Male companionship movies and the great American cool

by Arthur Nolletti, Jr.

from Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 35-36.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004.

Probably given impetus by John Schlesinger’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969). with its tale of a country-mouse Texas stud learning the hard facts of live from his derelict city-mouse friend, the currently popular male companionship film has emerged as one of the most durable and important screen modes of the 70s. Still going strong with ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, it dominated the 1973-74 film scene in what so far has been its banner year. There were Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in PAPILLON, Paul Newman and Robert Redford in THE STING, Michael Moriarty and Robert de Niro in BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, Gene Hackman and Al Pacino in SCARECROW, Bernie Casey and Bo Swenson in MAURIE, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in MEAN STREETS, Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid in THE LAST DETAIL, George Segal and Elliot Gould in CALIFORNIA SPLIT, Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges in THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, and very likely a few titles that have escaped me momentarily.

Though any movie boasting male actors in the principal roles might seem at first to qualify as a male companionship film, nothing could be further from the truth. The recent spate of “cop pictures” (S*P*Y*S, BUSTING, THE SUPER COPS, THE NEW CENTURIONS, etc.), for instance, owes its male-dominated casts more to the requirements of the genre than to anything else. Ditto for such super macho entries as THE KILLER ELITE and EMPEROR OF THE NORTH. Basically interested in the central relationship it depicts, the male companionship film can be divided into two groups: the film of bonhomie and the film of friendship.

The film of bonhomie treats its relationship with picaresque laissez-faire. Here in a world peopled by ideal drinking buddies, geniality and friendliness are passed off more or less as friendship. In the phenomenally popular and Oscarized THE STING, to cite a prime example, the two plucky con men make few demands and exert no pressure on each other. Nor is there any hint of real, discernible affection between them. Their impersonal relationship is as carefully laid out as a football field, with the rules just as formalized if unspoken. The filmmakers faithfully adhere to these rules, not so much out of fear that viewers may suspect latent homosexuality (though that fear probably exists somewhere in the front of their minds), but because they sense the viewers’ admiration for the strong silent man, the “rugged individual” who by now is one of the country’s most cherished mythic prototypes. In this manner, then, bonhomie helps propagate a myth that teaches us to be wary of affection in man-to-man relationships. Additionally, however, it probably gives viewers what they would ideally like or think they would like in their own relationships: fun, a kind of loyalty that is unspoken and unasked for, and total freedom from psychological complications or involvement. What it gives them in plain English is good ole American “cool.”

Cool, as any veteran of kindergarten knows, is the art of being calm, steady, in control, and unruffled in the face of confusion, crisis, or chaos. “Be cool,” in fact, is the unwritten motto of the land with “don't panic” as its corollary. Not to be forgotten, these dicta are more zealously drummed into men than are reading, writing, and arithmetic. “To lose your cool” is less a social blunder than a sign of character deficiency and moral failure. With such a view at work, no wonder we—men and women alike—are more impressed than disgusted by Clint Eastwood’s ability to gun down fleeing bank robbers only seconds after finishing a mustard-sopped hot dog. This is the logical reductio act absurdum, in a culture that encourages its members, especially its men, to restrain and even set aside their feelings in order to be capable of decisive action. In the final analysis cool becomes a value in itself. Absence of feeling and emotional expression is mistaken for strength.

Yet this is by no means the complete picture. Somewhat schizophrenic, society also realizes that without emotional expression a man is scarcely more human than the famed Marlboro cowboy. Consequently the second type of male companionship film—that of friendship—risks greater depth of feeling, exploring a genuine relationship. It acknowledges the audiences’ need to believe and trust in emotional involvement, but sometimes it is compromised by the filmmakers themselves. In their desire to satisfy the audiences’ sense of reality, to recognize and consider any skepticism they may harbor toward friendship, the filmmakers grow timorous. Worse still, they allow a vestige of cool to slip into their materials. To be sure, this cool is not so pervasive and damaging as in the bonhomie film, but it is there nonetheless.

This phenomenon is best illustrated by BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, one of the most affecting films of friendship of 1973. Like BRIAN'S SONG and National General’s MAURIE, its milieu is the world of professional sports—this time baseball—and its plot is built around the fatal illness of one of the two friends. Slowly dying of Hodgkin’s disease, Pearson (Robert De Niro), the doomed player, is a backwoods bumpkin, a greasy-haired, tobacco-chewing catcher, equally mediocre in his craft and at making friends on the team. Yet somehow this gawky fellow and proverbial loser has managed to earn the friendship of Wiggin (Michael Moriarty), the team’s ace pitcher, who is on the brink of fame and fortune. Mark Harris’ screenplay focuses on Wiggin’s devotion to Pearson, his struggle to keep Pearson from being cut from the team, his effort to conceal Pearson’s illness, and finally his standing beside Pearson until they must part ways.

