Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Action Hero or Sex Symbol: The Mystery of Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson is an anomaly. He is an action star, who, early on in his career, allowed himself to be sexualized. He was one of the few action stars of the 80s who had sex scenes in his films. Mickey Rourke was another actor who allowed himself to objectified in this way. Though this comparison may be inaccurate because Rourke stuck primarily to dramatic roles. Action stars of the 80s were never sex symbols. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis (to some extent) etc, used their bodies in film but in a purely action oriented realm, i.e. in killing, fighting or heading to kill and fight. This sort of behavior is expected and is perceived as a normal portrayal of maleness in film. In her book, Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in American Film, critic Joan Mellon asserts that the "ideal man of [films] is a violent one. To be sexual he has to be not only tall and strong but frequently brutal, promising to overwhelm a woman by physical force that was at once firm and tender." In films of earlier eras, sex was implied and never shown, yet the viewer still got the sense of the characters as sexual beings. Then in later films, actors such as Richard Gere and Michael Douglas starred in more pointedly sexual roles (though none took it as far as Rourke). But these actors aren't action stars. In the case of the 80s action hero, the height and strength and brute force are ever present, but they seldom if ever "overwhelm" women. In fact, they're seldom even near women. If they are, it is is in a rescuing or protective or, in some cases, teaching or training capacity.

Channeling his intensity into other things besides crime fighting.
Enter Mel Gibson to totally buck this trend. Perhaps he was able to do this because he wasn't very tall, was only sort of muscular and also had an ability to play emotional torment well. These displays of emotion could certainly be characterized as feminine, but in the Lethal Weapon films Riggs' tears were usually followed by someone being shot, punched, drowned or thrown off a building; or, as in the case of Lethal Weapon 2, Riggs' emotional vulnerability towards Rika Van Den Haas (Patsy Kensit) is promptly followed by rigorous sex in which Gibson is both "firm, tender" and also partially nude. More to the point, the year before Lethal Weapon 2, Gibson starred in an abysmal movie called Tequila Sunrise, in which he plays Mac Mckussic, a drug dealer who, according to a witness to his sexual exploits, "fucks like a world champion." It follows that if an action star is going to be sexual it must be made evident at every turn that they are also the best at sex.

Somehow Gibson managed to be both tough yet tender and be an 80s action star. Yet it is interesting that in the first two Lethal Weapon films, he never gets the girl. As if to reaffirm the idea that action stars can't fall in love, both his wife and Van Den Haas are killed. The latter event reminds Riggs of his previous loss and makes him even crazier which leads Lethal Weapon 2 to its violent conclusion. In this way, the film takes a risk in that it lets Gibson be sexual, but then promptly undermines that by returning him to his usual work-obsessed, crime-fighting, tough guy ways. Still, the vulnerability is naturally present in Gibson's face. There is a wildness to his eyes and a set to his mouth that is compelling. He became a sex symbol for women and someone men could admire. He also almost fell into the regular guy action hero category (a niche Bruce Willis basically owns) except somehow he wasn't- and this was owed to his intensity and the depth he possessed that most other action stars of the day lacked.

Mellon, Joan. Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in American Film.

No comments:

Post a Comment