Longing for the Sad Bastards

When did our angst-driven movie men get all tangled up in their apron strings? A screen history of damaged males.

Recently over beers, some female friends described a common and upsetting situation: The boys they liked (and who liked them) were more interested in cuddling than they were—almost to the complete exclusion of sex. As I listened to their stories, it became clear that, culturally speaking, we are facing a chicken-or-egg predicament. While the real world may be seeing a drastic influx in the numbers of sensitive, sexless boy-men, this upsetting rise is paralleled by increasing numbers of the same male type on film. It must be asked: Are movies the groinless loins from whence all these sad bastards have sprung?

Because something has happened to men on film. There was once a man, a beloved character, who, when in action, flailed, and when in silence, churned. Life, with all its superficial niceties, unreliable relationships, and exhausting endlessness, was frequently too much for this (often young) man—try as he might to break through and find some peace. And did he try: He drank, he fucked, he fought, he floundered, but he rarely found any peace, except in glimpses. He was a sad, sad bastard with way too much on his mind. But of late he seems to have had his balls cut off, and all his life and passion has apparently leaked from this open wound.

This gaping absence of manhood in today’s sad bastard is obvious when you think back on an early Jack Nicholson, who more than once in the 1970s played our beloved type to perfection: removed and pensive one moment, witty and quick the next, and throwing women against bed frames a minute later. You might remember the first time you realized you wanted a sad bastard of your own, to love and revive, despite the common sense that told you he was more trouble than he was worth. Or you might remember watching him and thinking: “That is one conflicted individual, but I kind of want to be him.” These days, though, the sad bastard is no longer sad; he’s pathetic—a sedated sap, terrified of anger and rejection, and scared shitless of sex.


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Up until the ‘50s, male leads, especially in American films, had mostly been dashing and suave, having never known the dark shadow of self-doubt. It’s true, Bogart may have shouldered his share of worldly weight, but you’d never catch him writhing over the meaninglessness of it all, paralyzed by indecision. You’d certainly never catch him telling a throaty broad that he’d rather talk for hours (or days) before making any sort of remotely physical advance. Any talk he engaged them in was just wordy heavy petting, the precursor to getting down to serious business.

But post-war European films hell-bent on emotional and social realism, some slow and sparse, others meandering and anxious, were almost all driven by a male character with no drive. In the late ‘40s, Italian filmmakers adopted Neo-Realism, a movement populated almost exclusively by despondent male citizens, and the French and Brits soon followed suit. Jean Paul Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard (aka Laszlo Kovacsin) in Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave go-to, Breathless, made up for his lack of job or money with a wealth of passionate, self-centered opinions and grand, un-thought-out plans. The British brought their Angry Young Men, troubled male protagonists attempting to find their way through society with the help of, among other things, sex and alcohol—or, in the case of Billy Liar, an entirely fictional interior life that is finally a pleasanter option than reality, disappointing as it is for a young man without a plan. Around the same time, American films began sporting their own breed of male malaise and girls everywhere began to get their panties in knots over the new cinematic anti-hero.

Female fantasies no longer revolved around Hollywood’s can-do men, cads, and cowboys, but around damaged, overgrown boys. In these now-classics, Brando yelped and moaned while his muscles flexed under a tight white T-shirt and the weight of the world. James Dean had a whole lot of feeling and no way to express it. He was hard to love and he loved hard, he tended to drink and cry and was quick to fight, and there was nary a thought in young women’s minds that he might make a better patient than lover. Female fantasies no longer revolved around Hollywood’s can-do men, cads, and cowboys, but around damaged, overgrown boys.

The bastard born in the ‘50s came into full pubescent torment in the ‘60s and ‘70s. John Cassavetes’s films, starting with his debut, Shadows, in ‘59, were populated with the aimless, the aggressive, and the unreachable. Sure, Hollywood gave us cowboys and jocks, surfers and detectives, and other ambitious, goal-oriented male types, but for the thinking lady, the man with the existential crisis was the pin-up of choice. Bonnie knew Clyde wasn’t just a barrel of bank robberies, and Benjamin Braddock navigated the terrible limbo between adolescence and adulthood by wobbling between Elaine Robinson and her smoldering mom. And of course, there were the Easy Riders.