Among the many virtues of this fine film and perhaps the most admirable are its respect for Wiggin and Pearson’s relationship and its skill in balancing compassion, gentle humor, and sentiment. Wiggin especially is sensitively characterized. Though his affection is rich, he never coddles Pearson but instead, out of his own self discipline and regard for their friendship, quietly urges Pearson to do his best on the field as if everything were A-OK. In moments of need, however, he does not hesitate to show his feelings. When Pearson suffers a first attack during the middle of the night and shivers more from fear than from the cold, Wiggin is more than at his side. He literally holds Pearson from all pain, both physical and psychic.

Because 95% of the film is so unaffected and forthright in depicting human emotions, the meek ending is doubly disappointing. The friends part in a beautifully understated scene, knowing that they will never see each other again. Then shortly after in a voice-over narration, Wiggin explains, “From now on, I rag [bother] nobody.” Given the context, this cool, laconic utterance is more perplexing than anything else and warrants Stanley Kauffmann’s complaint:

“That’s the point? Pretty puny; and pretty false.” (1)

Of course, that’s not the point, and Kauffmann probably knows it. Yet for reasons that seem fairly obvious, the makers of BANG THF DRUM SLOWLY are content to leave their film thematically and emotionally suspended in mid-air rather than incur possible audience displeasure. Fearing that viewers might consider Wiggin’s articulation of what the friendship has meant to him as sentimental balderdash or worse, the filmmakers have said almost nothing. This omission is a nice irony since the byline in the ads comes closer to the truth:

“Nothing is more important than friendship. Not fame, not money, not death.”

What goes unsaid is that thanks to his friendship with Pearson, Wiggin has had the chance to develop his humanity through love. Having taken the principles of sportsmanship and applied them in life, Wiggins has transcended the macho philosophy of the locker room to become richer, more sensitive—in a word, human. To express such a common though rarely achieved ideal takes more guts than the filmmakers have had. in their defense they most likely would argue that they chose to underplay the conclusion so that audiences could formulate their own meaning. But this is only a clever way to rationalize the basic motivation that prompted their decision in the first place.

No such compromise occurs in another meritorious film of friendship, THE LAST DETAIL. Focusing on the exchange of compassion between men, the story concerns the effect of Meadows, a young bumbler, on the two escorts assigned to transfer him from a Virginia brig to a naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

At first “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson), the eternal boy out for a boozing good time, regards Meadows (Randy Quaid) only as a burden. His plan is to get Meadows to Portsmouth as fast as possible and then have some fun. But Meadows is such a pathetic greenhorn, his sentence so far outweighs his crime—he tried to lift forty dollars from a charity box and was caught in the act—that Buddusky feels sorry for him and decides that he deserves one last fling. Probably it’s his first. What starts out as a hell-raising good time, however, soon grows into something quite different. True, there is plenty of rough talk, beer guzzling, a scrap with some marines, and, of course. Meadows’ sexual initiation in a Boston brothel. But all the roughhouse is rather innocent and even touching. Underneath it is a developing affection between guards and prisoner which awakens feelings in the former and helps mature the latter.

Robert Towne’s screenplay artfully penetrates Buddusky’s he-man bluster, exposing his insecurities and guarded emotions, as well as his genuine coarseness and cussedness. However, it does not pretend that Buddusky’s discovery of his potential sensitivity will in any way change his life. On the contrary, Buddusky turns his prisoner in and returns to regular duty. Both he and fellow guard Mulhall have experienced the rewards and pain of friendship, and in so doing have experienced even more: love and self-discovery. Yet for various reasons, one of which is fear, the experience will become only a memory. Buddusky will continue to be the “Bad Ass” that he both pretends to be and is.

More than anything else, Buddusky is a prisoner of cool without even knowing it. For him and millions like him, manhood is equated with being tough, and when he cannot act tough, at least he can talk tough or so he thinks. Actually his standard brand of cool bravura—what he thinks is sure to bring women to his bed in droves—repeatedly backfires. In fact his “relationships” with women are far greater flops than those with men because they lack even the redeeming grace of reluctant affection. Scoring satiric points off Buddusky for his misconceptions of masculinity, the makers of THE LAST DETAIL implicitly demand that we see how ingrained social cool damages a man’s relationship with both sexes.

