What does it mean to be ‘macho’ in this day and age, and can it ever denote something good as opposed to purely destructive?
Clint Eastwood may have reached the ripe old age of 91, but the question of what it means to be ‘a good man’, a strong man, or even a man in general in this ever-changing world, is clearly one that still fascinates him.
Which is no wonder really, considering he himself is a living, breathing embodiment of idealised Hollywood masculinity. Or at least once was.
Eastwood is a silver screen cowboy; the strong, silent type who rose to fame in the iconic spaghetti westerns A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
But beyond his acting career, machismo is a subject he has also explored with greater nuance and depth as a director in films like Unforgiven, Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River.
While his new movie, Cry Macho, is a disappointing effort by all accounts, it is worth a watch for its sensitive exploration of the concept of masculinity and macho bravado.
The film is a project that Eastwood has been drawn to as far back as 1988, when he turned down an opportunity to star in an earlier version of N. Richard Nash’s screenplay, which was also published as a novel called Macho in 1975.
The book and new film both tell the story of former rodeo star and widower Mike Milo, who is asked to deliver a young Mexican boy, Rafo, across the border to his father in Texas.
Along the way, he teaches the 13-year-old Mexican, who has a pet rooster called Macho, how to ride horses and care for farm animals, one of the ex-cowboy’s biggest passions.
Highly practical and useful – but not, you will note, harmful or destructive – ‘manly’ activities for a young boy in the process of moving to Texas in 1979.
On their journey they encounter Marta, a local cantina bar owner, who helps them keep out of sight of the local police officers searching for them.
Inevitably, she takes a shine to Eastwood’s Mike and they form a romantic bond (despite appearing to be approximately 40 years his junior in the movie version).
Yes, the script is mawkish, flawed and hokey, Eastwood is a little too old for his paternal role, and sadly, the film just doesn’t really work like it should.
But what is worth holding onto is its refreshing attitude to masculinity, and its ideas about what it truly means to be a good man, whether in the film’s late seventies setting or the present day.
Gentle version of Eastwood
In the film, ex-rodeo rider Mike regularly displays a gentleness, wry humour and quiet sensitivity that Eastwood has more readily portrayed in his later films.
In one particular standout moment, he cooks a meal for Marta, her grandkids and Rafo, pointing out that “cowboys always cook”.
Cooking is, of course, not actually a gendered activity, but it’s pleasing that Mike, clearly no spring chicken, and in this case being played by a 91-year-old veteran actor, appears to fully appreciate this concept.
A kind or caring gesture, or a willingness to look after other people, we are reminded, is not in any way un-masculine or a strictly maternal quality. Neither is it anything new.
There have always been men who do the right thing, Eastwood reassuringly reminds us, as well as ones that have taken unfair advantage of their power – physical or otherwise. Masculinity, then and now, is not always ‘toxic’.
In the final scene, the washed-up rodeo star dances with Martha in her cantina (admittedly, rather rigidly at this stage), the two of them smiling together. Because what is life if not the gentle moments, however many terrifying rodeos you’ve faced?
Rafo’s rooster, who accompanies the grandfather-boy like duo throughout their road trip, and the film’s central symbol, is pointedly called Macho.
Macho is the Spanish word for an aggressively masculine man, but also an adjective meaning ‘male’ or ‘worthy of a man’.
Young Rafo has descended into a life of crime, participating in illegal cockfights with his pet Macho, when Mike first meets him. Has he named his pet rooster after the male role model he’s missing? Or the bravery he has to summon living life out on his own?
We don’t see the aggressive side of the placid-seeming rooster until a pivotal scene when a nefarious henchman, attempting to bring young Rafo back to his wayward mother, holds Mike and Rafo at gunpoint.
After remaining perfectly calm on our journey to date, the rooster suddenly launches at the man, attacking him and allowing for Mike to grab the man’s gun. It’s purely an instinct to protect his owner; his aggression jumps out.
Yes, it’s not particularly plausible, but the point is clear: Machismo and aggression are only truly useful, or even acceptable, when they’re deployed in this way.
In other words, to protect when essential. Not something that should instead be used for reasons of ego or pride, or to gain unfair advantage.
In another scene moments before, Mike offers 13-year-old Rafo some hard-earned advice as they drive along Mexican dirt roads.
“This macho thing is overrated,” he tells the young boy wearily, any facade of manly heroics from his past life now withered away.
“Just people trying to show that they’ve got grit. That’s about all they end up with,” the former rodeo star, retired from a serious back injury, says.
“It’s like anything else in life. You think you got all the answers, then you realise, as you get older, you don’t have any of them.”
While Eastwood appears in impressive health for his age, it’s possibly a point that chimes with him now more than ever.
Physical strength and macho prowess fade; while the importance of some things, like family, loyalty or a moral code, never do.
There’s something extremely refreshing and life-affirming about a 91-year-old, gun-slinging Hollywood hero reminding us of that.
If this is to be Eastwood’s last cinematic chapter, and it very well might, it has not been entirely in vain.