THE MEANING OF HARRISON FORD: STARDOM AND MASCULINITY

I have just written a review of Virginia Luzón-Aguado’s new book Harrison Ford: Masculinity and Stardom in Hollywood (Bloomsbury) and there are a few more matters I’d like to consider, for which I had no room there. Luzón-Aguado’s accomplished volume is absolutely recommended to those who admire this American male star but also to those interested in how to write academically about this type of icon. Its only limitation is that Ford (Chicago, 1942) is a living man and an actor far from retirement who can still revolutionise the way male ageing is presented on screen. Believe it or not, Ford, aged seventy-eight, is currently involved in the making of a fifth Indiana Jones film, scheduled for 2022. For reasons possibly of limited word count, though, Luzón-Aguado ends her analysis with 42 (2013), the film which in her view best signals Ford’s transformation into a character actor. This means there are no comments in her book on the end of Han Solo’s narrative arc in Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), on The Age of Adaline (2015), which has an interesting comment to offer on Ford’s ageing, or on the controversial Blade Runner 2049 (2017).

As I read Luzón-Aguado’s study of Ford, I was wondering whether I like him as a star and I’m afraid that the answer is no. I like Han Solo and I like Indiana Jones, his two most iconic roles, but I don’t enjoy watching Ford in all of his films. Even so, I have seen most of the forty-four films Luzón-Aguado analyses in her book, which means that Ford has enough star appeal to have put me through diversely failed movies such as The Mosquito Coast or Random Hearts. Funnily, I usually name Blade Runner, in which Ford plays the protagonist, as one of my favourite films; it is then possible to love a film but not its star. In any case, I would name Witness, for which Ford got his only Oscar Award nomination, as my favourite Harrison Ford film and would call attention to the vastly underrated K19: The Widowmaker as a Ford film to rediscover.

Luzón-Aguado writes in her conclusions that she has tried to analyse the ‘fictional truth’ behind Ford’s public persona and she does so very beautifully, calling attention to the triangular tension between the man, the star, and the roles. She also avoids carefully showing a mere fan’s interest, though I assume she likes Ford as a star (otherwise why make such a big effort about him?), and treading on the less savoury aspects of his private life. Not that they are exceptional, but still they do matter.

I remember an article of many years ago by the late Maruja Torres in El País enthusing about Ford’s persona and praising him for having married (in his second marriage) not a star like himself but Melissa Mathison, a scriptwriter known among others for having written Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Close to sixty, in 2000, however, Ford went through a deep life crisis and separated from Mathison, whom he had married in 1983. They got divorced in 2004, after much acrimony and a substantial payment on his side, when Ford was already dating the woman that would become his third wife, Calista Flockhart, twenty-two years his junior. When the two met, in 2002, Flockhart was at the height of her popularity thanks to the title role in TV series Ally Mc Beal (1997-2002) and in a way her marriage to Ford seemed to be the answer to her thirty-something character’s search for a mate. I assume that many who, like Torres, had praised Ford to the skies found themselves disappointed. I am well aware that mixing the private life of actors with their public persona as stars is naïve and immature but I really believe this change of spouse is a factor that negatively affected Ford’s stardom. Interestingly, the year when he separated from Mathison he played a villainous husband in the horror film What Lies Beneath, and I would say that Ford was guilty himself in this way of blurring the lines and mixing the two spheres. The former ideal husband and father, according both to his private life and star roles (in the films about Jack Ryan or Air Force One) suddenly appeared to be far less wholesome, even mortally dangerous.

Ford did not continue playing villains but my personal impression is that as he became tabloid fodder the distance he had kept from the press and the zealous protection of his private life in his remote Wyoming ranch, so far from Hollywood glamour, accentuated a gruffness that must have been present all along. A truly rounded male star must project something exciting that makes you want to meet them in real life and whereas I see that something in actors such as Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Hugh Jackman, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, or Chris Hemsworth, I don’t see it in Harrison Ford. Hollywood’s currently best-paid actor, Dwayne Johnson, is a most likeable man which, surely, says something about the kind of masculinity generally preferred today. In contrast, Ford appears to be far less likeable, perhaps because in his 21st century films he has been projecting all along a sense of detachment, even of boredom, with the business of acting. Even his reappearance as Han Solo in The Force Awakens lacks appeal. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The scene in which he is murdered by his son with Princess Leia, Ben Solo (a.k.a. Kylo Ren), lacks pathos as if the actor wanted the whole thing to be done with as quickly as possible. Besides, the realization that Solo did not leave happily ever after with Leia only helps to undermine his cool as most desirable man in the galaxy.