Like most probing male companionship films BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY and THE LAST DETAIL successfully dramatize how friendship binds men together by a mutual code of trust and honor. Indeed the film of friendship always pays obeisance to this code, which is perhaps given quintessential expression in Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH (1969). In this controversial western, which also just happens to be one of the most elegiac examinations of the failure of friendship, Pike Bishop (William Holden) explains to his ragged outlaw gang,

“When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can't do that, you're no better than an animal.”

Unfortunately in Pike’s complex, ambiguous world—the changing West—most men exploit and are exploited. Friendship is passé.

If anything, today’s world is even more complex and ambiguous than that of Pike. And yet audiences, especially in the United States, hunger for a reaffirmation of certain values. Psychologically and morally dislocated, estranged from church and state, they look to the past—hence the wave of nostalgia—and/or they turn to themselves and to such basic values as family ties, personal friendships, and the bonds between men. No matter how roseate this may sound, it does offer men and women a small enough, personal enough unit of trust and affection to nurture.

It is no accident that the male companionship film has blossomed into a recent trend, for male friendship itself has long held an important place in the scheme of traditional U.S. values. One has only to think of our literature, of Ismael and Queequeg in Moby Dick, Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men, and the suburban quartet in Deliverance—works which have logically found their way to film—to realize that for U.S. viewers, male friendship is an archetypal form of emotional security, a pact of love and brotherhood. (2) As such it is so powerful a myth that it reaches into the deepest recesses of the national psyche, fulfilling the vicarious needs of men and women alike for those things which it represents: purity, innocence, love, and human sensibility. Friendship, that is to say, is all the more precious to us because it seems a rarity in our lives. Undoubtedly these are the main reasons for the emergence and popularity of the trend rather than those explanations usually offered, such as the current lack of major female box office attractions or Hollywood’s nervousness in depicting women in these days of the Feminist Movement.

Unsurprisingly nostalgia pervades many of the films whether they deal with friendship or bonhomie. What seems to have been lost is not only friendship but also the right to be a hero or even an individual. The most popular male companionship films, those of bonhomie, have sensed as much and catered to these needs often with a cunning instinct for what contemporary audiences would accept emotionally. No bonhomie films have been more successful or knowing than those which team Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) and THE STING (1973) the old loyalties between men are treated with a kind of heroism and romanticism. But it’s not the variety of the Old Sentimental Hollywood in which they died with their boots on if they died at all but a new brand. The New Heroism is carefully cool and emotionally lightweight so as to give audiences what they want—the benefit of camaraderie, yet in a cutesy, capering style. For all the supposed joi de vivre, however, there is something intrinsically disturbing about the Newman-Redford films. The films exploit the very values—friendship and the need for individuality—that they pretend to avow. They use nostalgia for these values as points of departure to serve up the slickest form of escapism. Worse they leave audiences with the impression that these values have been examined fairly, however lightly, which is not the case. Manipulative and calculated, BUTCH CASSIDY and THE STING are films to be criticized because they shamelessly advocate and glamorize cool.

Fully aware that many male relationships in this country scrupulously avoid the slightest expression of affection, the makers of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID first of all play cool and loose with Butch and Sundance’s relationship. Not so much a friendship as a cowboy nightclub act, it finds Redford playing straight man to Newman’s lovable chatterer. “Bitch, bitch, bitch,” Sundance remarks at one point when Butch sarcastically jokes about his dinner. Though we are left to surmise that some kind of emotional and spiritual commitment exists between the two men—otherwise what sense would their staying together and dying together make?—William Goldman’s script offers few clues. Instead it seems content to garner laughs and to hint that the pair’s incessant wisecracking obliquely indicates affection. Even the final scene fails to deliver any explanation because the filmmakers are only interested in combining cool with heroism. Thus, totally surrounded by the Bolivian army, Butch and Sundance engage in more of their stock banter, albeit somewhat muted, as they courageously try to keep up a front in the face of death. The ploy, however, doesn't work. Even here their familiar verbal antics have no more capacity for evoking nuances and genuine feelings than they did throughout the film.

If cool is responsible for making Butch and Sundance’s camaraderie superficial, it is even more at fault for vulgarizing their relationships with women. The first scene between Sundance and Etta Place (Katherine Ross), his school teacher girlfriend, is especially galling since it purposely misleads viewers into believing that he intends to rape her. It goes on until she protests,

“Do you know what I wish? That you'd get here once on time!”

