Audrey Kupferberg: Male Friendship In "Stan & Ollie"

Apr 19, 2019

Audrey Kupferberg

Through the years, plenty has been said and written about the portrayal of women on screen.  There has been analysis of women characters as objects of desire. So many female characters are described as one-dimensional, bitchy, childlike, overstepping, brittle, or gold-digging. 

Maybe now is a suitable time to look more deeply into the depictions of male characters in feature films.  One of the more interesting male-oriented genres is the buddy film, where two guys are unbreakable pals.  Many buddy films are crime comedies or dramas where the pals are shown riding their horses in sync or bellying up to the bar with similar thirsts.  Meanwhile, some male buddy films are written with more vigilance. In the late 1960s, films like THE ODD COUPLE, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and MIDNIGHT COWBOY stood out for their portrayals of male friendship.  Each one of these titles features a male couple who understand each other and sometimes nurture each other.  Their dialog and actions show that platonic male relationships can be close.  In the 1990s, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, true blue friends in real life, starred in two GRUMPY OLD MEN films where the two older men find it difficult to share any warm dialog together.  Unfortunately, older male characters are often shown as gruff and not able to show kindheartedness.

In a world where Joe Biden jokes about hugging the male union leader who recently introduced him on a public stage, the concept of the more sensitive male buddy film comes to mind.  Recently, STAN & OLLIE, became available for home viewing.  It’s a fact-based biographical film about the last years of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, one of Hollywood’s most extraordinary comic teams.  Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly play the famous twosome in 1952 as they tour various theaters in England with hopes of re-engaging with audiences in order to make a big-screen comeback.

Coogan and Reilly shine as the entertainers.  Some of the highlights take place onstage in various theaters as the two present vaudeville style acts and most memorably recreate the legendary, mesmerizing dance from their 1937 feature WAY OUT WEST. However, what struck me is the rendering of male friendship among older characters.  It isn’t only the telling dialog by Jeff Pope, who also wrote Coogan’s PHILOMENA.  It’s the way the two characters move in harmony or disharmony with one another.  It’s the way they sometimes touch each other, sometimes eye one another.  STAN & OLLIE might have been an update of GRUMPY OLD MEN (which apparently is in remake right now starring Eddie Murphy); instead it is a deeply moving study of a mature male relationship.

Current cinema boasts so many male stars in their seventies and eighties.  Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Alan Arkin, Danny DeVito, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford (if he hasn’t retired), and Clint Eastwood, to name a few.  Perhaps now is the time for more sensitively written screenplays about the complexities of male friendship among the seniors in our population.  We have a great example with STAN & OLLIE.  We have another in THE KOMINSKY METHOD.  I hope we will see more in the next couple years.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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