Thursday, October 14, 2010

FLICO SUAVE: An Analysis of Suaveness in Modern Society and Film History, by Team Bartilucci

You read that right: my husband Vinnie Bartilucci and I collaborated on this week’s blog post. Together we are...Team Bartilucci! Hope you enjoy our playful labor of love!

It all began on a car trip home from visiting the Long Island branch of our clan. Ever chatty, we lapsed into a conversation on who in films was truly suave, and who was just cool.  It occurred to us that there were a million gradations between the two types, and an equal number of rules and tests to measure people against in order to determine their suaveability.  We hope to analyze these in this exhaustive treatise.
Let’s start with the obvious and unimaginative beginning of the article that we all learned in college: list the definition:

suave (swäv) adj. suaver, suavest.
Smoothly agreeable and courteous. —suavely
adv. —suaveness or suavity (swäv_-i-ty) n.
Adjective:  Effortlessly gracious and tactful in
social manner.  Smooth, bland, urbane.
—From The American Heritage Dictionary
 About as helpful as a street map of London, isn’t it? Okay, let’s get more specific. 

NUMERO ONE-O) If there’s one characteristic that is crucial to the definition of suave, it is BOREDOM.  The truly Suave Person yawns his/her way through life (or the film or show they’re in) and nothing that happens to them rates more than an arched eyebrow.  The Suave Person’s relaxed demeanor says, “Look, I’ve seen it all, done it all; you are not going to impress me with a mere F#@*ing gun.” 

"Me, not suave? How can this be?!
 I demand a recount!"
Using this criterion alone, we can lop a goodly portion of Hollywood off the list.  Believe it or not, Cary Grant falls off early—whoa, hear us out before you break out the flaming torches and pitchforks! The thing is, although Cary Grant appears to be suave (he’s smooth and debonair and all that), he is rarely bored.  A touch of frenzy almost invariably pokes its head from beneath the surface of Cary’s urbane, polished demeanor, as if he realizes he’s finally in a spot that his sophistication can’t get him out of. The best examples of this are in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and North by Northwest (1959).  Cary can best be described as a man desperately trying to be suave in violently un-suave situations. He always gives the impression that he’s mentally straightening his tie, something a truly Suave Person would never have to do. Ah, but it’s that fight against the un-suave tide that charms us into liking Cary and rooting for him!

NUMERO TWO-O) The Suave Person is CONFIDENT.  No tedious soul-searching or hesitation for the suave; whatever they do in a situation is the right thing to do, and if you don’t think so, it’s simply because your feeble, un-suave brain is incapable of understanding the situation.  Confidence comes easy to many action stars, but it’s important to keep Criterion One (as opposed to Cineplex Odeon Three) in mind as well. Bruce Willis has always been confident, but never bored, or even relaxed. (Nobody who was in Hudson Hawk can ever really relax ever again.)

Let’s say you have a person who you believe is suave. You believe he or she meets the criteria for suavaciousness, but you don’t trust your own judgment.  (This is in itself another test; suave people in your proximity often make you doubt your own faculties.)  Try these simple tests….

THE TUXEDO TEST.  Suave People look good in tuxedoes.  No matter where they are.  A suave, tuxedoed person on the moon of Praxiton IV would look perfectly in place, and in fact, you’d feel the desire to shed your spacesuit and wear one, too.  NOTE:  This test works equally well for both men and women.  Examples to follow.

THE MUD PUDDLE TEST.  Ask (politely, of course; if the person is indeed suave, you shouldn’t be rude) your test subject to walk through a small mud puddle.  If your subject looks down at all, s/he has failed the test.  An average person would tiptoe, or perhaps walk around the puddle.  Pretenders to the suave throne—Faux-Suave people, if you will (more about them later)—would walk through the puddle, perhaps making some clothing-related quip (“Well, I’ll have to tip that shoeshine boy next time.”), but they are betrayed by their acknowledgement of the situation.  Truly suave people would simply walk through the puddle, totally confident that the mud would not dare dirty them.

Now that we’ve defined the rules, let’s line up a few people and see how they hold up against the harsh light of suavity. 

