Growing up Eliot Gould was the perennial father figure. His mop of grayish black hair, kind dark eyes, and hangdog jowls made him the perfect 90’s dad for Ross and Monica on friends. At one point I may have caught him in M.A.S.H., but any youthful sex appeal he had was obscured by an epic horseshoe mustache and Hawaiian shirt. It was not until I recently saw The Long Goodbye, a Altman take on Philip Marlowe in 70’s L.A. that I realized what he had been: the first Jewish sex symbol.
This realization came with some push-back. Some friends said they couldn’t see the appeal past his perma-dad looks. For my generation, our earliest memories of Gould were in Muppet films and then again as a perennial father figure. But it was undeniable that in the 70’s, in roles like the Long Goodbye, MASH, Getting Straight and Bob &… he was a leading man and a good looking one at that. A great piece of Kosher meat if you will, with the acting chops to match.
Now Gould wasn’t the first Jewish actor, far from it. Not was he the first lead (though most had been women). What made him seem unique was that he wasn’t hiding his identity. In the Long Goodbye, the character was an outsider and Gould (originally Goldstein) while not playing a Jewish character was not hiding behind a studio system image of mainstream WASPism.
Prior to the 70’s Jews were allowed to be Jewish if they were playing comic roles, like the Marx brothers. But, unless there identity was subsumed into mainstream american good looks, they were not allowed to be leading men. Women, could be vamps, or if they could pass, dark haired (or bottle blonde) it girls.
But Gould may have started a bit of a trend. Three years after the Long Goodbye Dustin Hoffman would star in marathon man. And the 70’s would see a slew of non-wasp men take the lead in films. Some would describe this as a rejection of the studio systems perpetuation of male beauty. Although, it could also be seen as an expansion of “whiteness” itself. For a while, Italians, Jews, Irish, and other late wave immigrant groups were not considered, “white”. They were outsiders to the mainstream, and thus not “white.” This reflection on film in some ways bellies this cultural shift.
Now in recent times there has been perhaps been a bit of a regression. The the Apatow filmography testifies to a certain comic foil of Jewish masculinity that is less than the ideal. We have become the source of comedy. But at the same time, these film undermine the entire notions of masculinity (which hit it’s apex in 80’s era films, cf. Schwarzenegger). But regardless of context or story, Seth Rogan is no Elliot Gould. And James Franco is either playing a studio system style leading man, devoid of identity, or the biggest weirdo around.
But all hope is not lost. We still have Adam Brody if he can ever find the right role. And if you can get past the whole dad thing, Elliot Gould still draws em in.