Category Archives: Media Watch

Arnie meet Toby


Tobey Maguire very nearly didn’t get the Spider Man role. Studio chiefs said the star of The Cider House Rules and Wonder Boys was too little, too mild.

Maguire’s rise to action star marks something like a trend in Hollywood, a changing of the guard.

The old action star was Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, and Russell Crowe, men of what the New York Times calls a “glinty gaze and an imposing physique.”

The new generation is inclined to “limpid stares and wiry frames.” Maguire’s contemporaries include Jake Gyllenhall, Christian Bale, Orlando Bloom, and Ryan Gosling. According to the NYT, the “he-man” is being replaced by “sensitive guys.”


It may be that this development has been in the works for some time. We might see Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio as transitional figures. Not an imposing physique among them.

These three can actually act and there was perhaps too little joy or challenge in the typical action hero role. It’s hard to imagine Schwarznegger in any of the roles performed by Depp or Di Caprio. His only hope of stardom was action adventure. But when the producers had chops, they had options. They wanted more interesting projects, and Hollywood obliged them.

This may be driven by the consumer side. Hollywood fans have become more sophisticated, and they are inclined to mock the old genres. The “irony” generation was perhaps too savvy to look at Schwarzenegger and Stallone with hero worship. The action adventure is a mythic construction and if you don’t buy the myth, you don’t buy the hero.

This could be driven by the administration side and the new influence of women in Hollywood: Amy Pascal at Sony, Nina Jacobson at Disney, Stacey Snider at Universal, Sherry Lansing at Paramount. These executives have created what Peter Guber calls a “leavening of the testosterone effect.” (And isn’t this what the feminists said would happen when “women rule the world?”)

This could be driven by a shifting of the tectonic plates of culture. As we have noted in this blog, women appear to be resetting their sexuality (The anthropology and economics of the bare mid riff). Perhaps men in Hollywood are doing the same. This could mark the beginning of a new era of gender rapprochement.

But the oddest part of this story is that the transition is partly driven by a problem of supply. Hollywood simply can’t find old model males. The NYT quotes the casting director, Debra Zane as saying, “They are always looking for the macho man, but they are pulling from the more overtly sensitive and more emotionally available [type], because that’s what there is right now.”

This is a puzzle. Surely, Hollywood is in the enviable position of being able to draw from a vast range of talent, people who are prepared to work as waiters and brick layers, waiting for their “big break.” This is a tournament model in which the rewards of success are so great (potentially $20 million a picture) that contestants are prepared to risk everything to stay in play. Apparently, would be action stars folded their tents and left the jousting ground.

Hollywood has solved this problem by going off shore. Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Colin Farrell are all foreign nationals. (And I thought this was just a “call center” issue.) There was one local contestant, Vin Deisel, but this guy makes Arnie look like Gieldgud, and his career is now spluttering.

I think this might reflect a change in the industry. Action stars are actually best when bad actors. When playing out the requirements of this mythic form, talent actually gets in the way. (The actor should be smaller than the role, not bigger. Modesty of talent insures this.)

Hollywood, in spite of its best efforts, is getting better. Everyone is smarter and more talented, the directors, the writers, the actors and the casting agents. There are untalented actors out there, but they just can’t get in. As a result of some kind of Gladwellian tipping point, the dynamics of Hollywood have reversed themselves. Good is now driving out bad.


Gladwell, Malcolm. 2000. The tipping point: how little things can make a big difference. Boston: Little, Brown.

Waxman, Sharon. 2004. Hollywood’s He-Men Are Bumped by Sensitive Guys. The New York Times. July 1, 2004.


monk II.jpg

Monk is a detective show on TV, starring Tony Shalhoub.  The second season started on Friday.  This proved to be the most watched premier in the history of basic cable television. 

Monk has OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder.  He is terrified of germs, heights, crowds, small spaces, animals and most humans.  There is a psychiatrist in Switzerland who could help him.  But Monk will never know.  "I don’t fly.”" 

In a recent episode, Monk was obliged to inform a secretary that her boss had been murdered.  She burst into tears and asked if she could have one of Monk’s tissues.  "Oh, no,” he replied sweetly, "I only have three left.”"