First, a note of respect to the KING AND QUEEN OF SUAVE:

SUAVE KINGGEORGE SANDERS.  As of this writing, George Sanders has been dead for thirty-eight years, and he is still more suave than anyone else in the world. Sanders set the standards; right up to his suicide note (“Dear world, I am leaving you because I am bored.  I am leaving you with your worries.  Good Luck.”), he lived the suave ideal.  No situation was too odd for the man.  Cases in point:  The 1960s TV incarnation of Batman (where Sanders, the inventor of the freezing glare, was inspired casting in the role of Mr. Freeze) and his last film, Psychomania (1972), as a devil worshiper dealing with a zombie biker gang.  Sanders played The Saint (before that pretender Roger Moore got to it) and The Falcon (Sanders’s brother, Tom Conway, tried his best, but in the end he was just a reflection of his sibling’s sun source). Sanders played countless charming scoundrels (indeed, the title of his 1960 biography was Memoirs of a Professional Cad), including the voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book (Tony Jay took over the role in later Disney work, including TV’s Tale Spin, and nailed it) and, in short, graced the world with his Oscar-winning presence (1950’s All About Eve).

SUAVE QUEENMARLENE DIETRICH.  Remember what we said about the tuxedo test working for women, too?  Case in bloody point.  Cool, sexy, and commanding even into her old age, Dietrich could turn any man or woman into a dribbling puddle of goo. Rumor has it that she and Sanders were in a film together but all copies were destroyed, the producers deciding we were all unworthy to see it.  Dietrich had a sort of female auxiliary of boredom:  Bemusement.  While Sanders would arch an eyebrow at a person, Dietrich would more likely give one of those little titters that says, “That’s so cute, here’s a dollar. Leave me now.” 

Joining Sanders and Dietrich in our SUAVE HALL OF FAME  are:

JAMES MASON. Consider what would have happened if Cary Grant’s and James Mason’s roles were reversed in North by Northwest, making Mason the hero.  Suppose the nigh-unflappable Mason had asked the Glen Cove police, “Do you honestly believe that this happened the way you think it did?” They would have immediately replied, “No, you must be right, you’re free to go, sorry we bothered you.” Mason was also the only person to come out the other side of a Warren Beatty film (Heaven Can Wait, 1978) smelling good (talk about a practical application of the Mud Puddle test!).

JEREMY IRONS. The Great Suave Hope. The only person in this generation who had the chance to be as cool and suave as George Sanders. He even took the Sandersesque role of evil lion Scar in The Lion King, almost stealing the show. Irons seemed so elegantly bored in his Oscar-winning turn as Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (1990), you thought he was gonna nod off—but you sure weren’t about to!

NIGEL HAWTHORNE. He made Sylvester Stallone look small and puny(er) in 1993’s Demolition Man just by showing up. His role of Sir Humphrey in TV’s Yes, Minister set the 1980s and ’90s standards for proper and British.  It’s because Hawthorne was so good that when he finally lost it (in either role), it was that much better to watch.

ROGER DELGADO. This is an example of a role being suave, although the actor may not be (I don’t know enough about the late Delgado to say for sure).  Delgado was the original portrayer of The Master on the British SF series Doctor Who.  The Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes, he was just way cool.  Advising the British government on the threat of nuclear Armageddon, he advises that they just follow the standard operating procedure they’ve set up: “Sticky tape on the windows, that sort of thing.” Anthony Ainley never achieved suaveness in his time in the role, suggesting that Delgado himself was indeed suave.

PATRICK McGOOHAN. Even in TV’s The Prisoner, when he was trapped in The Village, the brittle-voiced McGoohan seemed like he could outsmart his captors and torturers with a twitch of an eyebrow (lending credence to fans’ theories that he only stayed in The Village to test himself).  McGoohan was so suave and in control, he didn’t even carry a gun in Secret Agent (“Ugly, oily things.  They could hurt someone.”), though he could use one if called upon to do so.

