These past few years, Hollywood has tried hard to up its embarrassing quota of strong female leads, complex women who are allowed to catch murderers, take on city hall, and get killed by making dumb decisions just as well as their male counterparts. But there's still one thing a heroine is not allowed: a decent spouse that doesn't throw a hissy fit every time his wife is out saving the day.
Movie husbands tend to come in two unpleasant, char-grilled flavors. The first and most plot-involved is the typical abuser. This drinking, cheating, mobster-indebted piece of garbage isn't just a negligent partner but a major obstacle for the female protagonist to overcome. Terrifying examples of this are the womanizing, plagiarizing d-bags in Colette and The Wife …
Or, in a very literal example, the invisible hand of the abusive spouse in The Invisible Man …
The second and more insidious variety is the dream crusher. Not content with being just a useless husband like, in every TV commercial for paper towels, this impatient complainer has to make the female hero's struggle for greatness his problem. This typically culminates in a late-night fight in the kitchen where the dream crusher tells our hero in no uncertain terms that her saving the world is seriously getting in the way of her doing the dishes. Or he starts begrudging his wife's success and, like in A Star Is Born, undermines her achievements by pissing himself during their Grammys.
That doesn't mean that there aren't any supportive husbands/boyfriends out there improving scenes by staying in the background. The patron saints of the tiny trope are no doubt Fargo's Norm Gunderson, who's more than content to paint his ducks and make breakfast while his heavily pregnant wife politely chases down ruthless killers through the North Dakota snow …
And Parks and Recreation's Ben Wyatt, who puts the king in "slender elf king" by lending his talent to help his A-type love achieve bureaucratic glory.
A few actors have even made a cottage career out of playing Best Supporting Husbands. Jim Broadbent has no issue holding down the home fort for dames like Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady or Judy Dench in Iris. Meanwhile, Stanley Tucci radiates so much appeal being a husband-about-the-house in movies like Julie & Julia that you don't mind that he's just there to make the cocktails.
As you might notice, these ride-or-die men tend to pop up the most in biopics, like Mr. Margeret Thatcher in The Iron Lady or Mr. Sacha Pfeiffer in Spotlight -- probably because they're harder to artificially inject deadbeat drama into. But even then, the filmmakers might have to fight to keep these husbands humble. During the making of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On The Basis Of Sex, studio execs tried to pressure screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman into making Martin Ginsburg "less understanding" or even threaten to divorce RBG if she didn't drop her iconic case. But Stiepman stood his ground, leaving the movie's Mr. RBG as the same home-cooking hypeman that the real-life Marty was.
Fictional supportive husbands fare much worse. These nice-but-maybe-too-nice guys typically have to have at least one scene where they are forced to prove their manly worth, often by taking an uncharacteristic risk that ends with them kicking ass/getting their ass kicked. Like lovable Wash in Firefly, who weasels himself onto a mission to prove his ideas are valuable ...
And ends up getting captured, tortured, and having to go all John McClane in a desperate rescue mission.
And boy, you'll never see a more straightforward supportive husband than in crime movies, where they get to roll up their sleeves and help their darling wife get rid of a body or, as you do, steal a baby.
Maybe one day, we'll reach true on-screen equality of the sexes. But that will only happen when Hollywood lets its movie husbands do what they do best: put the kids to bed, cook dinner and resist the temptation of binging a Netflix show he promised they'd watch together. Like real heroes do.
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Top Image: Sony Pictures Releasing