What exactly is “toxic masculinity?” Is there a corresponding “toxic femininity?” Or is it just another shape-shifting cudgel used against men in the tedious culture wars?
Sam Elliott certainly isn’t toxic. For most of the internet years now he has been a literal meme to manliness. Dry humor, courtesy and gallantry, slow to wrath but by God get out of his way if you stir him to seek justice or vengeance. Everybody loves Sam Elliott.
Most movie fans also love Benedict Cumberbatch from his days as Sherlock Holmes through his turns as Dr. Strange. Cumberbatch can portray thoughtful weirdness better than anyone else. These are two great and very different actors. They don’t have to agree on everything, or even anything, just because they’re two men at the top of their craft.
Elliott recently appeared on a podcast and slammed Cumberbatch’s latest film for Netflix, “The Power of the Dog,” for what he calls homosexual themes deconstructing the archetype Western cowboy. Cumberbatch does play a repressed gay rancher in the 1920s, in a film about the American West that was actually filmed in totalitarian New Zealand. “They’re running around in chaps and no shirts. There’s all these allusions of homosexuality throughout the movie,” Elliott said of the film.
The film is nominated for an astounding 12 Oscars this year. But that doesn’t mean a thing about artistic merit anymore. Recall that during the great moral panic of 2020, the Academy announced that films will not even be considered for awards unless they meet certain racial and gender quotas. With that announcement, Oscars are no longer signs of quality. They are signs of conformity.
Elliott is not a conformist. Prior to the Twitter mob years nonconformity was a sign of individuality and strength in a man or woman. His recent comments reveal that the Hollywood legend still thinks for himself and isn’t afraid to say so. How very American.
Cumberbatch, who is a British man playing an American gay cowboy on a movie set in New Zealand that was written and directed by New Zealand’s Jane Campion, has lashed out at Elliott for criticizing the film.
“These people still exist in our world,” Cumberbatch told BAFTA about his “Power of the Dog” character. “Whether it’s on our doorstep or whether it’s down the road or whether it’s someone we meet in a bar or pub or on the sports field, there is aggression and anger and frustration and an inability to control or know who you are in that moment that causes damage to that person and, as we know, damage to those around them…[There is] no harm in looking at a character to get to the root causes of that.”
“This is a very specific case of repression, but also due to an intolerance for that true identity that Phil is that he can’t fully be,” Cumberbatch added. “The more we look under the hood of toxic masculinity and try to discover the root causes of it, the bigger chances we have of dealing with it when it arises with our children.”
There’s also no harm in criticizing a film for its story choices, its costume choices, its themes, or its lead actor’s failed attempt to come up with a convincing Western American accent. It’s all fair game.
Then there’s the question of authorship and direction. Of late the Twitter mob has suggested Gal Gadot can’t portray Cleopatra because she isn’t Egyptian. Neither was Cleopatra (she was Macedonian Greek), but why is no one questioning whether Campion can be allowed to write about American cowboys? She certainly isn’t one by any stretch. The mob says non-trans actors can’t play trans roles, but here we have a non-gay man playing a gay American cowboy in a country that’s thousands of miles from America. Hello, double standards.
Is any of what Cumberbatch describes above confined to repressed gay men, or men, at all? Can women not lash out in rage? Can they not stir up trouble and be toxic too? Ever heard of “Mean Girls” or watch AOC snark at the capitalism that makes her free and rich? And again, just what is “toxic masculinity,” especially if a fictitious gay rancher can exhibit it and end up winning a trophy for the actor who got richer portraying him while taking swipes at his critics?
Cumberbatch is entitled to promote and defend his film, though the dozen Oscar nominations will do the heavy lifting for him. Elliott is entitled to criticize the film and question why Hollywood keeps deconstructing and destroying icons in the name of pushing its toxic politics on everyone else, under the pen and direction of someone who clearly hates the archetype. No one should be forced to like a movie if it doesn’t suit them, for whatever reason.
As for the film itself, Kirsten Dunst is underused and stares a lot. The color grading is muddy, wasting the power of your 4K HDR TV. The pacing is slow. The spare score is reminiscent of a 1960s Twilight Zone episode. Cumberbatch’s cowboy speech is uneven. But hand it 12 trophies for sticking to Hollywood’s political script.