We've all been outsiders at some time or other in our lives. (Remember first grade?) Back when I was growing up in the swamps of Alabama, all the boys knew that our little town wasn't the real world, but, try as we did, we couldn't imagine a workable idea of what was on the other side of the swamp. So like kids everywhere, we wove our fantasies of what the world might be like from the fantasy images we brought back from the movie theater two blocks away.

What we saw up on the big screen were heroes and tough guys and romantic lovers, the likes of Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart. Still, it was hard to bridge the gap. Real men on screen always seemed to know things we'd never been taught. We outsiders in the audience couldn't imagine a time when we'd know what insiders knew. After all, we couldn't rely on ourselves: we'd never been anywhere.

So how could we ever discover a way to navigate a world that seemed to lie far beyond our grasp? To step across the alligators and begin to tread confidently in the terra incognita of the great wide world, we knew we needed guides who could show us the way. In the darkness of the local movie theater, we tried to see life through the eyes of characters who, one way or another, we felt had been able to enter the charmed circle of real experience that seemed so far, far away from us.

Of course, we all come from a swamp of one kind or another, and ever since the invention of moving pictures, outsiders of all types have flocked to the movies to rise above their disabling social awkwardness and sneak over and under the fences with the members-only signs that separated them from embracing what they longed for in life.

Growing up, I especially admired the guys who were so tough and independent they didn't need approval and direction from anyone. I wanted to be my own man, but I knew I wasn't, and could only dream of ever becoming one. With the advent of the screen rebels of the 1950s, however, I found a new breed of hero to show me the way. I was in awe of Marlon Brando and James Dean and the other brooding, riveting outsiders who began to populate movie screens. However moody and miserable, I'd never seen characters on screen quite like the ones they portrayed. They seemed so completely themselves, without a need for the constant social approval I desperately hungered for. I tried to walk and talk like they did. I even had the strange notion that once I'd perfected my swaggering, outsider routine, a woman as knock-'em-dead gorgeous as Liz Taylor would fall in love with me.

Fifty years later, waves and waves of cultural and cinematic fashions have come and gone. We've been through the 1960s, the Vietnam wars, the Me Generation, and, now, George W. Bush. We're certainly less enthralled with the daring and the narcissism of the classic 1950s movie rebel, and we've learned that society isn't always wrong, and rebels aren't always right. But beyond that, as society has become more head-spinningly fluid, we're much less sure who exactly the outsiders and insiders are, from moment to moment. And what's more, as two recent movies have shown, outsiders needn't be charismatic or even particularly appealing to capture the attention of today's psychologically minded movie audiences trying to discover clues to their own sense of social exclusion up on the screen.

British screenwriter Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, and now Frost/Nixon, specializes in exposing the most private (and most complex) of the public figures of our time. Frost/Nixon is based on interviews videotaped in 1977 between disgraced, unapologetic ex-President Richard M. Nixon and deceptively lightweight British TV talk-show host David Frost, accustomed to interviewing the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor and Muhammad Ali, who sets out to expose the tortured psyche of the most loathed of American presidents—at least at that time.

A grinning Frost paid Nixon $1,000,000 of his own money for 30 hours of on-camera knee-to-knee sparring between himself and the former president. Each thought he had something to gain out of the encounter: Nixon hoped for a big payday and the chance to redeem himself before the country; Frost hoped to pull off a journalistic coup that would get the world to take him seriously.

More than 30 years since he left office, Nixon remains a man we love to loathe. For a quarter-century, he dominated American politics by keeping the nation on edge over commies in the bushes. But what made him tick? and how did he maintain his influence for so long? He's now been portrayed in two celebrated movies by actors best known as, respectively, a cannibal and a vampire: Anthony (Hannibal Lecter) Hopkins in the Oliver Stone version of Nixon and Frank Langella here, previously most acclaimed for his performance as Dracula on Broadway.

Sweating, self-loathing, and deeply embarrassed at living inside his heavy-shouldered, graceless body, Nixon remains the quintessential outsider: he represents the triumph through sheer force of will of someone growing up poor and socially awkward, with a childhood filled with setbacks and family tragedy. Beginning his political career as the country faced the uncertainties of the post-World War II world, he turned his profound sense of personal threat to his advantage by presenting himself as the nation's Great Protector against the Red Menace.

