Leading Men

By Stephen Hunter
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 6, 2008

W onderful moment in John Ford's "The Searchers," from way back in 1956: John Wayne, as the surly, violent Ethan Edwards, signals to his young compadre that it's time to move on in their pursuit of Scar, the Comanche chief who's murdered their family and kidnapped the youngest daughter, Debbie.

"Let's go, blankethead," he scowls to the young Martin Pawley.

I love the Duke's pronunciation of the word "blankethead"; it radiates contempt for the young and the untested. Ethan is using the blast of scorn to tell the young man not only to get going to his horse but to get going in growing up, to acquire sand, grit, salt and all the other granular metaphors for old-guy toughness and savvy. Blankethead: It's a three-syllable telegram on the theme of the fecklessness of youth, and nobody but Wayne could turn it into poetry.

But in the same instant, I remember Will Smith in the original "Men in Black." The hotshot young cop has been recruited to an alien-hunting team secretly HQ'd in a New York bridge, and now he's working for Tommy Lee Jones and Rip Torn. Torn and Jones are babbling about something and not paying attention to Smith. There's a moment of frustration on the young face, and he interrupts with his own blast of scorn: "Hey, old guys !"

It's a voice full of impatience, annoyance, even contempt, suggesting they haven't the energy, the quickness or the attention span to take care of business. It's on him, now, the new guy, the kid: He's got to keep them from wandering off, losing track, drifting as the old are wont to do.

Both those moments come to mind when contemplating the politics of the day. That's because, while the next few months can be dissected from many angles, the template that the Obama-McCain race seems to demand is familiar to anyone who has paid the slightest attention to popular culture over the years: old star/young star.

We seem to be at the classic moment when one generation of stars, with their traditions of heroism, beauty, grace, sexiness, their connection to old values, directly confronts the next generation, which, of course, also has traditions of heroism, beauty, grace, sexiness and connection to values, except they're entirely different. It's not hard to see Sen. John McCain calling the young, fresh-faced Sen. Barack Obama a "blankethead," just as it's easy to imagine Obama interrupting his opponent in a debate with a hectoring, "Hey, old guy."

You might consider it a lobbying effort not to win an election but to get a starring role in "The Next Four Years." And the star thing that you will contemplate is contrived of two elements: image, as polished and packaged by PR and advertising professionals, but also a kind of truth the camera yields not because of the advisers, but in spite of them, sometimes in counterpoint to the official image. Trying to keep track of what the camera reveals -- both on purpose and by accident -- is like looking at audition clips back in the old days with a bunch of studio scouts, like the one who (possibly apocryphally) concluded about Fred Astaire, "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little."

So put your feet up, light a cigar, nurse a Scotch and consider in the flicker of the images: Do you want the old guy with his known values, strengths and weaknesses? Many producers have trod that path, and the best thing that can be said is that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Or do you want the new guy, the fresh face, with the excitement and the sense of possibilities? It works, too. It also fails, too.

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His image engineers want you to see a twinkly fellow, quick-moving given his age, his scars worn proudly, speaking quietly of experience. It almost works. When you look at McCain's battered face and his movie-star-stunning wife (blond, blue-eyed beauty) it's hard not to see a Duke Wayne, a Robert Mitchum, even a Harrison Ford. He seems, at times, put together from parts of various stars or their roles. He has the star's masculine charm. As a young aviator, he was studly enough to date a stripper. And as an older guy, he was cool enough to marry a woman who was probably the most beautiful rich one or the richest beautiful one in the world. Nobody will write this anywhere except me here, but we guys, you know what: We admire another guy for making a great catch.

He's still attractive and, old-star vanity, especially if the camera hides his shortness (he's 5-foot-9), as it did for the 5-foot-6 Alan Ladd, among others. His private mien is that of any of the macho '30s type: a jokester who on his "Straight Talk Express" was famous for the high level of hilarity he produced among reporters with an endless torrent of dirty stories.

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