I am compelled by beautiful men who emit suffering. But beauty doesn’t bleed into the soul

When women perform pain it is seen as grotesque and manipulative. When a man does, it’s cathartic escape from what they usually are. 

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I read every review of the film Joker, and the opinion pieces and the hot takes and the long thoughtful essays. I consumed them as quickly as they were churned out. I read the ones that claimed it as a magnificent, generation-defining triumph, and those that fretted over its nihilism and malevolence and its apparent power to radicalise formerly innocent boys.

I read it all, but I knew it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter to me whether it was a good or bad film, whether it had a conscience or a heart, whether it had any intellectual purpose. I would see it, and I would love it, because it stars Joaquin Phoenix. And that’s exactly how it happened. I’ve seen it twice now, once with friends on its opening weekend and again, guiltily, on my own one weekday afternoon, and I still don’t know whether it’s any good because I am too mesmerised by Phoenix – his beguiling, elegant movement, the dancing, the harshly gorgeous face etched with pain.

Phoenix is one of a stable of actors who have the ability to hurt and move me. I’ll watch them in anything, and never tire of rewinding, because I’m not watching them reveal a narrative: I’m watching them. They make me think about the disturbing inequity of personal charisma, how unfair it is that one person can be miraculous to behold and another completely dull. It’s unfair, too, that on screen it’s only men who can make me feel this way. There are actresses I find exquisite to behold in images still or moving, but it’s only the men who are capable of causing me this very particular and very pleasurable sort of pain, who induce in me an almost nauseating feeling of longing when I watch them.

Often they are actors who I know to have suffered personal unhappiness, though not always (I doubt that my feelings towards Phoenix are entirely unrelated to the intolerably sad recording of his call to 911, broadcast across the world, as he watched his brother River die on Sunset Boulevard). They don’t have to be playing meaningful tragedy for the feeling to come. Brad Renfro does it as a child in the throwaway Stephen King adaptation Apt Pupil; Edward Furlong in the silly John Waters film Pecker. Marlon Brando does it in just about anything. River Phoenix crying in Stand By Me and transparent with trauma in My Own Private Idaho. Timothée Chalamet wounded by the fireside at the close of Call Me By Your Name. The feeling is to do with beauty but not caused by it alone. Paul Newman, say, or Brad Pitt, are men I find beautiful but not especially moving. Neither of them creates the urge to reach through the screen, to comfort, to soothe.

I know how foolish these feelings are and how cruel it is to find meaning and truth in male beauty and suffering where I don’t necessarily find it in women. Women who are beautiful are defined by it, and it becomes something they owe to the world. Beautiful men differ. Their maleness lets them slip outside of their beauty, and even to be unaware of it, so that it’s more bewitching. When women perform pain it is seen as grotesque and manipulative. When a man does, it’s cathartic escape from what they usually are. There is something horribly moving about it. Wow, I think to myself, they hurt too, beautiful men – the power they hold, which feels so total and final, is not so total after all. Suddenly the whole idea of men – men as a class, men as individuals – is split back open for me. Because of course they suffer, of course they aren’t the self-satisfied, self-contained universes I sometimes understand them to be. But this obvious fact is not so obvious all the time, when they seem so far beyond or above you.

I thought of my illogical, searching emotional responses to these men, with the news of James Franco’s latest depravities. Franco once broke a generation of teenage hearts as the playful, troubled Daniel Desario in the TV show Freaks and Geeks, an archetype of the bad boy you would die to make all better. In the years since, he made headlines for trying to seduce a teenage girl from Scotland visiting New York with her mum, via private Instagram messages. In the wake of the story breaking he posted “I HOPE PARENTS KEEP THEIR TEENS AWAY FROM ME. Thank you” on Twitter, before deleting it, perhaps misunderstanding himself as still being young enough to mask bad behaviour with louche irony. Earlier this month a lawsuit was filed against him by former students of his acting academy, accusing him and others of engaging in “widespread inappropriate and sexually charged behaviour towards female students by sexualising their power as a teacher and an employer by dangling the opportunity for roles in their projects”.

When I worked in theatre and socialised with actors, you would see them sometimes, the ones who’d once had this kind of power but from whom it was slowly fading away. The mix of that eroding beauty and the anger at its disappearance was something to see, beautiful in its own right, and frightening too. All that pain, that picturesque suffering, the youthful exceptionality ebbing and not being replaced by anything they could understand as meaningful.

I had a boyfriend once, who was not an actor but was like them in that he was very beautiful in a crystalline, easily breakable way, and seemed to emit suffering without trying to. When, at last, he hurt me – as his coldness, which I had understood as pain, had always announced that he eventually would – I cried and tried to work out how I had been so fooled by him.

The answer was so simple as to be almost not worth saying, but it was more or less as basic as this: I had thought he was good because he was beautiful. I assumed some secret tenderness. I was as old-fashioned as that; I had truly believed that beauty bled into the soul, and that suffering was a mark of virtue. 

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 16 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war