This is funny because it demolishes the chivalric ideal that gentlemen must come to the aid of a woman in distress.  But the joke within the joke is that Monk knows at any given moment exactly how many tissues he has at his disposal.  He counts everything.

In real life, OCD is not a pleasant condition.  It has been called ‘insanity with insight’ or ‘the doubting disease.’  Dr. Bruce Hyman, director, OCD Resource Center of South Florida says, "It is a living hell for those who have it."”  Happily, OCD is relatively rare.   Apparently, one in 50 people are so afflicted. 

This raises the question why this show is so very successful.  Forty-nine in 50 people might be expected to recoil from this demonstration of neurosis with annoyance or distaste. 

But there is another reason the mystery is a mystery.  TV detectives are often paragons of competence.  Mannix, Peter Gunn, Kojak were all masterful males.  Magnum PI, the Rockford files and Columbo had notes of self deprecation but they did not exhibit psychiatric symptoms (unless you count that rain coat). 

David Thorburn says,

Cop and private eye shows are fables of justice, heroism and deviancy, symbolically or imaginatively "policing" the unstable boundaries that define public or consensus ideas about crime, urban life, gender norms, the health or sickness of our institutions.

But I don’’t think that’s what Monk is about.  There are unstable boundaries here, but they do not apply to public ideas and institutions.  In Monk’’s case, what’’s in question are the boundaries of the self.  Monk can’t tell where the self is open or closed, safe or vulnerable.  He must survey the world for threats and these are everywhere.

Which brings us back to why we should find him appealing.  Is this merely a reflection of our powers of empathy?  Or something else?  I am tempted to think Monk is a parable on the perils of individualism.  But you decide.  The next episode of Monk airs this Wednesday at 10:00 on the USA network.


For viewer rating:

For quote from Hyman:

For quote from Thorburn:

For more on the show:

See also:

Gods under scrutiny


They shape the way we think about the world. They decide who may have our ear and who may not. The editors at The New Yorker are as Gods. We may not know them, we may only know their work.

Along comes Ms. Milkman, a student in the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton. Milkman had the bright idea of examining 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001. The NYT, closing ranks, is not impressed: “The study was long on statistics and short on epiphanies.”

Not so fast.

According to Ms. Milkman, the number of male authors rose to 70 percent under Mr. Buford, compared with 57 percent under Mr. McGrath. … The study also found that the first-person voice rose mightily under Mr. Buford, which may reflect the growth of memoir in the 90’s more than anything else. … Mr. Buford was relatively more interested in sex, a topic in 47 percent of the stories he published as opposed to 35 percent under Mr. McGrath. Mr. McGrath’s authors tended to deal with … children, more frequently than Mr. Buford’s writers: 36 percent under Mr. McGrath, 26 percent under Mr. Buford. (History, homosexuality and politics all tied for the attentions of Mr. Buford at a lowly 4 percent.)

I knew Mr. Buford at Cambridge. We spent many Sunday afternoons playing touch football on the backs of King’s College. (Transplanted to Oxbridge, some North Americans take to silk scarves and faux accents. The rest of us played football.)

Milkman’s portrait sounds like the man I know. He is, in the old fashioned phrase, a “man’s man.” He is a writer of the old school, a person prepared to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of the story. No, I don’t mean touch football. Buford is the author of Among The Thugs, a first-person, thoroughly anthropological study of the English soccer hooligan. He posed as a hooligan, traveled as a hooligan, rioted as a hooligan and only just survived to tell the tale. Talk about harm’s way.

But Ms. Milkman’s portrait does not become him. There is a complexity, an imagination, a fineness, and a recklessly conceptual quality she does not capture. Her numbers “dumb him down.” In this blog, we have once or twice wondered whether the numerical study of culture and commerce might not help us capture the new complexity of the world. But Milkman tells us less, not more. A single interview with Buford (and McGrath) would have done better than the database.

I think the real story here is two fold. First, that Milkman dared to presume to study this elite, and, second, that she found a way in that did not depend on their participation (though it sounds as if she got it).

Among the Editors. Very well done, Ms. Milkman, but, next time, pose as a writer.

Buford, Bill. 1991. Among the Thugs. London: Secker and Warburg.

Carr, David. 2004. New Yorker Fiction, by the Numbers. New York Times. June 1, 2004. Available here.