You Can Leave Your Shirt On

It used to be the ladies who couldn't keep their blouses buttoned, but now mature actors are taking over the trend. That would be fine if only shipshape stars such as Pierce Brosnan and Mel Gibson were stripping, but that's hardly the case. Now even vintage lookers like James Garner and Anthony Hopkins are flashing their torsos. Just how much can audiences stomach of this peculiar pectoral parade?

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On the cover of December's Vanity Fair, the lanky, still boyish Brad Pitt stands on a sunny beach in an open shirt, gamely displaying his chest. This is as it should be. Pitt is only 38 and he is still a bona fide heartthrob--he clearly possesses the authority to showcase the upper abdominal merchandise. The same can be said about Tom Cruise on the January cover of Vanity Fair.

This is all well and good for thirtysomething actors, but there comes a time in every matinee idol's career when he should give up the gimmick and cover up. Lately it seems male stars haven't known when to quit. The clock keeps ticking but they never stop stripping.

Consider Harrison Ford, who has persistently refused to keep his clothes on in recent films. He goes out of his way to show off his abs and pecs in What Lies Beneath, makes a shirtless spectacle of himself throughout Six Days, Seven Nights and also displays his fab abs when his clothing is torn off by Kristin Scott Thomas in Random Hearts. In doing so, he seems to be throwing down the gauntlet to Gen-X he-men and studmeisters to whom he is not yet ready to cede the scepter as one of Hollywood's reigning dudes. Bring it on, Brad. Bring it on, Ben. Bring it on, Leo.

Were Ford the only post-40 actor to doff his chemise in recent motion pictures, I would dismiss his breast-baring hat trick as a curious anomaly. Alas, this is not the case. Robert Redford does stripped-to-the-waist push-ups in The Last Castle. Kevin Costner repeatedly shows off his naked chest in the otherwise uneventful For Love of the Game. Richard Gere treats the audience to pec shots in Jon Avnet's garrulous Sino-litigious thriller Red Corner. Alec Baldwin displays his gorilla-like chest in State and Main. Kurt Russell allows Courteney Cox Arquette to feast upon his physique in 3000 Miles to Graceland. And ad man Mel Gibson spends a staggering five minutes and 35 seconds bare-chested while donning pantyhose and lipstick in an effort to get into the minds of female consumers in What Women Want. Admittedly, his chest and pecs look pretty damn good for a man his age, but still.

Traditionally, male audiences have flocked to movie theaters to see beautiful young women, not middle-aged men, take off their tops. Now, that approach has been turned on its head. In films like What Lies Beneath, The World Is Not Enough, Message in a Bottle, Runaway Bride, For Love of the Game, The Tailor of Panama, Six Days, Seven Nights, The Thomas Crown Affair and innumerable others, we see far too much of Ford, Costner, Gere and Brosnan, and far too little of Julia Roberts, Rene Russo, Kristy Swanson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, and, most particularly, the well-endowed Jamie Lee Curtis. Given that the movie industry has traditionally relied upon the shameless exploitation of voluptuous young women, it is perfectly reasonable to ask: What in the Sam Hill is going on around here? Has the moviegoing public suddenly lost its appetite for T&A? Is every director in Hollywood gay? Are female audiences now calling the shots here? Or what?

Perhaps older actors just want to prove that they've still got it. Pierce Brosnan spent his best years paying his dues on such trifling TV shows as "Remington Steele" and in such lackluster flicks as The Lawnmower Man. Now that he's found success in feature films, he most likely wants to do a little showing off. But need he be so relentless in his shirtless crusade? Brosnan first issued a mano-a-mano challenge to the boy-toy competition in Golden Eye, in which he sought to establish a sort of silver-screen pec-ing order. In this, his maiden voyage as Agent 007, Brosnan appears in an extended scene in which he literally tosses the robust Famke Janssen around a steam room, yet, miraculously, her bathrobe never comes undone. Meaning that the audience spends the entire time staring at Brosnan's hairy chest instead of Janssen's presumably non-hairy chest. Unnerving.

A similar situation occurs in The Thomas Crown Affair, John McTiernan's 1999 remake of Norman Jewison's low-key 1968 Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway caper. Here Brosnan, cast as a sophisticated art thief, steps out onto the veranda of his tropical hideaway to share a drink with Russo, an insurance investigator with a much better behind than one usually encounters in this field of endeavor. Russo, seen from the back, wears a towel over her shoulders, while Brosnan is seen naked from the waist up. We see her back; we see his front. I think I can speak for most male movie aficionados when I say that I wish it had been the other way around. In the words of the immortal Mr. Gaye, what's going on?

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