Then like a mousetrap the entire scene springs climactically shut, clearly catching the audience by surprise.

Logically and emotionally the writing of this “meeting cute” scene is patently dishonest, and not because a man and a woman in love would eschew playing such games. Here the construct is deliberately calculated to tease, even to titillate. There is contempt for the sensibilities of the audience and a tip-off that the relationship, like subsequent materials, will be used for effect rather than for exploration. The remainder of the film treats Etta and Sundance’s “romance” with less cool flashiness but no greater depth. In fact, despite a characterizing speech in which she expresses her reasons for joining the pair, Etta remains essentially one-dimensional. But that is one dimension more than any of Butch’s women. Plainly whores with hearts of gold, they stand by for quick interludes and then mostly praise him as a “real man” while he makes his opinion of them known by less than half listening. It is possible to believe that many male viewers can accept such cardboard mockups of women, especially as objects of their own sexual fantasies. But it is hard to imagine that most female viewers can, unless of course they find identification impossible in the first place. Whatever the case, the filmmakers expect us to accept these relationships as the epitome of cool in a film that finally offers little else.

The question arises: why have audiences paid over $44 million to see BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID during its various releases? The answers are fairly obvious. At the simplest level they regard the film as glamorous, escapist fun adorned by the presence of two attractive stars and featuring a fashionable story of outlaws on the lam. Furthermore, there is the combination of modishness and nostalgia that gives audiences the seemingly simple, romantic past alongside the psychological and moral verities of today. But one undeniable reason for the success of the film is its implicit definition of heroism. Like all of us Sundance and Butch are flawed; the former cannot swim, the latter cannot stop nagging. Yet they never allow themselves to be intimidated. Their spirit remains inviolate and they die uncompromised because they never lose their cool. Unfortunately even their camaraderie is held in check lest it trespass upon private feelings. Thus on the surface, the film cleverly pays tribute to the traditional bonds of friendship and the code of loyalty. But in actuality it finally settles on the myth of the rugged individual, using it to advocate a new cool heroism. If most viewers seem willing to accept this cool, it is because the film admittedly has a colorful and invigorating manner that makes other considerations appear minor. Yet despite appearances, the matter is neither so simple nor so innocent as that. In an increasingly impersonal world—where acquaintanceship and friendship often go undifferentiated—many people no doubt accept cool as a form of self protection: less demanding involvements are simply more convenient. By partaking of this attitude, BUTCH CASSIDY allows for worship at a familiar altar while it fabricates, propagates, and cultivates cool as if it were a consummate virtue.

The same celebration continues in THE STING. Now Butch and Sundance shed their cowboy attire for a full array of Edith Head’s costumes as they find themselves in the Chicago of the 30s out to hoodwink a “vindictive as hell” big-time syndicate boss. Redford is Johnny Hooker, smalltime con man, and his buddy is Henry Gondorff (Newman), ace veteran fallen on boozy hard times. Essentially a caper film, THE STING is primarily concerned with the details and mechanics of Gondorff’s strategy. Thus David S. Ward’s screenplay allows Hooker’s fervor for revenge and any genuine characterization to fade into the background so that the plot’s twists and surprises can reign supreme. To this end not only are several subplots interwoven to liven things up, but also nostalgia is laid on with a trowel to make the film seem stylish.

Beginning with Universal’s (ghastly) lucite trademark of the late 30s and including then voguish optical devices (wipes and iris shots), episodic title cards straight from the pages of the Saturday Evening Post and Scott Joplin’s ragtime score, THE STING is less a lightweight entertainment than a slavish encore of BUTCH CASSIDY that refuses to swerve too far from the successful formula. Even the relationship of Hooker and Gondorff is carefully imitative, full of the same soulless cool. There is the predictable banter, though this time it is more cynical and salty, as much grizzled toughness as cute repartee. “Glad to meet ya, Kid. You're a real horse’s ass,” Gondorff succinctly greets Hooker at their first meeting, thereby setting the tone of their relationship.