But an actor doesn’t necessarily have to be British to be suave, as these Suave Hall of Famers prove:

JAMES GARNER. As TV’s Jim Rockford and Bret Maverick, the 1969 incarnation of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, and the hero of 1969’s Support Your Local Sheriff and its 1971 follow-up Support Your Local Gunfighter, the preternaturally nonchalant Garner has proven to be one of the most practical and self-preservation-savvy Suave Hall of Famers.  Garner plays characters who go out of their way to avoid trouble. Once Garner is in hot water, however, he tends to swim through with flying colors.

WILLIAM POWELL. Suave in a playful, happy-go-lucky way, Powell was not only cool and collected in dangerous situations, but he seemed to get a kick out of outsmarting bad guys while still realizing the gravity of the situation (unlike folks in our Faux-Suave category, which we’ll discuss momentarily).  When he teamed up with the warmly effervescent Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies, among others comedies they made together, Powell only seemed that much suaver.

The stately, formidable, Oscar-winning director/producer/
character actor best known as Professor Kingsfield in the movie and TV versions of The Paper Chase was, we bet, the only person George Sanders would have called “Sir.”

BETTE DAVIS. Boy, would we have liked to see Davis and McGoohan in the same movie, preferably as mother and son!  Listen carefully to their speech in their respective films and TV shows—they had the same kind of delivery!  Our Ms. Bette was almost invariably a strong, unflappable presence. She didn’t need to get into catfights (though some scripts forced her to, anyway); one word in her no-nonsense tones and one look from her, well, Bette Davis eyes, and the competition was wiped out.  It was truly a casting coup when Davis and Sanders were both cast in one of the wittiest, suavest, most gleefully cynical movies of all time, the Oscar-winning All About Eve.

CHOW YUN-FAT. Even amid the frenetic yet stylish action of John Woo’s Hard-Boiled thrillers, Chow hardly seems to break a sweat.  He’s still Hong Kong’s coolest, suavest import.


OWEN WILSON. When it comes to suave, Owen Wilson and his brother Luke are like the titular characters from Twins (1988)—all of it went in one direction.  Owen swaggers through life with a smirk and an unspoken air of “I know you like me” surrounding him, while Luke has a sort of puzzled look and an unspoken air of “How come you don’t like me?”

MICHAEL CAINE. Anyone who thinks that Brits of Cockney origin can’t be as suave as their more aristocratic countrymen need only check out the urbane Caine in Alfie and Gambit (both 1966), Sleuth (1972), California Suite (1978), Dressed To Kill (1980), Deathtrap (1982), and ironically enough, his three movies as Everyman non-Bondlike spy Harry Palmer (1965’s The Ipcress File, 1966’s Funeral in Berlin, and 1967’s Billion Dollar Brain). Caine isn’t suave all the time or in every role, but when he is, yowza!

LAIRD CREGAR. Silky-voiced, Philadelphia-born Cregar looked like a fearsome mountain of a man, an image that served him well in such classics as I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and the 1944 remake of The Lodger. However, he blazed his own trail, mounting his own acclaimed stage productions of Oscar Wilde and The Man Who Came To Dinner. His smooth voice served him well in radio plays, including the role of Caspar Gutman in a production of The Maltese Falcon. But Cregar longed to leave his villain roles behind and move into romantic leading man parts, and to his frustration, his 300-pound girth stood in his way. He slimmed down on an insane crash diet in order to look as suave as his voice sounded. Tragically, the diet took a terrible toll on Cregar’s health, and he died of heart failure at the age of 31, just before the debut of the film that essentially killed him, Hangover Square (1945). Ah, the suavity that could have been….

Baldwin as Shadow
Baldwin as Lamont Cranston
ALEC BALDWIN. The only film in which we’ve seen the most imperturbable, versatile, and good-looking of the Brothers Baldwin get a chance to be truly suave is the 1994 version of The Shadow.  We’ll admit it would have been great to see original casting choice Jeremy Irons as the mysterious Lamont Cranston, but Alec was aces. Since then, Baldwin has left the path leading to The Suave Hall of Fame, opting for an award-winning career as a deft comic actor instead. No problem; as far as we're concerned, if the funny fits, wear it! :-)

This year (2012, for those keeping up with updates), the ever-suave and versatile Christopher Plummer finally won his way-overdue Oscar to add to his Tonys, Golden Globes, and Emmys: namely, the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his witty and poignant performance in Beginners. However, Plummer has been on the scene on stage and in movies since the 1950s, in a panorama of different roles, from The Sound of Music to adventures like The Man Who Would be King (as Rudyard Kipling), thrillers like The Silent Partner, Murder By Decree, Inside Man, and so much more!

