When a movie features a marriage, but the marriage is not the scene of the action, then it’s likely that one spouse is a secondary character while the other takes a starring role. Unsurprisingly, this arrangement has shaken out in men’s favor for some time, to the point of deep cliché: The woman at home becomes one more problem for the hero to handle as he forges ahead on his dangerous quest. A bit of weepy set dressing, really.
But whatever the qualms of the wife (or wife-like figure), she remains by definition — and in the actorly sense — supportive. She gives her male co-star something to build on, and she gives his protagonist someone to fight for. She may threaten to leave, though we never quite believe her. At the end, she’ll be right there, beside her man.
So what happens when the man is relegated to this diminished, utilitarian position? The movie might not get made at all. In an interview with the New York Times, screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman said Hollywood execs balked at his script for On the Basis of Sex, a biopic about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, because it portrayed her husband, Martin Ginsburg, as a kind and encouraging spouse. “Backers offered to fund the film if he was rewritten as angrier, or less understanding; maybe he should threaten to divorce his wife, if she didn’t drop the case,” wrote culture reporter Melena Ryzik.
In Forbes, film critic Kristen Lopez noted that this craving for a villainous hubby trickled down into male reviewers’ response to the movie. One of these guys, she noted, had called the part “underwritten” because Marty was a “sweet, flawless support system.”
You can disagree on how juicy a plot it might make, but trying to revise RBG’s real, late husband of 56 years into an antagonist for heightened stakes or cheap gender conflict is perhaps not the move where the genre of historical drama is concerned.
Thankfully, others have applauded the “illustration of a man who understood that his manhood didn’t need to be threatened by his wife’s success.” By every account, theirs was a devoted and mutually strengthening partnership, and Justice Ginsburg has said that without Marty, she never would have risen to sit on the highest court in the land. That he made the family dinners after coming home from work as a tax law professor and attorney — becoming a well-known amateur chef — inspired a posthumous cookbook.
If this is hard for a few haters to see on the big screen, it may be that they don’t like their masculine heartthrobs to wear aprons —although Armie Hammer did wear a kimono for most of Sorry to Bother You — or that they cannot imagine a man who doesn’t resent and impede his wife’s own journey. And that, in turn, could have something to do with how rarely such a man is included in our entertainment.
Within the past decade, the most obvious example might come from another biopic, Julie & Julia, in which Stanley Tucci plays Paul Cushing Child, husband to Meryl Streep’s Julia Child. The happy couple were ideal collaborators in the kitchen, and Julia considered her reputation as a celebrity chef to be partly his. Their parity and chemistry is charming to behold.
Before that, the best movie husband that floats to mind is Norm from the Coen brothers’ Fargo, a sensitive painter of nature scenes who won’t let his wife, Marge, a pregnant police chief, leave the house before he can serve her a hearty breakfast. A little earlier, and on the goofier side, you had Gomez nurturing Morticia’s macabre ideas and ambitions in the Addams Family movies — when not re-declaring his passionate love.
What’s funny about these roles is how radical or subversive they feel despite our baseline awareness that many decent and caring husbands exist in the real world. We’re far more comfortable with the narrative notions of a husband as an obstacle or abuser — or, in the world of sitcoms, as a useless and disinterested couch potato.
Probably this helps to lower the bar for any man who consumes this stuff; as long as he’s not a complete lout, he’s good enough, and he needn’t bother with the positive behaviors that keep a domestic bond secure and healthy. To the extent that we’re allowed to observe a man’s suitability for marriage, it’s usually couched in terms of his grand, implausible romantic gestures, not the teamwork that follows the words “I do.”
Aside from fearing the grace of a movie husband who wants his wife to seize her dreams, however, some viewers and studio bigwigs may simply be confused by the nature of men content to remain in the background. A man is apt to see his life as cinema, with himself in the lead, and any accomplished partner may eclipse that story — so why wouldn’t the movie husband have this reaction?
In Marty Ginsburg’s case, it’s because the record shows he didn’t, but screenwriters would do well to consider his dignity when conjuring fictional husbands, too. They might find that they grant these characters a threatening hostility or toxic point of view without just cause, reducing them to an archetype as stale as the stoic, patient wife. It’s not that every movie should idealize a guy with a wedding ring — but it’s nice to have something to shoot for.