Such verbal playfulness would be acceptable if the camaraderie had some substance, but it has next to none. Though we are to understand that the men have become quick friends, what little affection they show for each other is conveyed in speedy shorthand. Gestures include one wink, a steady exchange of smiles, and a glean in the eye as they pass their warning signal, a calculated flick of the nose with the forefinger. “You can't play your friends like marks,” Gondorff warns Hooter. This statement applies even more to Ward’s script, which operates on the principle that in a caper film only the most captious viewers would expect to see friends stop to talk and enjoy each ether’s company. Even Gondorff’s role of mentor to Hooker’s protégé is less an emotional tie than a necessary part of the con, in which the charmingly naive Kid gets himself killed and then everything is over for both of them.

And yet in the last third of THE STING, the filmmakers depend on audiences’ taking a vested interest in Gondorff and Hooker’s “friendship.” The chief question no longer remains, “Will the two make their sting?” but rather “Will Hooker betray Gondorff to the FBI when it looks as if he has no other choice?” Every indication is that he does, but appearances are forever deceiving until Hooker and Gondorff rise from their mock deaths in gleeful triumph, having been in cahoots all along. Comparable to the “meeting cute” scene of BUTCH CASSIDY, this finale requires the viewers’ concern over the pair’s friendship, but only so that it can deliver the usual goods: cool. Real cool.

Furthermore, in those moments when the filmmakers try to show that Hooker and Gondorff have at least some feeling, the effort fails because the men’s cool, nonexistent relationships with women undermine it. Nearly faceless, Gondorff’s girlfriend Billie is the stereotyped, tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside madam; Hooker’s is a sullen waitress who holds a tight rein on her feelings. The depth of these relationships reaches a tasteless nadir in the crosscutting between Gondorff’s and Hooker’s bedding down with their women. In different locations they do the same thing at the same time with women who are more or less willing. But the scene is essentially phony because it seeks to add dimension to the men’s characters without challenging our image of them as cool operators. They come for sex and even deliver such painfully pathetic lines as Hooker’s, “I'm just like you. It’s two in the morning and I don't know anybody,” but they do not share any of their feelings or qualms about the big job coming up the next morning.

Worse still is the script’s hasty dismissal of Hooker’s emotions in the following scene in which his girlfriend is shot before his eyes. After seeing her forehead erupt into a stream of blood and learning that she had been hired to kill him, Hooker allows himself to be quickly ushered away. Though he apparently has some feeling for her, though now he is presumably confused, not to say shocked, the film has no time to treat his personal emotions. Keeping his cool and maintaining the momentum of the caper are all that matter. Yet the death is so graphic that it violates the light, jocular tone of the film. Furthermore, Hooker’s finally blasé response—cute, puppy dog cool—is so inadequate in the situation as to be morally offensive. Simply reminding ourselves that this unpleasantness is acceptable in a caper will not do. Nor for that matter can the exploitation of male friendship and male-female relationships be overlooked. The trouble with THE STING is that it encroaches on materials requiring some depth and honest treatment, ransacking them so that in the end the final coup may be a zippy entertainment that outcools all others.

It is easy to see why the film has been such an outstanding commercial success. Besides its heavy doses of nostalgia and its clever plot-minded story, it gives audiences the kind of American man they've been taught to want: the lean, laconic type. Both Hooker and Gondorff qualify. They keep feelings to themselves, are tough with only a single lapse into sentiment, and—most important of all—emerge as cool winners. There is certainly nothing wrong with being a winner; in fact, audiences also get to be vicarious winners by finally being let in on the con—no doubt another reason for the film’s popularity. Put there is something reprehensible about reinforcing questionable attitudes not only about manhood but also about male friendship and male-female relationships as well. Yet nowadays when human relationships of any depth scarcely appear in films, those depicted in THE STING may impress viewers as better than most. Sad to say, it becomes a matter of degree.

In short, it is ironic that while critics continue to argue about the importance of LAST TANGO, NASHVILLE, and BARRY LYNDON, bonhomie films like THE STING and BUTCH CASSIDY will probably have the most penetrating and lasting effect on the public. Without fanfare they corroborate misconceptions and make change for the better difficult. What superficially appears as a celebration of friendship and human intercourse is actually a celebration of non-involvement. Unlike less pretentious bonhomie films, they act as if they are treating such values as friendship in depth; they are not. Only the genuine film of friendship does that—hence its importance. In showing that manhood is not one guy’s outcooling another, in dramatizing the affection that one man bears another, the genuine film of friendship not only reaffirms our belief in the validity of bonds but also paves the way for improved relationships between men and women as well.


1. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films,” The New Republic, September 1, 1973, p. 24.

2. See Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, rev. ed. (New York: Stein and Day, 1966) for a fuller discussion of these points.