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER. The nigh-indestructible erstwhile action hero and “Governator” of California comes off as far more witty and sophisticated in his interviews and public appearances than he does onscreen. In True Lies (1994), Ah-nuldt did prove that he looks good in a tux, but his profuse, flustered apologies as he jostled innocent bystanders gave him away.  Then again, vulnerability is a more unexpected—and therefore, appealing—quality in a big, tough guy like Ah-nuldt anyway.


James Bond is, by definition, suave, as all spies are.  But oddly, none of the actors who’ve played Agent 007 are themselves suave.  Take a look at what we mean….

SEAN CONNERY. Connery comes tantalizingly close, but he’s just too intense to be defined as truly suave. 
TIMOTHY DALTON. It’s no surprise that the dashingly broody Dalton’s pre-Bond lead roles included tormented Bronte heroes in 1970’s Wuthering Heights  and the 1983 British TV miniseries Jane Eyre.


ROGER MOORE. Moore is the king of the category we’ve defined as Faux-Suave.  Faux-Suave people look good and sound good (and by all accounts Roger Moore is a swell guy), but they’re always pretending. If they were given the Mud Puddle test, they’d put plastic bags on their shoes first. They’d leap into any situation, not because of confidence, but because it sounds like fun, as long as their slacks don’t get creased.

PIERCE BROSNAN. Much as we liked him as TV’s Remington Steele, Brosnan had initially struck us as Faux-Suave in his pre-007 days. But The Fourth Protocol (1987)and Goldeneye (1995) changed all that, and Brosnan blended suavity, action, and a touch of playfulness in his four James Bond films. 

DANIEL CRAIG. Wags initially pronounced chameleon Craig as “blond, brutish, and short,” but when we saw him in the 2004 British thriller Layer Cake, we knew he’d kick ass as James Bond! Admittedly, Craig’s take on 007 is more brusque than suave, though he’s also shown an unexpected tender side in Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008).


In many cases, one can define something by observing things that are the antithesis of that thing, such as defining white by pointing to black and saying, “Not that.”  To illustrate our point, we will list some people who are not suave, and explain why they are not.

SPENCER TRACY. Tracy had the bored, ready-for-anything demeanor, but he was just too rumpled to look good in a tux.  He’d have kept tugging at his collar.

HUMPHREY BOGART.  He was bored, confident, streetwise, and ready for anything, but Bogie’s appeal came from his very lack of polish.

Certainly not naive, but too “aw-shucks” and uncomfortable with his body to be truly suave (when was the last time you saw a gangly Suave Person?).

The Oscar-winning (The Color of Money, 1986) veteran actor and salad dressing king was handsome in a way that would have helped him squeak through the Tux Test (like in 1963’s playfully Hitchcockian The Prize), and films like The Sting (1973) had shown that he could be a sly charmer, but Newman had a strong grumpy streak that kept him short of the suave mark.
ROBERT REDFORD. Too boyish, even now.
TOM CRUISE. Too boyish, too cocky (as opposed to confident), and lately, a little too odd.
HUGH GRANT. The British heartthrob has always been too cuddly and too flustered for true suavity, though in recent years he’s shown a promising caddish streak in the Bridget Jones films, among others.
ROBERT DeNIRO. Too scary.
RICHARD GERE. Too hyper!
JOHNNY DEPP. Too eccentric (though we like him anyway).

The Oscar-winning (A Fish Called Wanda, 1988), ever-versatile Kline can be everything from Everyman to a swashbuckling hero, but he’s never been quite cool enough or bored enough to be genuinely suave.
JEFF GOLDBLUM. Too gangly and too strange (but we like him anyway).
Adrien Brody passes the
Tux Test with flying colors!
KIEFER SUTHERLAND. Too intense, and he proved in a most chuckleacious Saturday Night Live bit around 1991 that he simply isn’t a tux kind of guy.  (His dad, Donald, isn’t quite suave, either, though he’s had suave-esque moments.)

