- Malice: The New American Hero
The latest contender in the Woman as Evil Bitch Film Sweepstakes is Harold Becker’s Malice. The film is less interesting for its portrayal of the Bitch, Tracy (Nicole Kidman), than for its view of what makes a Real American Man. The character of Tracy—a beautiful fraud who pretends to love children and her husband while plotting with handsome Dr. Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin) to make herself sterile and thereby collect insurance money—doesn’t add much to the string of recent screen villainesses in Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Basic Instinct, and others. All share the central quality of denying their feminine and motherly sides and/or exploiting their sexuality to ensnare hapless men. However, the development of the character of Tracy’s husband Andy (Bill Pullman), along with the ultimate fate of handsome Jed Hill, shows us that something both old and new is happening to the men in these films. Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) in Fatal Attraction (1988) is guilty of bringing evil into his domestic Eden, and in the end his wounded wife must kill the bitch. The only man aware of the bitch’s true nature in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1993) is the mental handicapped black handyman, Solomon (Ernie Hudson): the scientist husband is blind to her true nature even once he knows her true identity. In both these films the male “heroes” are weak and ineffectual, if not emasculated. Nick Curran (Michael Douglas again) in Basic Instinct (1992) is made of sterner stuff, but despite his nickname of “Shooter,” the film hints that he, too, will be a victim in the end. Malice provides a step—forward?—in the development of the American film hero, at least in the genre of thrillers.
The male leads of the film are Andy and Jed. Andy’s shortened name suggests his initial weakness, while Jed’s name suggests his hunkiness—it’s the sort of name you find attached to cleft-chinned romantic soap opera heroes. The names match the physical attributes of each character. Bill Pullman’s Andy is slightly built, has a non-descript face, and is always dressed in a corduroy or tweed jacket, button-down Oxford cloth shirt, and knitted tie—suitable if stereotypical garb for an Associate Dean of Students. Jed is the former high school running back, solid and athletic (we see him jogging energetically, for instance, while Andy drinks coffee), and the film allows him to doff his shirt frequently, so that the viewer may admire Alec Baldwin’s broad and hairy chest.
The way each man handles his women is also instructive. Andy has married, according to the local campus newspaper, his “favorite student.” We aren’t meant to raise our post-Anita Hill eyebrows at this. The detail is provided so that we may understand that Andy is not man enough for a Real Woman: he needs a “student wife,” someone young enough to be malleable in his inexperienced hands.
Of course, Tracy turns out to be anything but malleable. The film foreshadows this by way of a sex scene between Andy and Tracy. The happy couple are eating take-out Chinese in bed (perhaps a reference to the scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which also concerns the power balance between an older man and a younger woman). Andy can’t handle the chopsticks, and says to his wife, “Would you think any the less of me if I used a fork?” Tracy coyly begins to feed him from her chopsticks, and before we know it she is straddling him and they are having sex. It is Tracy who is on top, both literally and figuratively. She is less prudish and more aggressive than her husband; she doesn’t mind the curtainless windows and he does. Andy remains passive throughout, and all we see of his naked body is a scrawny lower leg. You can tell he doesn’t jog.
Jed, on the other hand, is a Real Man. When we see him having sex, Jed is energetically...