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Apr 25 2009

What Harry Sanborn can Teach us about Some Single Midlife Men.

Published by at 4:26 am under Culture

By the end of Nancy Meyer’s movie. Something’s Gotta Give, the lead character, Harry Sanborn, Jack Nicholson’s character, shows promise of finally being a mensch, a man of honor who can be trusted. We don’t know if he’s there yet, but he’s there enough that when Erica opens up to him again, at the end, we aren’t afraid for her.

When I was in Rome I saw the statues of Greek Heroes. Seven feet tall. Enough larger than life to be heroic, but close enough to human scale that I could relate and feel cowed. Harry is like that, just bigger enough than life to carry a movie, but close enough to people I’ve known, including, me.
Before the midlife wake-up call, a charming, and immature guy.

When we meet Harry, he’s a sixty year old guy who has perfected an adolescent male’s dream. He’s got the money, the power, the fame, the car, the pad and the impossibly gorgeous trophy women. The fact that he’s as much a trophy screw for the women as they are for him doesn’t bother him. It’s how he likes it.

I had a chance to see a pre-shooting script of the movie and the planned opening had him speaking about being afraid to grow old and a cruel fantasy about him being seen with a woman his own age. I liked the final cut better. It opens with him musing about mature young women at the height of their sexual powers and him uniquely positioned (to coin a phrase) to sample the batch of them.

Psychologist David Buss’s research strongly argues that men have two separate mating strategies, one for casual sex, one for committed relationships. The casual strategy says spread sperm early and often. The serious strategy says put all your eggs in one basket and take care of that basket. Harry isn’t yet capable of the second strategy. One of the story lines of the movie is about how he acquires that capacity.

His maturing starts out with a heart attack. In midlife literature, this is called a Wake Up Call. Sometimes, especially with men who have success and no humility, it takes the threat of death to make them think about their lives.

The opening lines of Dante’s Inferno go like this: “Halfway through life’s journey I found myself in the middle of a dark forest. I had lost my way.” The heart attack pushes Harry into unknown territory. He loses his way. He has to depend on others. He becomes vulnerable.
First he’s vulnerable, then he’s in a profound and challenging encounter with a powerful creature he’s never encountered before, a mature woman.
Harry finds himself flirting with and then in bed with, and then profoundly moved and touched by an unexpected partner, Erica, the first woman he’s ever been with who was capable of “getting his number,” knowing who he is and being his equal. At first he is not afraid. He is fascinated. He glimpses of a Promised Land, a chance of being no longer profoundly alone.
Seeing the Promise from a distance.

Stories work this way because they rings true; life works this way. First we get a glimpse of the Promised Land, but we don’t get to go there without being purified. This is the heart of the midlife crisis.

At first, Harry doesn’t even have the language to grasp what he’s seen.

Nancy Meyers wrote a brilliant script, I think, and one of my favorite parts of it is how she has Harry speak that vague, circular language used by men ambushed by love. Sociologist Timothy Perper, in his book, Love Signals, points out that, compared to men, women are concrete and practical about love. It’s the men who get romantic, gushy, poetic and vague.

Nancy Meyers has Harry say, “I could really love a woman like you.” And Meyers underlines the weird vagueness of the sentiment by having Erica repeat it to herself later, adding, “…love a woman like you. What is that supposed to mean?” Harry is going to need another wake up call.
Harry gets tested and fails. Doesn’t get it yet.

Harry is out doing his usual with one of his usuals and he runs into Erica. Erica sees him with another young woman and flees the restaurant. Harry runs after her. They have this wonderful conversation where Harry tries to defend his vagueness.

He says, “ I like you, Erica.” She says, “I love you – like you.”

Harry tries to turn the conversation into something intellectual and Erica won’t stand for it. Her heart is too full of love for him. “What am I supposed to do with All This!”

Harry answers, truthfully, lamely, “I don’t know how to be a boyfriend.”

“That’s it? That’s all you have to say? ” she says. “Good by, Harry.” And she jumps in a cab and is gone.

The difference between women at midlife who end up in committed monogamous relationships and those who don’t is that the ones who do insist on it.