Our household’s favorite Best Actor Oscar-winner usually plays quirky and/or troubled types, but he can do Suave quite well when called upon to do so, like in The Affair of the Necklace (he even gets in a little swordplay in this 2001 period piece), The Brothers Bloom (2008), the romantic scenes between Brody and Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake, and early scenes in the film that made him a star, The Pianist (2002).
Funny how most of our Ultimate Suave People are veteran thespians or actors from another era entirely. Christoph Waltz rose to Suave levels in Inglorious Basterds, but we haven’t seen enough of his work to know if he can pull it off time and time again. Maybe it’s just that most of today’s movies seem to be about either everyday people or brusque tough guys, neither of which lend themselves to suaveness.  And there’s that desire to see the baddies brought down a peg, popping the balloon of pomposity.  And a truly suave person wouldn’t allow themselves to fall in mud at the end of the film (see earlier test) so you end up with one of those I Must And Yet I Cannot" situations.

Got anyone you’d like to add to our Suave Hall of Fame? Let us know!


  1. Meet G Men, our newest "...Easily Distracted" followers! Thanks for following -- looking forward to reading TIFF, too!

  2. Below you'll find more feedback from our smart, witty friend Michael Wolff, author of COSIMO'S RAVEN and many fine STARLOG reviews! In response to Michael's queries about why Deborah Kerr and Katharine Hepburn weren't included amongst The Suave on our list. We love Deb and Kate as much as anyone, but we never thought of them as "suave," perhaps because we've always seen the emotion and fire beneath their initially calm demeanors. As for Grace Kelly, our favorite Hitchcock Blonde is in a class all her own, in our opinion. Anyway, thanks, everyone, and enjoy Michael's comments!

    Dear Dorian (and Vinnie):

    I read this . . . read it carefully, and thought "could it happen? Would it actually be possible?"

    Then: YES!

    (Cornet: tooty-too-tooooot!)

    The 2010 Michael Wolff Prize for Demonstrating The Best Example Of Most Visible Self-Restraint In A Blog (Film Division) is hereby awarded to Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci and Vinnie Bartilucci for discussing George Sanders without once mentioning REBECCA.

    (You can loosen the chains on Dorian now, Vinnie.)

    As for the rest of the blog . . .

    I was pleasantly surprised to see Alec Baldwin's role in THE SHADOW mentioned. The film didn't live all the way up to my expectations, but admittedly one of the treats was the bit where Baldwin enters the Cobalt Club . . . looking Totally Impeccable . . . nonchalantly flashing perhaps the best set of cuffs ever seen. Talk about dressed to kill!

    As to suggestions of additional entrants into the Suave Hall of Fame: perhaps my definition of suave isn't quite in the same orbit as you two . . . and admittedly he hasn't nearly spent enough time in a tuxedo to qualify . . . but after seeing Rufus Sewell in the modern adaptation of The Taming Of The Shrew, I'd put him on the list for simply remaining In Total Control regardless of the situation*.

    (*and if you haven't yet seen this production . . . with Shirley Henderson absolutely adorable as Katherine . . . I'd advise amending the situation as quickly as possible.)

    Speaking of British Suave: perhaps a case of Personal Preference here, but Deborah Kerr didn't make the cut? Or wasn't she sufficiently suave throughout her entire career? I presume whatever disqualified her equally disqualified her nearest American analog: Katharine Hepburn.

    (And I almost asked about Grace Kelly. But then I went back and gave it some thought. There is a difference between Suave and Arctic.)

    Interesting blog!


  3. I definitely understand why Cary Grant didn't make it -- like Johnny Depp now, he was really a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man (ditto Brad Pitt), and character actors are NEVER Suave. (Witness Jim Broadbent or Walter Brennan.)

    The problem, of course, is that a number of greats who should be called suave simply can't live up to your very strict rules. (And I tend to lean toward the Western suave, like Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, and Gregory Peck...)

