Let More Women Make Movies About Toxic Masculinity!
The 2020 awards season is going to be dominated by stories of masculinity. Here’s why Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” stands out.
“Fred Rogers is the one man who could’ve pulled me over into doing a movie about men,” director Marielle Heller told me during an interview at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. We spoke just hours before the premiere of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, her sophomore feature starring Melissa McCarthy as literary forger Lee Israel. Heller’s directorial debut, Diary of A Teenage Girl, centred around a young woman having an affair with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend. She’s made a career out of delving deep into the complex inner lives of women. Why switch her focus to a man — even an especially nice one — in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, based on children’s TV icon Rogers’ real-life friendship with journalist Tom Junod?
“It’s important to make movies about good men and men who are trying to be better, and about the struggle of manhood,” she continued. Her film, which hits theaters November 22, does all that and more. Starring Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel, a broody journalist with daddy issues assigned to profile Rogers (Tom Hanks) for Esquire’s “Heroes” edition, A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood takes a sharp look at how we teach men to be men, through a woman’s lens.
The reviews so far have been overwhelmingly positive, with many zooming in on the film’s feel-good aspect, a quality that feels all-too-rare in our current times. It’s a story that rewards earnest caring over cynicism, and kindness over snark. Okay, okay, I can feel you rolling your eyes, and I get it. Earnestness? In this climate? But leaning into those themes doesn’t mean this movie is naive. In fact, quite the reverse: Heller is confident in her vision, painting a portrait of a Fred Rogers as a man who genuinely works hard to bring goodness (as he understands it) into the world. Hanks’ performance is incredibly poignant, and yet so comforting that it’s easy to see why some people don’t think he’s acting. But it’s in the character of Lloyd that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood really sets itself apart.
The 2020 awards season promises to (once again, let’s be honest) be dominated by portraits of masculinity. There’s Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, about a Western star past his prime (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his gruff stuntman sidekick (Brad Pitt); The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s gangster elegy starring big guns Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci; Ad Astra, James Gray’s space epic about sad astronaut Roy McBride’s (also Pitt) search for his father; Joker, Todd Phillips’ origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix as failed wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck; James Mangold’s Ford vs. Ferrari, the vroom vroom man car movie starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon. Elsa and Anna in Frozen 2 might just be the strongest women characters at the 2020 Oscars.
All of these awards contenders save for Frozen 2 have at least one thing in common: Directed by men, they provide introspection into some form of troubled maleness. That’s not inherently bad in and of itself — but it’s a perspective we’ve seen time and time again.
A decade ago, Kathryn Bigelow made history by becoming the first woman director to win an Academy Award for The Hurt Locker, a wartime drama about an Iraq War Explosive Ordinance Disposal team. It’s conceivable that Heller could join that club in February 2020 with a very different take on masculinity. Her film stands out not just because it offers a female gaze on toxic masculinity, but because it genuinely seems to be seeking a solution, rather than simply dwelling in the miasma of dashed dreams, violent tempers, and fragile egos.
The Lloyd Vogel we meet at the beginning of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would probably feel at home in any of the films mentioned above. He’s a successful investigative journalist known for his scathing pen, who’s experiencing a bit of an early midlife crisis. As a new dad with a boatload of unresolved issues when it comes to his own father, who is trying to reconnect after receiving a terminal diagnosis, Lloyd’s already on edge. So when his editor (Christine Lahti) assigns him a 400-word profile of Fred Rogers, he’s outraged. This is not a guy who writes fluff pieces! He is a serious man journalist! (In keeping with this attitude, he later files TEN THOUSAND WORDS to his poor editor, an incredible display of entitlement.)
But rather than veer into a sympathetic portrait of fragile masculinity, Heller instead interrogates it. Why does our culture teach men to suppress their feelings? And what would it look like for one man to give another permission to be vulnerable?
In that sense, Heller’s film thematically echoes ones like Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, about a cowboy re-assessing his identity after a near-fatal accident; Lynne Ramsay’s portrait of a former hitman in crisis in You Were Never Really Here; and more recently, Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy, based on Shia LaBeouf’s script about his own toxic relationship with his father.
One of the most obvious ways Heller’s vision differs from those of her male colleagues mentioned above is in the attention she grants Andrea Vogel (played note-perfect by Susan Kelechi Watson). A new parent herself, we see her struggle to give her husband the space he needs to figure his shit out, even as she’s frustrated at being left holding the bag. In other words, she’s not just blindly supportive (“Don’t ruin my childhood,” she warns Lloyd when he tells her about the assignment.) Nor is she silent, as so many women playing supporting characters in movies about men have turned out to be this year. Her concerns are treated with just as much weight as Lloyd’s are.
But Heller’s specific gaze also comes through in certain stylistic choices. By framing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as an episode of Mr. Rogers for adults, Heller allows herself to get whimsical, inserting colour and cartoonish creativity into the bleak landscape of Lloyd’s 1990s New York existence, much as she did in Diary of a Teenage Girl.
Rogers’ almost ethereal softness is balanced out by Lloyd’s increasingly sharp edges — Rhys’ stubble actually gets darker and darker as the movie goes on, and he gets increasingly curmudgeonly — as they help each other find a middle ground of understanding on the spectrum of masculinity. On the other extreme lies Jerry (Chris Cooper), Lloyd’s absent father, who left him and his sister alone to care for their mother as she lay dying. Lloyd remembers Jerry is as a man’s man in the most traditional sense. He drinks, hops from woman to woman, and pontificates loudly about sports. Lloyd, on the other hand, sees himself as a more enlightened, woke specimen. He treats his wife as his partner in the true sense of the word, even telling his dad that “she’s not a doll, she’s a public interest attorney,” when Jerry affectionately refers to her as one. But it’s not that simple. Lloyd’s quick temper leads him into a fistfight with his estranged father less than 20 minutes into the film. Something’s got to give, or Lloyd’s headed down a similar path.
Enter Rogers, who wins Lloyd over much as he has entire generations of children: He listens; he cares; he’s full of radical empathy. In other words, he’s the epitome of what we wish a man could be. Still, it’s easy to see how his presence could eventually feel grating. He speaks slowly — almost too slowly — and prays for strangers as fervently as his own family. He’s too perfect! Too good for this world! But even by his own admission, he’s no saint. His wife Joanne confirms this, sharing that Fred has a temper of his own that he works to curb. He, too, gets frustrated sometimes, and sad. He’s not always the man we see on TV, but he’s made a deliberate choice to be that man as often as humanly possible. Likewise, Jerry is more than what Lloyd has pegged him as from his traumatic childhood memories. He’s doing his best to meet his son halfway, and has settled down with woman he cares about. He craves a relationship with his young grandson.
All of these men are trying to figure out what it is society expects of them, and how to best fill that hole. We can’t have too many Mr. Rogers, just as we can’t have all Jerrys. But maybe, Heller seems to say, the world could do with just a couple more Lloyds — somewhere in the middle, but ready and willing to learn.