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Comparing sad bastards from the ‘70s to the wisps of men that we are being forced to tend to now is like comparing McMurphy at the beginning of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to McMurphy at the end—and we just want to put him out of his misery. We would do well to recall Nicholson as Robert Dupea in Five Easy Pieces (the quintessential sad bastard biopic): He was as anguished as they come, but he still managed to bed his girlfriend, his brother’s fiancé, and a gal from the bowling alley within 90 minutes, and tell a sour diner waitress to go hold a chicken between her legs. He never found redemption, but at least he went out fighting. Only a few years later, Woody Allen balanced his preoccupation with death and his preoccupation with getting laid in Annie Hall. Having a sex drive was not antithetical to feeling generally lost; in fact, sex was one of the ways sad bastards used to try and find their footing. But after the ‘70s heyday of American cinema, our unhealthy love interest and idol was promptly treated for his depression and doped up with medication and helpful therapeutic vernacular. Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People could have grown up into a handsome, perfectly fucked-up individual, if it weren’t for his sensitive dad and that meddling Dr. Berger.

In the ‘80s, when the blockbuster broke onto the scene and the lifestyles of the rich and famous outshone the meanderings of the discontented youth, our little depressive was often not only sad, but from the lower-middle class to boot—e.g., Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club, Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing. When indie cinema had its Sundance-induced resuscitation in the ‘90s, we saw more of him, either with a total absence of sex drive or as a pervert trying to self-medicate through a variety of fetishes, thanks to Cronenberg, Lynch, Solondz, and Co.

Now, a few years into the new millennia, the sad bastard is out and about again, but sex-starved and refusing to acknowledge his hunger.

We’ve had a smattering of boys on screen, without any apparent faculty to release some of this tension, until some final, triumphant scene where they let it all out, usually accompanied by a power-ballad of some variety. Andersons, P.T and Wes, ensure sad men are well represented in their ensemble casts, and these characters almost always dig their heels into the ground, avoiding sexual attraction until they nearly kill themselves or someone else. A while back, Igby (Goes Down) and Donnie (Darko) filled out the adolescent sector, with the former displaying more interest in sex than the latter, who was more preoccupied with time travel and magic rabbits. Bill Murray has signed up as spokesman for the over-the-hill sad lads and, as ever, exudes more sexuality than you’d expect (see Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers) though audiences loved him most lavishly when he performed the unthinkable and restrained himself in the face of Scarlett Johansson.

Unfortunately, the lost-boy film that has received the most attention in recent years was the castrated, simpering Garden State. Zach Braff quivered and shook, even nearly wet himself in the presence of Natalie Portman’s quirky epileptic. Medicated into a waking coma, Braff’s Andrew Largeman was bereft of emotion, lacking any passion, rage, or libido. His face remains frozen in non-expression, not so much what-does-it-all-mean as just, wha-at…? He continued along in this timid stupor, until he finally told his crush that he liked her like that, and a while later they made love off-screen, and then they spooned.

Since then, we’ve had a smattering of boys on screen, all coiled up in their own neuroses, without any apparent faculty to release some of this tension, until some final, triumphant scene where they let it all out, usually accompanied by a power-ballad of some variety. See: Elizabethtown, The Squid and the Whale, Thumbsucker, Lonesome Jim, et al.

We have to think of the children. Horrific to fathom a generation of boys who are looking to these wet blankets for instruction on manhood, to say nothing of the young girls tacking Garden State stills to their bedroom ceiling. Who will bear the solemn news to these hopeful young ladies that these cold posters they kiss at night are offering more reciprocity than their three-dimensional counterparts?

I am far from suggesting that the sad bastards (or as my friend refers to them, “men with ovaries”) be wiped out completely. My friends and I agree: Men who carry the weight of torment and sleepless nights are more than welcome in our beds. We cannot, however, condone this new sexlessness. Ladies, perhaps it is time to roll up our sleeves, and skirts, and dish out some mandated tough, hard love; our silence in this matter only makes us complicit. Bring them to the bedroom, but if they should begin to sigh, or assume any position reminiscent of spoons, or become concerned that copping a feel will be disrespectful, they will surely be jostled awake and shown the door, so they can wander the streets and prey on some other, sorely deceived young lady. We will not be fooled again.