“She’s my Rushmore, Max!”: masculinity and vulnerability in Rushmore

Exploring masculinity in a Wes Anderson film.

Rushmore is a little dated. It’s from 1998. It’s a Wes Anderson movie, so maybe that’s a strike against it for some. It’s quirky and has a good soundtrack. It’s very white. It also fails the Bechdel test, so there’s that.1

But, we think this movie has some redeeming features. It’s a very explicit meditation on class, for one, which is rare enough. More generally, we think it’s an interesting commentary on masculinity.2

Herman Blume sinks to the bottom of the pool, in the movie, Rushmore
Industrialist Herman Blume, taking a moment for himself at the bottom of his pool, and away from the buzzing and whirring of his failed personal life.

Rushmore is a movie about a young man, Max Fischer, finding his place in the world. Max is on scholarship at a private school that he loves. While there, he develops a friendship with  industrialist tycoon, and friend of the school, Herman Blume. Max and Herman find themselves in an uncomfortable love triangle with a teacher at the school, Rosemary Cross.

It follows a pretty standard format:

  1. boy-meets-man,
  2. boy-meets-woman,
  3. man-meets-woman,
  4. boy-and-man-try-to-hurt-each-other,
  5. woman-is-the-only-sane-person,
  6. everyone-reconciles-at-the-end.

It’s a movie with large doses of melancholy and loneliness and tenderness. There’s an ever-present vulnerability in all the main characters that is endearing. Yet the movie also demonstrates unhealthy masculinities that go unquestioned by all the characters.

The movie is set at a conservative all-boys private school that Max struggles to fit into. The culture is toxic and personified by Magnus Buchan and Herman’s sons who are all bullies. To gain status, Max lies about his father’s job and tells everyone that his father is a neurosurgeon.

Max Fischer and Herman Blume chat over a school wrestling tournament
Max and Herman become unlikely friends.

The reality is that Max’s father is a widowed barber who loves his son unconditionally. And this set up gives rise to one of the more winning moments near the end of the movie when Max introduces Herman to his father after their escalating attempts to hurt each other. Max makes the first move to recover their friendship by giving Herman one of his beloved pins from Rushmore and introducing him to his dad. When Herman realizes that Max’s dad is a barber, there’s this moment on his face where he realizes why Max lied about his father’s occupation and why he looks up to Herman so much, and this helps him (and us!) forgive Max.

Herman Blume gets a haircut from Max's father
Max’s father gives a disheveled Herman Blume a haircut and shave.

Herman, despite being successful in business, is failing in his personal life. His sons are boorish and his wife openly flirts with her tennis instructor. So it’s a delayed irony that Herman and Max meet the day Herman gives a disturbing, deadpan speech meant to inspire the working class boys at the school to succeed in life. Max is very impressed and makes a point to introduce himself afterwards.

Max Fischer and Dirk Galloway attend chapel to listen to Herman Blume.
Max is riveted by Blume’s strange blunt address.

At first, Herman is slow to warm up to Max. Finally Herman asks Max what is the point. Max simply responds by saying, “I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.” Herman looks at Max before attempting to get into a car that has been locked from the inside by his sons.

Thus begins Max and Herman’s friendship. Despite his cynicism about life, Herman is generous with his time and money to Max. Unfortunately, their friendship is strained by their shared affection for Rosemary. When Herman’s affection for Rosemary gets returned, they begin their tryst in secret to protect Max’s feelings. Max, of course, eventually finds out, and the ugly force of Max’s sense of masculine entitlement and authority get explicitly, and horribly, portrayed.

In one scene, Max tries to force kiss Rosemary, but Rosemary pushes him away. It’s obvious that Max is transgressing her boundaries and the audience can’t help but see this moment as problematic and violent. This is a scene about dominant masculine norms – about how men are taught to see women as objects they can acquire – and the rejection of them.

But in other moments, the lack of consent is not so explicitly portrayed and the movie itself slides into using, endorsing, or providing cover for, dominant masculine scripts.

A good example of this is when Max lies and forces himself into Cross’s bedroom only to attempt to “woo” and “kiss” her. Because of its portrayal, many viewers, mostly men, will watch this scene and see comedy and innocence. But it’s creepy and manipulative.3

Overall, Max’s unhealthy obsession is made evident by his downfall. But it’s also portrayed as humorous and as a mostly harmless defect in Max. The thing is that it’s really creepy and stalkerish and Max is not unique. It’s the culture of dominant masculinity made evident and downplayed.

The film’s central exploration is about friendship and vulnerability between boys and men. It also attempts to explore, and resist, dominant forms of masculinity. But, in a powerful cultural current, this is easier said than done.

Rosemary looks longingly and forgivingly at the pompous, likeable, douchebag, Max Fischer
Rosemary Cross looks forgivingly at Max. Because, you know, boys will be boys. #blch
  1. It actually passes the weakest version of the test when Rosemary and Margaret meet each other in the closing dance scene – but the exchange between them is so brief that we think it’s fair to say that the movie fails the spirit of the test.  See also http://bechdeltest.com/view/404/rushmore/
  2. Full disclosure: Sherwin has seen this movie before and likes it, but Sabrina’s watched it for the first time more recently and she’s generally ambivalent toward Wes Anderson stories.
  3. In an even more bizarre moment, at the very heart of the movie, Max plots to murder Herman only to pass through an emotionally tender turning point and begin to rebuild his friendship with Herman.

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