Having said that, there is also a certain sense in which Ford is unique and irreplaceable. The choice of the insipid Alden Ehrenreich to play a young Han Solo in Disney’s mercenary Solo: A Stars War Story (2018) tells a much neglected story about the difficulties Hollywood has to find new major male icons. Chris Hemsworth (b. 1983 in Australia), Chris Evans (1981), or Ryan Reynolds (1976) are perhaps best positioned to play that role but something is amiss. Sean Connery, who hit ninety last week (and famously played Ford’s father even though he is only twelve years older), or Clint Eastwood (also ninety) still preserve a charisma that seems lacking in the younger generation, perhaps with Hugh Jackman’s only exception. This difficulty to find young icons means that we have been witnessing for quite a few years now, perhaps since the beginning of the 21st century, an extraordinary prolongation of the careers of the older blockbuster male stars. The three Expendable films (2010, 2012, 2014)–Ford participated on the third one–offer an extensive comment on his phenomenon with their all-star cast of ageing action actors. The projected fifth Indiana Jones film also comments on the difficulties to find a male star capable of filling in Ford’s niche for younger generations. Presumably, Ford, famous for doing most of the stunts in his films, will this time require a double. I wonder, though, whether it makes ultimately any sense to have a man play the same action role in his late seventies which he played in his thirties and what exactly this says about Hollywood, US masculinity, and filmmaking generally.

Ageing in public is no easy matter and although it does not affect men and women in the same way, it does affect men nonetheless. Perhaps it is more correct to assume that stars with long careers like Ford (he played his first screen role in 1966) have a compound image which not only changes from decade to decade but also as their own audiences age. I am old enough to have attended the original release of Star Wars (1977) and have a first childhood memory (I was then eleven) of Ford as the hot hero Solo, but who is Ford today to an eleven-year-old? His most recent film, a new adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, seems addressed to that demographic but he can hardly generate the same response now. Possibly, any eleven-year-old will be puzzled to realize that this wrinkled old guy with a thick white beard is the same Han Solo of the first Star Wars films they may have seen at home with their nostalgic parents. With this I am not saying at all that Ford ought to retire, just that his persona is not one, but many depending, as I say, on the parallel evolution of his career and that of his audience. The film I have recommended, Witness, was released already thirty-five years ago and this means that in practice for younger audiences Ford may be perceived as a relic from a classical past far in the depths of the 20th century.

This impression that Ford is somehow a throwback to other times is increased by the constant comparisons along his career to classic male stars ranging from Errol Flynn to Gary Cooper. Both Han Solo and Indiana Jones are throwbacks to the 1930s and 1940s adventure film series and it can be argued that, somehow, Ford’s persona was constructed from the beginning as a suggestion that macho cool cannot be a matter of the present. By macho I do not mean that Ford’s image is blatantly sexist, but the other way round: I very much suspect that he has embodied the kind of subtly patriarchal guy that at heart most men, women, and even children prefer. This is a guy that, as Luzón-Aguado notes, can safely display a “manly vulnerability” because this vulnerability is by no means a sign of insecurity. Or of male chauvinism. Perhaps, unlike the current US masculinity which shows so much rampant sexism and homophobia and fear of losing control, Ford’s American masculinity showed in his prime that being a man is a simpler matter: knowing who you are mentally and accepting the limitations of your vulnerable body, with no need to hate others. When Aguado-Luzón says that Ford need not display his sexuality aggressively she does not mean that his roles are asexual but that his sole presence is enough to transmit a reassuring sense of non-sexist manliness. Perhaps this is what is most missed from the male stars of the past and in modern masculinity generally.

There is, in any case, always a bit of a mystery about why certain individuals, male or female, become major film stars. Navigating the Hollywood choppy waters for more than fifty years is already a major accomplishment; being an audience’s favourite for many of these years even more so. It is then necessary to acknowledge these merits in Ford’s case (and, of course, in others). I remain personally very curious to see where his career is going in his old age and, though I have my misgivings, will certainly see the fifth Indiana Jones film. I hope, however, for the sake of the current eleven-year-olds that new male icons appear and that they are what is needed in these troubled times.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/