The central drama of Frost/Nixon focuses on whether Frost (played by Michael Sheen, who was Tony Blair in The Queen) can persuade the elusive, ever-rationalizing Nixon to confess to the crimes and dirty tricks that forced him from office. The metrosexual Frost is a perfect foil to Nixon. He's an attractive, glib man, with an English accent and Gucci loafers, who seems blithely self-assured. By contrast, Nixon reminds us of the alien wearing the human body in Men in Black. "Why," Nixon's indignation seems to whine, "should Ôthey' love this lightweight Frost instead of me?" Frost, who never questions whether he's lovable and always can have anyone he chooses in his bed, at his table, or on his show, is convinced that his charm and savvy can get Nixon to relax and confess. One rule of popularity is to assume that almost everyone wants to love you—unless you're Nixon.

Nixon played to America's cultural ignorance and xenophobia, using his paranoia as his guide for how to persuade us that anyone less distrustful of the world must be weak and na•ve. At the pinnacle of his power, he exemplified the paradox of the Ultimate Insider, inwardly tormented with the insecurity and desperation of the Perennial Outsider, forever wondering why nobody loved him. Frost/Nixon captures this troubled, brilliant, conflicted, deeply unpleasant man, and reawakens our fascination with how such an obvious loser could have achieved such success. Why do we loathe Nixon? Because he's paranoid, that's why.

Another new film, set in the 1970s, examines the outsider's plight from a very different perspective. The popularity of Milk, even its existence, is a commentary on our evolving ideas about who's the insider and who's the outsider.

In 1977, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was a free and uncloseted gay man, who championed opening society and public life to gays. In his campaign speeches, he said "I'm Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you." The thought of a gay man in public office scared many people; but only people who've spent too much time watching Fox News could be threatened by a man as free-spirited and loving as Harvey Milk. He's played by Sean Penn, who early in his career had the naughty beauty of a punk angel, but here looks stringy and crinkled. As he fights for gay causes, he runs through a series of failing relationships—men who'd fully love him if he weren't so busy fighting for everyone else's right to choose a life.

Harvey Milk's antagonist is fellow Supervisor Dan White, a fiercely straight, would-be tough guy, who's contemptuous of Milk and his growing popularity, even as Milk tries to ingratiate himself with him. When Milk wins a key vote concerning gay rights, White snaps, feeling his manhood has been taken away by the gay coalition. He shoots and kills Milk and the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone. (In an unintended commentary on Milk and its relevance for today, the passage of Proposition 8 has shown that Californians still can't decide whether it's safe to allow gay people to choose whom they'll marry.)

The movie is a lively cavalcade of apartments stuffed with junk furniture and guys sleeping on every surface, celebrating their personal freedom as if life were one big fraternity-house party, and—on another level—everyone pulling together to extend that freedom to others. This is a fun frolic and sleepover, with the irrepressible Milk as the emcee, who loves everybody and shows it. He keeps trying to make friends, even with Dan White.

White is played tensely by Josh Brolin, the star of No Country for Old Men, and, more recently, a bewildered George Bush in W. The heavy-limbed, heavy-browed Brolin has the beat-up face and body of a rugby loser, a brutish cross between Burt Lancaster and Nick Nolte. He senses that his hypermasculinity has fallen out of style, and feels he's lost: he thinks it's all he's got. A victory for gay rights feels like an assault on his manhood, his marriage, even his Jesus. The movie asks us to consider what this guy is afraid of. In court, White blamed the killings on junk food—a defense sardonically characterized as the result of eating too many Twinkie cakes. He went to prison for five years, and committed suicide when he got out. He seems never to have understood why Milk's popularity was so dangerous to him.

Both Milk and Frost/Nixon are about the sometimes confusing interplay between outsiders and insiders in our rapidly changing times, making us wonder whether it's Richard Nixon or Dan White who's more wretched in his deep confusion about where he fits in the world. One difference is that we don't recoil from White as we do Nixon, who deftly exploited our fears for his bottomless ambition; White is just bewildered and lost. Nevertheless, we watch in horror as we come to understand why someone would kill a person who just wanted to be his friend.

Ultimately, White doesn't understand that the rules about who's inside and who's outside have changed, and he can't find his place in this new scheme of things. He's grown up trying to turn himself into the 1950s model of the all-American boy, but then discovers, to his horror, that macho is out of style, and blames those who were so loathed in his youth but now seem to have moved into the charmed circle. Like us guys in my Alabama swamp, he needed a guide around the alligators, but never found one. Maybe he just went to see the wrong movies.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.


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