Hard Boiled Actors and Soft Boiled Lovers

As a young guy, I thought that I saw the value of a writer like Ernest Hemingway.  Ernesto was hard boiled and proud of it. And that hard boiled quality freed him — or at least it seemed to me at the time — to explore and find adventure. He was tough enough to say “So long, useless conventions and people!”! He was going to move on to greener pastures. First Paris, then Africa, then Cuba, then Ketchum. It was only much, much later that we learned that Ernest the man was less attractive than Ernest the image. Oops!

Normally one might excuse this. The author is not the character in his stories. But Hemingway made such a big deal about his attitudes towards his tough characters, one might have expected a bit more. We found out that he was less the hero and more the PR man who made up  heroes. Ooops!

Back then, worshiping at this altar was more the norm. We were still basking in the Cagney, Bogart, John Wayne era. Toughness or being hard boiled was still seen as the way to be  … and even an option for women too. I am thinking here of women like Isak Dinesen.  My dear old dad fit right into that mold. He said to me many times “Be a man!” He believed in that and he tried to live it. He thought I should too.

The sixties changed many things,  including the “free ride” that being hard boioled used to get from criticism. The anti-hero went maninstream and the anti-hero was not hard boiled at all. He and she were now soft boiled.  I think of Woody Allen in his comedic period as the classic soft boiled character.  But he is not alone. How about Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate” (1967)? Man is tha dude soft boiled! In case you don’t remember, his name was Ben Braddock.

You might even think of the sixties as an attempted escape from hard boiled attitudes.  That was the core message of one of the greatest stories from that period, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 (1961).

You had to be crazy to fight in war (to be hard boiled), but if you realized that, you were sane and therefore you could not get a discharge from fighting.

Indeed, the need for soft boiled escape comes out clearly  in Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” that came out in 1962. Nurse Ratched is as hard boiled as they come.  And what were those two dudes in the film “Easy Rider” escaping from if it was not the hard boiled society that they came from? Ditto for Ben and his love riding away on the bus in The Graduate. Yes, Mrs. Robinson was one hard boiled lady!

The film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) personified how some saw the transition form hard boiled to soft boiled heroism.  Spencer Tracy  a classic hard boiled kind of dude, has to cope with his daughter’s love for a black man, played by Sidney Poitier, whom she wants to marry. Could the old hard boiled dude cope? That is really what this film is all about. And, of course, the story was a microcosm for attitudes about race in America.

In his classic speech towards the end of the film, SpencerTracy admits that he is only hard boiled on the outside.  On the inside is the softest boiled egg you will ever see! Of course, we had seen this sort of admission before. Even John Wayne fell in love from time to time. But in earlier iterations, love had to take second place to coping with the nasty world outside. That was a key part of being hard boiled!  You had to hide love – not flaunt it.  Think, for example of the famous ending speech of hard boiled Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon”. He may be in love with a woman, but if she killed his partner, she has to be turned in! Now that is tough!

In contrast, Tracy tries to cope with the idea that his daughter and her husband will not be able to cope by being hard boiled.  They will need to be publicly in love. It is a challenge indeed. To be hard boiled enough to be soft boiled?



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