Long Live The Working-Class Hunk

Look at Jeremy Renner, star of Bourne Legacy, and you’ll see something familiar: a certain set to the jaw, a coiled muscle build, a face that looks, quite frankly, like it’s been busted. You look at his body—the thick forearms, the barrel chest—and sense it was not made in the gym. It is a body that has labored, inflected with what Vulture’s “Star Market” column calls “real, swaggering, gritty machismo.” At 5’9″, right about 150 pounds, and with the skin of a smoker, he could be your cousin.

I look around my hometown in northern Idaho, a burnt-out crater of a timber town, and I see men with the same look and build. A lot of these men don’t have jobs, or at least don’t have the jobs their fathers did. In that, they’re not unlike Renner, who toiled for twenty years before winning a role in The Hurt Locker. He made a Hollywood working class wage—$65,000—playing an army sergeant, another role many men in my town have taken. Renner’s recent roles may have put him in well-tailored suits (Mission Impossible) and left him buried amongst superheroes (The Avengers), but he was still, at root, a man who did things with his body. According to Avengers director Joss Whedon, “his fight work is wonderful: precise, heroic, and you seldom have to double him.”

The traditional jobs of the working class have evaporated, but the downturn has drubbed up nostalgia for a time when men could make a living with their bodies and hands. Not writing code, à la our protagonist in The Social Network, or trading stock futures like Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis, but laboring.

Off-screen, profiles construct Renner as a laborer, detailing his years buying and remodeling Los Angeles homes. He and his buddy “lived in temporary, torn-up structures, without plumbing or power, trying to squeeze out a few more dollars.” They were flipping houses, but they did it the old-fashioned way: sleeping on the floor, construction dust in their hair.

Renner’s rise to stardom is indicative of an industry-wide re-embrace of working class American masculinity. Compare his career and look to those of Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Matt Damon, who he replaced in Bourne. Renner’s two Oscar nominations are for playing a member of the military and a Boston low-life—men who, one, two generations before, would have toiled in the factory or the mill, but America’s post-industrial turn forced them overseas, or to the streets.

We see this embrace in the resurgence of “mancrafting,” we see it in the eroticization of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, with whom women fantasize about living a quiet existence in a backwoods cabin. It’s in True Blood‘s Alcide, and in the return of the 80s “hardbodies” in The Expendables.

We even see it in this summer’s Magic Mike, in which a man who yearns to work with his hands is driven to exploit his body as stripper. Behind the gyrations, Mike despairs at the demise of the feasibility of a working-class life. On the construction site, the main character is boxed out by non-union, under-trained labor, and his all-cash stripping-income makes it impossible to get a loan to build his own furniture. He’s good at stripping, but in ten years, that job, too, will leave him behind.

But we love its hero: this year alone, Channing Tatum’s films have grossed $393 million domestically. He is, as Hollywood analyst Zach Baron put it, “having a better 2012 than anyone. He probably will be our next big movie star. Maybe he already is.” He’s “masculine,” according to Steven Soderbergh, “but not in a bogus way.”

Tatum and Renner’s characters evoke two sides of the same working-class coin: one driven to dance, the other to service, both screwed by the government in various egregious ways. They come to embody our anxieties and our hopes while raking in massive box office profits.

In this, Renner and Tatum are reminiscent of another working-class star, one who rose to fame when the working class was first truly threatened, when the Red Scare and rising tide of the middle-class called it into question. That man was as well-muscled as Renner; his characters had the same barely-tempered self-loathing. He was Marlon Brando, and he heralded a “new direction in the iconography of masculinity.”

That masculinity was sexual, emotive, and explicitly working class. He wore “dirty dungarees” and white t-shirts, and refused the Hollywood “glamour treatment.” When gossip columnist Hedda Hopper mentioned his name to her coffee-clatch, they exclaimed “Marlon Brando? He’s exciting! Marlon Brando? He’s coarse, he’s vulgar! Marlon Brando, he’s male!”

The Method he espoused was complicated, yet its effect was simple. He bulldozed Hollywood.

Today, we fetishize that young Brando, reading him into the likes of Renner. But his body and mind went to seed, and his gradual decline paralleled the decline of the American working-class as the nation transitioned into a post-industrial, service-based economy. Brando’s final roles present him as a wreck of his former self: a broken, bloated, incoherent man desperate for work.These new working-class stars help wipe that terrifying memory clean.

When analysts call Renner and Tatum the next big movie stars, it’s not just a declaration of worth. It’s also one of desire: people want to pay to watch this person, and what he seems to stand for, on screen. The Hollywood image of the American male has transitioned countless times over the last century, but this archetype persists. It’s the cinematic descendant of the rugged frontiersman, the cowboy, John Wayne and Gary Cooper, of course, but it has more recent iterations. Han Solo, after all, was a working-class cowboy in space, played by rugged-looking dude who George Lucas plucked from his backyard, where he was busy building him a deck. Bruce Springsteen, drenching his white t-shirt and red bandana in sweat, the very young, deceivingly normal Tom Cruise in All the Right Moves—they were antidotes to the very real decline that Reagan worked so skillfully to mask. (Of course, it’s no coincidence that Reagan himself rose to stardom in the 40s playing working-class roles, parlaying that image, and America’s hunger for it, into a presidency.)

These stars and the roles they play represent an America that no longer exists, yet remains fundamental to America’s self-conception as a nation of strength and individualism. When a way of life dies, we grasp for the thing that looks like it: its afterimage, its hollow simulacra, its projection onscreen. The working class is dead; long live the working-class hunk.


Related: “Mission Impossible”: I Don’t Understand How Tall Everyone Is


Anne Helen Petersen writes Scandals of Classic Hollywood when she’s not thinking about Idaho.