The Full Monty: Taking It Off For Thatcherism


 

Men’s bodies are a relatively new invention in films. Sure, there have always been men
in movies, but the male body, as a sexual object, is a fairly recent discovery. In the
1930s and ‘40s there were handsome men of a whole range of physical types and affects
— Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Randolph Scott — but they, even when
they had fetching shapes, were known less for their bodies than their attitudes: Grant was
as suave, continental gentleman, Wayne, the rough-and-ready American, Cooper, the strong
silent type. It was only in the 1950s when Marlon Brando and James Dean with their Actor’s
Studio movements and physicalizing made the male body move on the screen. It wasn’t simply
that they took off their shirts — although the muscular Brando, in a tight T-shirt and
tight jeans, in A Streetcar Named Desire

defined a new level of male sexuality on screen — but that they knew how to move their
bodies, to convey to us new possibilities of male sexuality. Brando could cry as well as
simmer and burn, and Dean, with his little-boy-lost smoldering eyes and lanky, mid-western
torso embodied a confused, contemporary, masculinity that was fresh and authentic. Later,
teen stars like Elvis, Frankie Avalon, and Tab Hunter took off their shirts in movies,
allowing a young, female audience the pleases of the gaze once reserved only for men. By
the late 1950s when William Holden appeared on posters for Picnic — shirtless,
sweaty, and about to climax — the image generated more business than Kim Novak’s arched
eyebrows and bulging, brassiere -pointed breasts. Men had not only become beefcake — a
term. that entered movie-culture sometimes after the war as a compliment to
"cheesecake" — but they were now sex objects. And, more importantly, it was OK
— for women, and by implication, other men — to look. .

Since that time, however, while the male body in films has become more exposed, it has
also become more vulnerable. There have been body types spawned from the templates of
Robert Redford and Tom Cruise — traditionally handsome and good looking men who embody a
cultural ideal of the great, white, middle-class, nice, romantic hunk. But there have been
other molds as well. Dustin Hoffman and Roy Scheider — fine, non-traditionally looking
character actors rose to stardom — and often to romantic leads — not so much on their
looks than on their ability to stir emotions in audiences. Even the younger troupe of
boy-actors — River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, and Leonardo DeCaprio — don’t fall into
traditional Hollywood mold. Lacking the intense sexuality of James Dean and even the
well-wrought (even over-wrought) musculature of older men, they combined a kinder, gentler
(but still potent) sexuality with a vulnerability that was rare in Hollywood films. With
this as backdrop, how do we make sense of the enormous success of The Full Monty– a
small British film that began as an art house independent and mushroomed to a baffo hit
for the Mall set that is now playing in over 800 screens across the country.

At first glance The Full Monty evidences little originality or even ambition.
It’s basic plot details the lives of five laid-off steel workers in Northern England –
well, four workers and one manager — who are dealing with the fallout of Thatcherite
privatization and cannot make enough money to keep their families together. The most
spunky — and trouble-scouting — of the groups decides that they should become male
strippers, an occupation that bolsters the ego as well as the wallet. It is a cute idea,
not dissimilar to last year’s Brassed Off, an almost identical tale of unemployed
steel workers trying to retain their jobs, maintain their self-respect, and keep the
company’s brass band together.

 

Brassed Off was a modest, art house hit, but The Full Monty has managed to
charm large audiences — industry word is that it has garnered enormous repeat attendance,
a sure sign that it has hit a resonant emotional nerve.

At heart the film is a sentimental tale of losers who have a dream and make it come
true. The fact that their dream is both tacky and, on the face of it, almost ludicrous,
makes it all the more charming. This is the staple Hollywood plot of the 1930s and early
40s — when dreams, even frail ones were hard to imagine. It died out during the war and
in the more affluent 1950s, but was reborn in British films of the late 1950s, when
wish-fulfillment whimsy began look pretty good to the remnants of the Empire. Classic
genial comedies like The Lady Killers, The Lavender Hill Mob, and Passport
to Pemlico
portrayed plucky British schemers and scramblers making the best of the
reduced post-war situations.

 

The Full Monty falls squarely in this tradition. While all five steel workers are
nice enough working class blokes — they are varying shades of Everyman — they are not
primed to succeed. Not only has the steel mill closed, but individually they are less then
success oriented. One is a divorced dad who can never quite make his child support
payments and stands the chance of losing his son, another (the uptight company man
manager, the only middle-class man among them) is so embarrassed by his plight that he
cannot even tell his wife that he is jobless. The others are a odd collection of English
types who might have easily been lifted any number of 1950s British comedies.