She does Harry a favor. The test of a mature man is his ability and willingness to be profoundly influenced by a woman while still being true to himself. It is the mirror of the test for a woman. He’s never going to make it to the Promised Land as long as he is worshipping the cheap stuff.

David Gilmore, an anthropologist, wrote a book called Manhood in the Making and he points out that in cultures all over the world adult masculinity is a status that must be won by sacrifice. The mature male happily sacrifices to take responsibility.
The silver bullet every woman must have.

In another article of mine (on the web page under articles: Are you dating a werewolf?) I talked about how some immature men need to be shot through the heart with a silver bullet by a woman who loves him enough to do it. And that is what happens in the next and final wake up call for Harry.

Erica drives off in her cab; Harry is alone. Erica goes back to mourn and to transform her pain into art; Harry goes back to his whatever. Erica writes a play which is a thinly disguised story of her relationship with Harry; Harry comes to a rehearsal.

There are two important notes sounded during this last conversation between Harry and Erica before Harry finally gets it.

When Erica asks Harry why he’s at the rehearsal he says, “ I was worried about you, Erica.” Erica says, simply “ I can take care of myself, Harry, I’m fine without you.” She rejects his cheap heroics. She is a woman of substance and she wants as much as she is capable of giving.

Then Harry learns that the “Harry” character in the play dies at the end of the second act. Erica has killed him in the play. Harry protests and she says, “It’s funnier that way.” Harry has panic attack that feels like a heart attack. The silver bullet finds its mark.
The Real Cave is a Cave of Remorse

For a lot of midlife men, the transformation requires remorse, reflection and withdrawal. In the next sequence Harry finally changes and we know it’s a real change because he finally does something he’s never done before: he stops playing his game with women and instead, takes a good look at it. The movie has him spend six months tracking down women he’s been with and wronged and inviting them to tell him their side of the story. Six months is Hollywood time. In real life something like this could take three to five years.

Well, you don’t know what you’ve learned until you are tested. The final phase of this story contains its most important lessons.
How Harry Proves Himself Worthy

Harry returns to New York and goes to look up Erica. She’s not there; she’s in Paris. Harry knows just where. It’s that restaurant she invited him to way back when. He goes to Paris, he goes to the restaurant. He is a mature and confident man. He sees her. They talk, it looks promising for Harry, and then, whoops, he sees that she is there with her handsome young lover, Dr Julian Mercer. This is Harry’s first test.
The mark of a mature man is his ability to lose, or win,
with generosity, honor and grace.

I asked a group of men whether they could show up, be generous, and be genuinely friendly if the woman they were courting chose another man over them. Some could but all acknowledged that it would be very difficult. This is the sort of thing women do better than men, I think.

When Harry realizes she is with Julian, he gets up to leave. Then, Julian, the only one of the three of them who could do this, invites Harry to join them for dinner and they have a great time together, all three of them. Harry pays for dinner. Afterwards, at the cab, Harry says good bye. Erica goes off with Julian. Harry goes by the Seine and watches the romantic boats go by. Snow falls softly. Harry says, half in jest, “Now look who gets to be the girl.”

Kipling wrote, “If you can meet defeat and victory and treat those two imposters as just the same, then you are a man…” How lovely that Harry’s line about being the girl is the mark of his manhood.

Movies are as telegraphic as haiku. Simple sentences speak chapters. Harry’s graceful joke, suggests he can handle being vulnerable. But there is more.

If Harry had been resentful, if he had stormed out, got drunk, tried to pick up a young woman, got whiney, tried to put Julian down, or any of those not-willing-to-accept-it behaviors, , we would have been worried for Erica when she returned to him on the bridge. But he didn’t. He was a man of honor.

The they-live-happily-ever-after ending is a little glib. There are tests ahead for him But even so, we know he’s changed and for the better. In the final scene, he is Mr. Grandmom, showing his nurturing side and being the grandparent in the restaurant.

He starts out a self indulgent boy. He learns that there are things worth wanting that aren’t won by charm alone, which require sacrifice. He learns to sacrifice. And then he is able to learn. And then he gets what he wants.

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One response so far

One Response to “What Harry Sanborn can Teach us about Some Single Midlife Men.”

  1. Oliviaon 19 Dec 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Ppl like you get all the brains. I just get to say thanks for he awnser.