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The film cult of sensitivity

It has long been taken form granted that the heroes and heroines who flash on the movie screen say something about us, the people who watch them. Ah, the myths that half-deep thinkers have spun to explain Marilyn Monroe and all the other "love goddesses," back to Mary Pickford!

More recently, much has been made of Jill Clayburgh, Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda , and other actresses as embodiments of the New Woman, post-love- goddess style.

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Now analysts are concentrating on the New Man, as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman (always), Al Pacino (sometimes), and even Woody Allen. The operative word is "sensitive," just as the word for the old-line heroes who played opposite the love goddesses is "macho." Ah, the myths that half-deep thinkers have spun to explain John Wayne and all the other "he- men," as they used to be known!

The actors stumbling all over themselves to depict vulnerability are representing the male ideal of the '80s, or so we are told. The short, underexercised men in the audiences of the past who longed to become tall, broad-shouldered tough guys are now tall, broad- shouldered joggers and weight-lifters who long to appear frail and caring.m

The strong laconic "Yup" has given way to an agonized babble of self-appraisal and consciousness-raising. The cold blue eye that used to look down a gun barrel has become a soft brown eye, looking down a child's cereal spoon.

Henry Kissinger, if he were interviewed again by Oriana Fallaci, would compare himself, not to a lonely cowboy but to a lonely single parent, learning to be nurturing.

Humphrey Bogart, if he were alive, would fantasize being Woody Allen.

Walter Mitty, we must assume, now dreams of being. . . Walter Mitty.

Even Burt Reynolds wants to be sensitive.

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The question is: Do our movie myths have that much to do with our daily lives and personalities? How many men were seriously influenced, even in their younger years, by the tall-in-the-saddle machismo of John Wayne or the street-tough style of James Cagney?

Presumably, most of the Greeks listening to Homer were farm boys who, after a night of fantasizing themselves as Odysseus, went out and pruned their olive trees.

As far back as myths go, both male options have been offered -- the man of action and the man of feeling. There they stand, legs spread apart: the fiercely affronted lads with the quick hand for the sword, the spear, or the six-gun; and on the other side of life's wawy, half-reclining on grassy knolls, lounge the youths with a dreamy hand on the lyre, strumming out songs of love and pastoral poems.

The tough-sensitive archetypes have always been with us, from Achilles and Orpheus to the Burt Reynolds of "Semi-Tough" and the Burt Reynolds of "Starting Over." And at any given moment, most men are neither -- and both.

We are so in awe of the "media" that we tend to overestimate their influence upon us. A man or a woman coming out of a John Wayne or a Marilyn Monroe movie may have walked a little funny. Thus ambling and wobbling, they may have gone home and rearranged their hair. His conversational voice might have dropped a manly tone or two; hers might have ascended toward a baby-doll falsetto.

Such changes are largely a matter of fashion and manner. What happens, alas, is that every change gets loudly proclaimed, like the present cas e of massive sensitivity, and before we know it movies are being made to fit the stereotypes we ourselves hae so neatly defined.

Images begin to reflect images.

The fishermen who followed Jesus, the young Athenians who listened to Socrates had discovered more than a new role-model for nonviolence. Nobody can object to a little more gentleness on the part of '80s men, even if it is often only "life-style." But a change of heart, a conversion of the mind and soul goes deeper than an afternoon at the movies or a trend announced by journalists, and, on the whole, we can be thankful it does.


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