 

The Full Monty is so securely mounted upon these national stereotypes of good
natured bumblers that the idea of them becoming male strippers is both a surprise and a
delight. While the connivers of The Lavender Hill Mob wanted to score easy cash and
fortune, these men are far more invested in making their name with the bodies then their
wit. The joke, of course, is that both sets of characters lack the appropriate physical
and mental qualities to make their dreams come true. For, not only are these guys out of
work, they are totally out of shape.

This is where The Full Monty exerts its charms on the audience. On the surface The
Full Monty

promotes the idea that its characters should be able to do whatever they want — they
have been screwed by the system, the economy, and the society. The thought that they could
become male strippers is not only a goof, it is a thrilling form of revenge: the ultimate
male ego trip. Deprived of jobs and the usual social structures that define maleness, they
are going to — well — show the world they really are men. Not only are they going to be
strippers they are going to go al the way — the full monty — and show that they have the
balls to show their balls. Yet, on the other hand — and the film plays this with
knowingly and with great panache — it is obvious that none of them have the standard,
regulation equipment for this new line of work. In scene after scene the men worry about
their scrawny bodies, their flabby middles, the size of their dicks, and the possibility
of complete and total humiliation.

 

The Full Monty makes it repeatedly clear that the men realize they are putting
themselves up for the same scrutiny under which they place women. It is a clever, and
effective, expose of male sexism, but more importantly a biting look at male insecurity
and vulnerability. It is little wonder that The Full Monty has garnered a large
female following.

 

The Full Monty’s appeal — and charm — is that it places male anxiety and
vulnerability right on the surface and then revels in it. Beneath the deftly portrayed
Protestant Ethic problem — these men have been deprived of their maleness because they
are not producing — the real thrust of the film comes from the men thinking about and
dealing with their fears about their bodies. These scenes of the men fretting about their
bodies — are they in shape, do they have large enough penises, might they get an
unexpected erection during the show — speak to many men’s terrors of not measuring up. At
times The Full Monty is almost unnerving not simply in observing and deflating male
vanity, but in exploring, and exposing, male vulnerability.

 

The Full Monty is a direct answer to all of the tough-guy, macho posing, and male
playacting that has been going on in movies for seventy years.

The success of the film, however, is not based on this gentle unraveling of the
masculine image, but in finding a middle ground between vanity and vulnerability. As each
of the men worries about his body, it is made clear that their anxieties are about
competing with a false image. In the real world their bodies are fine, their wives find
them sexy, they are "cute" in normal ways, and they are sexually potent. The
acceptance of masculinity here is so generous and broad that when two of the men turn out
to be gay and become a couple, it is greeted with not a smirk, but a cheerful empathetic
hurrah. By the end of the film when they do perform, for the first and only time, their
act, the audience goes wild and it is clear that The Full Monty (which never
delivers on its title) wants us to know that once we get past the anxiety and the fear the
men here — and presumably in the theater as well — are doing just fine.

The popularity of The Full Monty is due not only to the film’s pioneering of
this, relatively, new territory, but the fact that it does so in the most amiably,
non-threatening way. This is a world in which guys with average bodies are more loved then
guys with "great" bodies, it is a world in which class resentments are resolved
over a pint and taking off your cloths together. It is a world in which economics and
politics — while driving the narrative — take a back seat. The politics of Brassed
Off,
on the other hand, are adamantly anti-Thatcher — it ends with a stirring
denunciation of her domestic policies and the Tory government — and the film seethes with
a class resentment that feels vibrantly authentic. This was a chance that The Full
Monty
was not about to take. Although it never pretends that it’s characters lives are
glamorous or morally superior for being poor, it steadfastly refuses to afic x blame or
even examine this in a material way.

But what The Full Monty does take on — now that audiences, both male and
female, are ready, even eager, to take a a more complex look at men’s lives and bodies –
is more than most other films have attempted so far. Perhaps its triumph is that it
convincingly helps us re-imagine a world in which men’s bodies are not only imperfect, but
valorized for being so. In a world in which Hollywood still gets to define how people look
— albeit, with the wider variation then ever before — it is filled with cheery everyday
common sense and lived experience.

 

The Full Monty isn’t the most sophisticated film in the world, and it relies on
sentimentality and simple pop psychology solutions far more than it needs to. but in the
end it delivers something new and startling. That it manages to be as funny as it is
compassionate, as kind as it is sometimes caustic, speaks more to its generosity than its
political edge.