How did the “himbo” conquer Hollywood?

Thor, Magic Mike and The Legend of Tarzan are just a few examples of the rise of the male torso in modern movies

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A significant if opaque step for feminism was taken in 1972, when hairy B-movie actor Burt Reynolds shot to fame as Cosmopolitan magazine’s first ever nude centrefold.

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It bucked two decades of female skin in the pages of Playboy, which launched in 1953 with a centrefold of Marilyn Monroe (actually a naked photo taken for a calendar before she was famous in 1949). In the Cosmo spread, Reynolds reclines on a bearskin rug, grinning from ear to ear after a number of vodka and tonics, with his left forearm carefully placed over what he called his “tallywacker”. The conventional male gaze was averted and the issue sold 1.5 million copies.

Though flattered at the time to be asked (Paul Newman had turned the mag down), Burt has long since expressed his regret (“I wished I hadn’t done it, I was very young and very

stupid”), and believes the exposure damaged the chances of his latest film, the very serious Deliverance, at the Oscars (it failed to win in any of its three nominated categories).

The commercial value of nubile flesh has hardly abated since Burt stripped off. But if the traditional trade in female anatomy has continued, the marketing of beefcake seems recently to have gone through the roof.

Look at the poster for the admittedly not very serious Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, in which male stars Zac Efron and Adam Devine appear buff and topless, while their clothed dates Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza draw humiliating doodles on their chests in lipstick.

Gym-pumped torsos are no longer an option but a necessity for young male actors like Efron, or former dancer Channing Tatum, or butch Aussie Chris Hemsworth, who put on 20lb of muscle to play Thor. His trainer Luke Zocchi told Men’s Health magazine how Hemsworth would do “three sets of 12 lifts where the eccentric phase – the lowering of the weight – takes three seconds, then, on the fourth set of 12 reps, he’d go very slow – eight seconds”. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Nobody is questioning the acting talents of the stars, but it would be disingenuous to deny the appeal of their rippling six-packs to cinemagoers of every persuasion. The kind of physique once limited to bodybuilding magazines is now a Hollywood norm. And a body like that doesn’t build itself. Unless you’re Seth Rogen or Jonah Hill (both of whom have felt the pressure to slim down), it’s push-ups or push off.

Alexander Skarsgård was the most recent serious actor to go wedge-shaped for his starring role in The Legend of Tarzan. In the 1930s, when the king of the jungle was first cast, the studio hired not an actor but an Olympic swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller. To play the title role in the imminent remake of Ben-Hur, Jack Huston lost 14kg and got down to 6% body fat after months of training, and had to foreswear carbs and alcohol on set – in Rome, where, I understand, they do pizza, pasta and the odd glass of Frascati. Acting is no longer just about learning your lines, it’s closer to becoming a monk.

Hey, don’t feel too sorry for Hollywood’s battery gym bunnies. After centuries of patriarchy in the bedroom and boardroom, women are finally being taken seriously, but full equality is still a long way off.

Why shouldn’t men come down off the scaffolding and be objectified, to see how they like it? For too many years, actresses were under explicit pressure to disrobe and implicit pressure to fit an archaic model of attractiveness

for an imagined hetero male audience. Female stars were either “sex symbols” or played “Mom”; women had to be as young, beautiful and nubile as Bacall, Taylor or Basinger, while their onscreen male lovers could be as grizzled and middle-aged as Bogart, Brando or Burton.

It should never be forgotten that during the studio system years, from the 30s through to the 50s, it was actresses like Greta Garbo, Olivia de Havilland and Elizabeth Taylor who broke contracts, made a noise and took the studios to court, benefiting all actors. Moralistic production codes allowed these women to keep their clothes on before 60s permissiveness put paid to all that. But boy, did they have to do most of the undressing until recent events put the boys in the same pickle. (You’re still more likely to see an actress full frontal than an actor, even in a steamer like Fifty Shades of Grey, where toned Jamie Dornan’s “tallywacker” was conspicuously absent.)

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Where will all this high-intensity exercise end for our young men? Look at the shape of actual athletes when they stop training. Actors should all watch recent thriller The Gunman in which 50-something Sean Penn appears topless. His torso is so unnaturally gym-pumped he looks like his head had been photoshopped onto the body of another man. Someone should have staged a male vanity intervention, saying, “Put the dumb-bell down. Burt Reynolds didn’t blow his chance at an Oscar for this!”