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Grumpy Old Men

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the freedom to greenlight their own projects, the freedom of script approval. . . and the freedom to act like jerks — onscreen, that is.

Nicholson’s obsessive-compulsive crank in “As Good As It Gets” spouts homophobic, racist and anti-pooch slurs. In “Deconstructing Harry,” Allen torments his ex-lovers, screws-over friends and relatives, and picks up prostitutes on the side. And coming in March, “Bulworth” stars writer-director Warren Beatty as a Democratic senator whose campaign speeches insult Jews, African-Americans and other Friends of Bill.

You may be wondering why these venerable elder statesmen (Beatty and Nicholson are 60, Allen is 62) are suddenly challenging audiences to hate them. Because they can, says Matthew McKay, the co-author of “Being a Man: A Guide to the New Masculinity.”

McKay points out that social norms often cause men to suppress their racist, hedonistic and abusive instincts to avoid being disliked. But, the author explains, “when people become powerful enough, established enough and old enough, these inhibitions begin to drop away, allowing the narcissistic, self-involved parts of their personalities to be expressed.”

Carl Jung would have understood. According to McKay, the Swiss psychiatrist believed that many people are attracted to the rage, bigotry and other shadowy impulses that lurk within them. Because their careers are so secure, these established stars are willing to risk letting the darkness shine forth onscreen. “It’s like nobody can hurt them anymore,” says McKay. “They think, ‘ I’ve got my audience. I have a respected body of work.'”

While society trains people to dislike these nasty traits in their friends and neighbors, apparently it can’t stop them from loving the same qualities in movie characters. “As Good As It Gets” has earned a substantial $85.6 million so far. “Deconstructing Harry” has pulled in $9.6 million in limited release, a respectable intake compared with the final tallies of Allen’s other recent films.

Some believe audiences accept these antisocial performances because the veteran actors would never act that way in real life… would they? “We hope that’s not who they really are,” says Adrienne Mendell, author of “How Men Think: The Seven Essential Rules for Making It in a Man’s World.” “But if it is, we don’t care, because they’re so good at what they do.”

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