The Times, 20 March 2009


Brian Clough's family didn't attend the premiere of a new film about his life, The Damned United, this week, in protest at the version of Clough which appears in the book on which the movie is based. I hope at some point they reconsider, and give the film a chance, because Michael Sheen's portrayal of Brian Clough is utterly beguiling - he may be an egomaniac, but he is funny, charming, and a man in love. Not with his wife and children, particularly, although he does seem like a loving husband and father. But the real love affair of the film is Clough's relationship with Pete Taylor, played by Timothy Spall. It's so rare to see this kind of relationship on screen - two heterosexual men who love each other deeply and passionately, even destructively at times. There is, I should add, before lawyers are called, not the remotest suggestion that their relationship is sexual. But at the end of the film (which is based on true events, so I hope I'm not ruining it for anyone), when Clough and Taylor embrace, and Clough says, 'I bloody love you', it is as true as if they were a devoted married couple.

Straight men are hardly ever portrayed in cinema as loving other men. My boyfriend tells me this is because straight men rarely have deep relationships with other guys, and I do see that he has a point. But The Damned United doesn't show men having meaningful chats or crying over a mutual love of kittens. It shows them being, for want of a better word, blokes. Just blokes who love each other, and occasionally realise it. And even then, the real emotion is masked with minor swearing - no-one ever says, 'I bloody love you,' in fairytales.

Men in films usually have buddies, with whom they work and drink: mismatched cops, antagonistic lawyers, business rivals. The only times emotions are shown to run a little deeper are when men unite to thwart a common enemy - in war movies, westerns, and disaster flicks. No-one will question the sexuality of the troops in Saving Private Ryan, for example, so it's ok to show them caring about each other.

But the few films which do show men experiencing a real emotional bond are often box office gold. Shawshank Redemption is routinely voted into the top spot on lists of greatest films. You could argue it was for the ingenuity of Tim Robbins' Andy, the world-weariness of Morgan Freeman's Red, or the triumph of human spirit in the face of adversity. But I think the real reason for its incredible word-of-mouth success after an initial box-office flop is that men and women alike flock to see its portrayal of two men who love each other. I defy anyone to watch Freeman's last scenes without weeping - not for what he has lost, or even what he has gained, but for the sheer beauty of Red and Andy, who love and understand each other completely.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman pulled this combination off twice, in The Sting, and first of all in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Again, these cowboys wouldn't dream of discussing their relationship, even though they're in it till death do them part. And Mel Gibson and Danny Glover managed it four times in the Lethal Weapon films. These might look like simple buddy movies, but they're actually more complicated. Gibson's Riggs and Glover's Murtaugh follow exactly the story arc of a romantic comedy - they meet, and immediately hit it off on the wrong foot. They're forced to work together, despite their antagonism, and they embark on a series of set-pieces which inevitably draw them together. Less than two hours after their initial animosity, Riggs is perfectly willing to sacrifice everything for Murtaugh.

These love affairs are Platonic in the modern sense, meaning sexless love, rather than as Plato used it, meaning sublimated sexual love between an older and a younger man. The relationships are conspicuously innocent - Laurel and Hardy could share a bed without even a hint of homoeroticism. And more recently, Judd Apatow has captured the male-bonding market with Superbad, and Pineapple Express. These geeky, idiotic men may be incapable of adult relationships with women, but they can manage them with each other.

The younger a film's intended audience, the more its male characters are allowed to be devoted to one another: Apatow's movies, for example, are marketed hard at teenagers. And Pixar has done a sterling job of showing close male friendship - the relationships between Woody and Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, Remi and Linguini in Ratatouille, and Sulley and Mike in Monsters Inc are extremely touching.

But once we enter grown-up territory, androphile films are few and far between: mainstream cinema tends to show relationships between couples, gay or straight. If a film is about friendship, it's usually a chick flick and someone is sure to be dying, like Steel Magnolias. So the unspoken subtext is that women can sustain close friends at the same time as boyfriends or husbands. Men, on the other hand, can only manage one or the other - that's why male-bonding is usually shown in a girl-free zone - a football pitch, a prison, the Western Front.

It's time that films grew up a bit, and acknowledged that men aren't simple creatures. I hope The Damned United starts a new trend in cinema, and persuades more script-writers to show men having complicated, loving friendships. They don't have to talk about it, and no-one has to hug. But it will be love, all the same.