From the Archives: The Modern State of The Charming Man

This was written in light of news that Vince Vaughn was chosen to be the […]

Ethan Richardson / 1.11.16

This was written in light of news that Vince Vaughn was chosen to be the star in a film based on the 1970’s television show The Rockford Files, starring James Garner.


Grant had developed a new way to interact with a woman onscreen: he treated his leading lady as both a sexually attractive female and an idiosyncratic personality, an approach that often required little more than just listening to her—a tactic that had previously been as ignored in the pictures as it remains, among men, in real life. His knowing but inconspicuously generous style let the actress’s performance flourish, making his co-star simultaneously regal and hilarious.

In short, Grant suddenly and fully developed charm, a quality that is tantalizing because it simultaneously demands detachment and engagement. Only the self-aware can have charm: It’s bound up with a sensibility that at best approaches wisdom, or at least worldliness, and at worst goes well beyond cynicism. It can’t exist in the undeveloped personality. It’s an attribute foreign to many men because most are, for better and for worse, childlike.

carygrant530pcYou may know this person. Of course you do—I know this person. The biggest beef I have with Benjamin Schwarz’s (amazing) dissection of the history of male “charm”, is that he writes it off as all but dead. I disagree! Sure, Cary Grant’s the touchstone, but we’ve got Clooney, and Clooney’s not all we have.

Maybe I’m wrong, but don’t you know this person in your world? A “leading man” who also understands how to speak with elderly women? A self-assured self-deprecator? Someone who puts anyone at ease, and guides their listeners in the direction of their own safe courage? There’s the feeling of distanced inclusion; you might worry they aren’t listening to you, if it weren’t for their intent, listening eyes and direct wit. There is the sense they might be too good at this, whatever this is, that they might have gone to school for this. Or that you are being manipulated, but you kind of like it–you feel a friend. You do not know if you trust them, you cannot help but like them. They are masters of making small talk feel like long talk…

Whether anyone springs to mind, we are talking here about misleading and mystifying charm, specifically in the fictions of what it means to be “a social—a civilized—male”.  And this does not mean the cotillions and cocktails of privilege so much as it means having a complex characteristic of allure. It’s funny. On one hand, Schwarz says it’s simply “small-talk,” but it is lost to today’s culture of manhood because of the “ever-widening infection of social relations by market values.” In other words, charm is formed extracurricularly, and we do not have time for extracurriculars. The American public, paradoxically, has become both too lazy and too fast for such complexity. Our Hollywood heroes—from Vince Vaughn to Brad Pitt—do not have the panache (or movie minutes) for both bravado and tenderness.  Maybe Clooney does—but only Clooney, and he’s getting older…and more charming. (And maybe Gosling? Can we agree on Gosling? Or is Gosling too reserved?)

Schwarz doesn’t seem to be too nostalgic about this fall, just interested in what was there, and what’s happened. It is a virtuous trait, this charm. In fact, Schwarz cites Hitchens in saying:

One of the three most important virtues in a man, according to Christopher Hitchens—among the very few charming men I’ve known—is the ability to think like a woman. (The other two are courage, moral and physical, and a sense of the absurd.) Certainly this is one reason many men find charm so alien and alienating. But a man’s ability to think like a woman, and its concomitant—an understanding of and interest in women—is probably rooted not in sexuality but in a sympathetic relationship with his mother or other women who raised him. That today foppishness, campiness, and a proclivity to dish get conflated with male charm indicates, as does the notion of Vaughn as a contemporary Garner, the culture’s incomprehension of that quality.

So, without regard to sexuality, a charming man is one who has sensitivities and belonging to/for/with the opposite sex. At the same time, he is not Michael Cera; he must also have a confidence and “courage” that pulls him into the fire to save. He must also, with these seemingly polar qualities, have a (says Hitchens) “sense of the absurd.” I don’t know what this means. Maybe that you can say ridiculous things, believe ridiculous things, and do so in a courageous way—but not so courageous that you off-put the audience (or alienate the opposite sex).

Savvy? Now, of course, there are all kinds of responses to these observations, and the classic one that comes up on Mockingbird is the “This is an Impossibility—you are describing the Law” kind of posture. This, I think, is true. Who can be this man? Schwartz says as much:

Cliché has it that a charming leading man appeals equally to both men and women (although for different reasons). That’s immensely difficult to manage. Even if American men could appreciate charm, they still wouldn’t trust it—and it’s impossible to really like a man whom you can’t trust with your wife.

But more than this, it is interesting that, except for Hitchens, all of the examples come from the silver screen. Grant, Gable, Garner (Clooney!). Charm—and perhaps charm’s changing face—has always been exemplified and precedented by the movies, by projections. Actors with numerous takes and impressive butt chins, striding alongside well-coiffed damsels—these are our shining reproofs for this age that’s lost the age of old? Not to get all “gender roles”, but what about the fact that this charm—the flirtatious and courageous courtier—seems to depend also on a form of condescension to the opposite sex? Many of the old movies using this formula depict a rather complex man wooing the static woman by “understanding” her, by knitting for her. Schwarz, too, says that all charm is manipulation.

So to use films to talk about charm is perfect—to “charm” is to cast a movie before the eyes of your audience. Schwarz says it is “a-moral.” It is a disguise that can be used for either good guys or bad guys, and therefore its allure is suspect. One is able to cast the stage for a moment, to be the Bringer Outer in a party, the Interested Listener, the Celebrator of the Wallflower—and do so while being completely detached from it. The charmer is the projector in the back of the theater, his charm the projection playing the film he’s chosen for the night. His loyalties are won by distance.

Maybe we’re not as apt to put to on a black tie, but we’re just as apt to charm. Just as Orson Welles corners his prey in The Third Man with a cocked brow and cuckoo clock, we still—in different ways—rely on manipulative means to cast a line for our ends. Even if we’re less “available” than we used to be, even if our conversations are stunted with that economic hurriedness, it just means that we’ve found a new format to curate. We love to posture—we have since Adam pleated his fresh-pressed fig-slacks. The charmers will continue to falsify, whether the value pool demands them to command a room with a story, or pin another pretty-colored food picture.

The fate of the modern man, then, rests in James Garner, who always charmed with a bit of skepticism. He was fortunate enough—or free enough—to not be able to hide who he was or where he came from. It was a conflux of who he was demanded to be, and who he could not help but be. This made him the rarest, and all-time best, American charmer:

But as an actor, Garner had a magical ability to convey his offscreen persona of red-blooded, hardworking, plain, and thorough decency, even as his charming onscreen persona didn’t fully gibe with it. He thereby made a light touch and an ironic stance qualities that men found not just appealing but worthy…That capacity to simultaneously inhabit a role and remain outside it epitomizes charm.