Boston — There is the moment in "Kate & Leopold" when the 19th-century hero comes galloping after the 21st-century damsel in distress. He is, mind you, mounted on a white charger that had to be unhitched from a horse carriage.
Sitting atop this unlikely steed, Leopold, Duke of Albany circa 1876, literally sweeps Kate, marketing researcher circa 2001, off her feet in the middle of Central Park. He then corners the purse-snatcher and returns the prize to the lady as if it were a handkerchief in a tournament.
Of course, this bodice-ripper of a rescue requires a certain suspension of disbelief. But then so does the plot of this romantic comedy, which is based on the idea that you can travel across a century by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and through a portal in time.
My own leaps of faith tend to stop short of bridge railings. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the way in which Leopold has been offered and swooned over as the movie man of the year.
What women want, we are told, is old-time (literally) manners, an anachronistic aristocrat who knows one flower from another. More to the cinematic point, a man who can rescue a tired "career woman" from a lifetime of selling diet margarine and whisk her back to a Victorian happily-ever-after.
Leopold, it seems, has entered an extremely noisy chat room, full of conversations about men and manliness, virility and virtue, that is taking place on and off screen. Cads are out, courage is in, reads one message as if the reverse were once true. Looking for Mr. Good Guy says one headline. Knights in Shining Fire Helmets says another.
In real New York, in the wake of Sept. 11, the genuine heroism of the fire, police and rescue workers at Ground Zero brought wonder and gratitude. In short order, however, some of the grateful turned the men into calendar pin-up versions of their complicated selves.
Social critic Camille Paglia couldn't help noticing, she said, "how robustly, dreamily masculine the faces of the firefighters are. ... They're not on Prozac or questioning their gender." Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan famously declared that "I missed John Wayne. But now I think ... he's back."
Those images of strong and silent heroic hunks ignored the women rescue workers. Beyond that, the monochromatic males suggested a lot more about father fantasies than about the real husbands and sons and dads at Ground Zero.
So, too, our awe at passengers who prevented United Flight 93 from becoming the fourth weapon and our salute to the passengers who recently overpowered the shoe bomber were transformed in essays and e-mails with a similar message. See how we need powerful men to protect us ... from powerful men.
Meanwhile, the current portraits of masculinity are not all heroic. In Afghanistan, protection of women was a protection racket. Their segregated society was nothing if not old-fashioned. The Taliban were nightmare patriarchs; men were men and women wore burqas.
Somehow, in an era with more women in decision-making and in uniform than ever before, we're paying closer attention to male roles.
In just a few months, our whole country went from regarding Rudy Giuliani as a bully and a hothead to exhalting him as New York's commander in chief. Time magazine named Rudy the Person of the Year when we all knew they meant man of the year. And People magazine picked the sauve and indomitable Pierce Brosnan as the "Sexiest Man Alive."
John Wayne? Rudy Giuliani? Pierce Brosnan? Fireman? Now, Hugh Jackman's Leopold.
I doubt many women would leap back to a time before suffrage, washing machines and tampons, even for Leopold. Indeed Jackman the man offers as many cues to our changing male images as his character. The graduate of all-male Australian academy with the motto "Act Like a Man," he only learned to ride horseback for this role. His favorite real-life part is giving his newly adopted son a nighttime bath: "Ah, it's the best."
As for Meg Ryan, her own favorite scene is not when Kate gets rescued. It's when Leopold makes her breakfast and she cries because no man's ever done that before.
There is a more subtle understanding of men and power these days. Power is as power does. But what does the composite model of masculinity that is emerging out of the national chat rooms look like now?
It's a man who is strong but not silent, who can open the door for a woman and work under her, make war on the enemy and make dinner for the family. And we used to ask if women could have it all.