isn’t as big of a topic for discussion, but I think it’d be good to know if this idea of a “Great Man” is something distinctly American or western or if it’s seen elsewhere or even world-wide.

    Anyway, that’s all for now.


  6. The idea of a “Great American Man” has changed significantly over time. I remember when I was little watching “Dirty Dancing” with my mom and she though Patrick Swayze was just absolutely dreamy. But what makes an American women see a man as the ultimate sex symbol? Is it the hair? Or maybe its his sweet dance moves. I think it is a combination of images we see over time in our culture, time period, and location that assimilate us to think a certain way. In America in the 60 probably all the way up to the late 90’s, chest hair was what man a man manly. Many of the sex symbols had a chest hair and a full head of hair. I believe this changed around the 2000’s. Maybe its my mom’s obsession with Patrick Swayze that made me this way but I personally like men with chest hair which is a fading preference. The full head of hair idea changed as well with icons like Vin Diesel and the Rock creating a sexy character that doesn’t need the flowing locks. But it isn’t just hair that defines a man! Its the muscles! Right?! Well that’s not really the case. Look at Johnny Depp for example. He is a fit looking man but he isn’t your idea of a muscular man. The idea of men having to have large muscle in order to be sexy is actually something fairly new. In Harper Bazaar Top 50 Most Beautiful men of all time, the majority of the men on that list aren’t considered to be body builders. So what does make a “Leading Man”? I honestly think it is a combination of personality, appealing face, and if he can sing a love song or two well that a total plus. 😉 (John Travolta in Grease anyone?)


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  7. I would say Jake Gyllenhaal and Zac Efron may also be representing the Great American man in more modern film. They have different roles, but they usually fit any main male character. They both star in many romance comedy films which I think is one big element of “the great American man.” Also for Jake Gyllenhaal, I guess I am just a fan. Hehe
    For women, I would say Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, and Angelina Jolie also represent a great American woman. All of them have a strong presence in films that does not just come from the fact that they play the main roles.
    All of them are still playing leading roles in many genres of film. Besides their acting skills and popularity, I feel like they represent a bigger icon regardless of their characters they play in the film. For example, for Angelina Jolie is considered a role model not just in the United States, but around the world by becoming the international ambassador of UNICEF.
    These are all kinds of actors that the casting producers probably think of on the top of their head if they are trying to make a blockbuster mainstream film that needs to appeal to everyone at any age. From this, I would say that popularity is one important thing that is common with any actor considered “the great American man” or “the great American woman.”
    Aside from the popularity, I think the roles they play through the films they are in is very important. Images of actors are more than often shaped by their roles. especially the roles which they got a big break on. The more you portray a righteous and heroic character, the more you appear as strong and manly. This is definitely going to affect how others see the actors themselves outside of their roles. I think there are many other characteristics that appeal to people other than being strong and manly, for women, elegant and pretty.
    Recently, we have become more accepting of various characteristics for both genders. More sensitive men or strongly depicted women can be seen as an ideal and attractive. Therefore, the key elements of “the great american man” or “the great American woman” has broadened and I think it would differ depending on the individual.
    I feel like there are many actors and actresses that become very iconic after they pass away. I am well aware that these iconic actors are an icon because they were great, but I also feel like people imagine and create a still image of them as this iconic figure even if it were actually different from what people say about them. For James Dean, he got into an accident when he was too too young…(24!?..) In the people’s minds he was forever the young rebellious and handsome actor which still makes him very iconic and sensational. No one saw him age and I feel like people look at him as this never aging role model.
    I do not know if this directly connect to the topic, but in japan, I would say for women, there is one specific role that will almost guarantee you a successful path in the acting industry. That is the heroin of the NHK morning drama series. This is like a pathway towards becoming a household name in japan. Therefore, many young actors try to get the role even after they have already kind of established themselves in the industry. These days I feel like NHK is choosing people who are already too famous (maybe they want to get more views) , but when someone new comes up, you get recognition right away all over japan. Many elderly people tend to watch the series in the morning and the support and recognition from the older age range may actually be very important. For men, the power ranger series is where many well known actors start from. I think the show reaches a lot of mothers which watch the show with their kids and create a small fandom. It is surprising how many actors has started from being in the power ranger series who are now big not just between the mothers but nationwide.
    Overall, I think it is very difficult to choose someone as a “great American man” or “great American woman,” but it is interesting how the values could change overtime. In terms of handsomeness or prettiness, I still think it is mostly the exact same. I think the actors and actresses from the early 90s are just as beautiful as actors today. Maybe the character has been a little more open and become broad of what is ideal or not. I should look into more film in the past as well as recent films to compare and contrast if there are any significant changes in big stars are being portrayed inside films.


  8. Even though I am not familiar at all with older movies and older actors, this was an interesting discussion. I pretty much knew all the names that were mentioned in class, but in some cases I literally just recognized the name of the actor, not being able to relate it to any specific movie. As a result, I could not say which older actor embodies the figure of the Great American Man on the screen.
    Despite the fact that I knew very little about the topic, just the idea that the American Culture traveled through movies and through the actors themselves was enough to grab my attention. I might be mistaking, but I think that the US is the only country that portrays a prototype of the “Great Man” on the screen. The ideals those actors and their characters tried to communicate were always values strictly related to those of the American nation: being rightful, just, fair, etc.
    Talking about contemporary movies, it is hard to find an example of great American man for me. As I am not American, most often than not I tend to confuse the “Great American Man” with a simple “Good Guy”, and it is super hard to think about an actor, or actress, that can embody this figure. The idea of what makes the “Great American Man” has also changed deeply over time. Nowadays, a western movie with a righteous sheriff would be not as appealing to the public anymore. I agree with mindbender: as for the ultimate sex symbol, the image of the Great American Man was shaped by culture. And culture eveolved a lot in the past 100 years.
    If I were to guess, I would say that the actor that makes me think about the Great American Man the most is Will Smith. He is an outstanding actor, in the first place. Moreover, in his roles he is always the leading man, even though he has been in a huge variety of roles. What I see throughout his career, however, is a continuity of portraying “the American Man”. Not necessarily Great, but definitely the average citizen. He shows strengths and weaknesses that every man can have in his movies. In particular, in I am Legend, he does act like the Great American Man. He fights to save his life and that of his dog until the end. He is fair to other creatures, and kind to his dog. A strong character indeed.


  9. In my eyes, the great American man was considered to be a man who was attractive, intelligent, strong, confident, and most importantly, white. To me, the great American man should be someone who sends a good message and inspires people to prosper. He should be a leader and give the portrayal of what a success man to positively influence the rest of the men in the country. In movies, I would imagine that the great American man was someone who had morals and believed in justice and doing good things for people and the world. Maybe he would be an activist for justice and fight for causes that want to instill ethics. I also imagine him joining the Peace Corp or doing charity work in third world countries and give homeless people food. Maybe he is religious and goes to church every week. My point is that, I think Americans had the wrong idea of what a great man should be.


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