Since 2017, Midwest Film Journal has prided itself on delivering thoughtful commentary on current and classic cinema. No one piece has persisted as powerfully as our 2018 review of Den of Thieves, which we called an “unswervingly painful” waste of 140 minutes.
SEO tells us the piece’s popularity is thanks to its reference of one character’s inscrutable “Peckerwood” tattoo. Instinct tells us otherwise: People really love Gerard Butler.
Disfigured catacomb vocalist. Ripped Spartan warrior. Machine gun preacher. Secretly sweet lothario. Donut-housing cop. Dragon-slaying hero. HMS Devonshire crewman. Angry little leprechaun. Stalwart hunter killer. Geostorm-stopping scientist. Vengeful Egyptian god.
That’s but a small sampling of this Scottish export’s quarter-century run — whose body of work will be highlighted biweekly this month in a retrospective series.
We bring you …The Butler Did It.
Every woman my age or a little older has their preferred Mr. Darcy. Me? I’m a Macfadyen girl, which may give you some indication of where this essay is going.
Much like Mr. Darcy, every Phanatic — that would be fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, geddit? — has their preferred Phantom. Mine, to my eternal shame, is Gerard Butler.
In a world where Michael Crawford and Ramin Karimloo exist, how can this possibly be the case? In a world where Joel Schumacher directed the movie version of the famed musical that came out when I was an impressionable teenager, that’s how.
The director of such cult classics as The Lost Boys and Batman and Robin, it’s not exactly as though Schumacher is known as an arbiter of taste or talent, which helps explain why Butler ended up with the role of the Phantom over the likes of John Travolta, Meat Loaf, Matthew McConaughey, Heath Ledger and Antonio Banderas. Most of those men, at least, can sing. It would be pretty generous to call what Butler does in Phantom “singing.”
Yet the 2004 film soundtrack is my go-to Phantom. Like an absolute heathen. I consider Emmy Rossum my Christine Daaé, not Sarah Brightman. I love the over-the-top opulence and overwrought acting of the movie, and since I’ve never seen the stage version of the show, any changes made to the musical are changes I don’t care about. (I’ve heard complaints about the chandelier? Whatever. Let me jam to my ’80s rock opera in peace.)
And I really do love Gerard Butler’s Phantom. It’s inexplicable.
The story of the Phantom is one that’s basically tailor-made for the Twilight (and, dare I say, Kylo Ren) generation. In late 19th-century Paris, a disfigured genius lives below the Paris Opera House and controls every aspect of its management through a combination of ordinary blackmail and stagecraft terrorism.
He’s obsessed with a chorus girl named Christine, whose rise to prima donna he orchestrates through the humiliation of the Opera’s current star along with some seriously top-notch gaslighting. Like any other lonely basement dweller, he believes he’s entitled to Christine’s love, that she’s the only one who can look past his disfigurement to see his true self or whatever, even though Christine is very clearly in love with someone else. (The less said about Raoul and Patrick Wilson’s terrible wig, the better.)
The Phantom is basically the worst, and Butler’s performance of the Phantom is … something, to say the least. Butler speaks only 14 of his lines, sings the rest and does some truly formidable vocal somersaults to disguise his natural Scottish accent — alternately pitching his voice higher, speaking in a mealy-mouthed whisper, or straight-up growling. The latter is the most effective, since his Phantom could charitably be described as animalistic.
It’s that quality on which the entire attraction between Christine and the Phantom rests, and the only aspect of it Butler believably pulls off. His attempt at tenderness in “Music of the Night” is embarrassing in an endearing “aww, you tried” kind of way, but his magnetic and entirely too on-the-nose sexual draw in “The Point of No Return”? Hoo, mama. That Phantom can get it.
Except no! No, he can’t! Once again I’ve tricked myself into believing the music over the actor behind the performance (and, to quote Movies in 15 Minutes, the Phantom’s fairly moderate Sunburn of Doom). The thing about Gerard Butler’s Phantom is that his alpha-male sexuality is all an act, a mask even more flimsy than the one that covers half his face. Beneath the surface, he’s just a lonely man who never learned how to be human — which is not an excuse, especially in this day and age. Unfortunately, this musical goes out of its way to excuse the Phantom’s behavior.
I wish I could say this wasn’t typical. Movies and musicals and literature are full of men like the Phantom, men we’re supposed to sympathize with even as they do terrible things to women. It’s a symptom of a larger societal problem, which only now seems to be something we talk about. At best, it’s a 14-year-old’s obsession that she never quite grows out of; at worst, it trains women to accept and humanize abusive men because all they need is one girl who truly understands them. One girl who can see past the mask. One girl who can withstand the abuse so the abuser will feel better about himself.
The best I can say about Gerard Butler’s performance in The Phantom of the Opera, and why I will continue to baffle my husband and my peers as I defend this movie for the rest of my life, is that he pulls off the sinister truth underneath an extremely simplistic and superficial role. I don’t like what it says about me that I was deeply, deeply obsessed with this movie when I was a teenager, or that I continue to look at it as a guilty pleasure. And I certainly don’t like that I can’t listen to any other recording of Phantom without thinking it’s the wrong one and wishing I was listening to Butler struggle through notes he can’t hit instead.
This is my Phantom, for better or for worse.
Well. Definitely worse.
The Butler Did It continues every Monday and Thursday through April. Please check back for future installments.