  4. Wildrider, thanks for your comments! Excellent point about Cary Grant and Brad Pitt being character actors trapped in the bodies of leading men. As for the "strict" Rules of Suavity, don't worry, it's all flexible and all in good fun as far as I'm concerned. My sweet, smart-aleck hubby is the stickler here, claiming bars are meant for raising and if everyone's special, nobody's special. Men -- go figure them out! :-) You come back soon, Wildrider, ya hear? Glad you dropped by!

  5. Cliff Aliperti of Immortal Ephemera ( read and enjoyed "Flico Suave"! He says: "Thanks much, Dorian--and I'd like to nominate Valentino for your suave list!" Rudolph Valentino is a fine choice for the Suave Hall of Fame -- thanks, Cliff! Check out Cliff's newest blog post, "Surfboards and Humphrey Bogart Posters"!

  6. Interesting treatise. But I almost cried aloud when I read Owen Wilson?! He does not belong anywhere near this list. Now I will readily admit I have not seen most of his films (and don't wish to) but he is either a terrible actor or has chosen trashy roles (or both). And I'm sorry but he is not attractive. Yuck!

  7. Ingrid, dear sister in spirit, I'm so happy to see you weighing in at "Tales of the Easily Distracted"! I must say that this "Flico Suave" post has spawned lots of debate. This pleases me, because it tells me you and others are paying attention! :-) For the record, Owen Wilson was Vinnie's Suave Runner-Up pick, mostly because he had the diffident, confident air that people often associate with suavity. Guess it goes to show that suavity is truly in the eye and ear of the beholder! :-) Though long distances and tight budgets separate us, I hope you'll feel free to visit this site and share your views any old time!

  8. While I appreciate your list--especially your shout outs to John Houseman (who was Romanian, but educated in Britain!), Nigel Hawthorne and, especially, Roger Delgado, I have one point to make in favor of Anthony Ainley:

    "I may be seated?"

    'Nuff said!

    Love to you all at Team Bartilucci!

    John Wirenius

  9. While I appreciate your list, and especially your shout outs to John Houseman, Nigel Hawthorne, and especially Roger Delgado, I have just one thing to say in favor of Anthony Ainley:

    "I may be seated?"

    'Nuff said!

    Love to you all at Team Bartilucci!

    John Wirenius

  10. Point taken, good sir! :-) Glad you dropped by my humble blog site and weighed in with your typical wit and wisdom! Love to you and yours from all of us here at Team Bartilucci H.Q.!

  11. Dorian, me dear,

    Sorry about the double post--I thought I'd hit delete the first time!

    Forgot to propose a candidate for suavity (I'm with you on the usage; if it's good enough for TS Elioy...)--David Niven in "Around the World," "Raffles", "Bonjour Tristesse," etc. While often too engaged to meet your definition, ie, not bored, Niv pulled off suave in a handful of movies.

    Suave women: Honor Blackman and, let's face it, Diana Rigg.

  12. Excellent choices, John! David Niven may never have been bored, but he gets my Suave vote, as do the nigh-unflappable Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg (goes to show there's nothing like a Dame :-))!

  13. I seriously love this post!!!

    Writing about suaveness is just brilliance. When you weeded out Cary Grant, I was almost afraid William Powell would be next...but I realized he was too suave to be cut.

    I do understand your points about Cary Grant though. He was smooth, but definitely not bored.

  14. Thanks for your nice words, Emm! I love it when people your age fall in love with vintage films and stars; it shows you have class, great taste, and an eagerness to know more about all the world's wonders, both old and new. Heck, I fell in love with classic movies when I was a kid; I'd set my alarm for the middle of the night to watch THE THIN MAN or an Alfred Hitchcock movie -- but that's my topic for tomorrow's blog post! :-) Anyway, Emm, don't worry, we'd never cut William Powell; our whole family loves him and Myrna Loy, and he never fails to put a smile on our collective face. Thanks for your comments, and feel free to drop by again sometime!

  15. It just occurred to me that the waspish, debonair Clifton Webb probably should have been included in The Suave Hall of Fame -- a Runner-Up at the very least! What's your opinion? We of Team Bartilucci would like to know! :-)