Be they comedy, drama or thriller, the best films have a way of inspiring and educating us. And leading men who play heroic parts well often do the same (even if the actors themselves are cads). The following 10 distinguished gents—from movies old and more current—are shining examples. Read and learn…
1. Henry Fonda as Juror Number 8 in 12 Angry Men
How he’s a gentleman: Who can be bothered with jury service? Heroic Henry Fonda, who doesn’t shirk his civic duty for selfish reasons, like having tickets to the baseball game. He goes from standing alone against his peers, to swaying them all and sparing the life of a hood rat who was destined for the chair. He’s resolute, unassuming, doesn’t flinch from a confrontation and rocks a white suit with class.
Gentlemanly signature: No one likes a crusading asshole, so Fonda’s humility is refreshing: “It’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.”
What we can learn from him: If there’s one thing that defines Fonda’s character, it’s empathy—from being the first to appreciate the defendant’s circumstances to helping a bully of a juror with his jacket as they leave. Also, how to wear a white suit without coming off like John Travolta.
2. Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest
How he’s a gentleman: He’s a Madison Avenue advertising exec in the 1960s, with all the Mad Men style and charisma that implies. He also takes it all in stride. And by all we mean being framed for murder, kidnapped, liquored up and almost sent over a cliff … We won’t spoil any more of it for you.
Gentlemanly signature: The witty remark: “I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex wives and several bartenders dependent on me.”
What we can learn from him: To never be ruffled and always have a quip at the ready.
3. Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night
How he’s a gentleman: An African-American homicide detective from Philly who gets embroiled in a murder case in Sparta, Mississippi, Poitier’s character is the model of dignified fortitude in the face of racist slurs and lynch mobs. The man knows how to stand his ground—and survive the heat of the Deep South without removing his suit jacket (autopsies notwithstanding).
Gentlemanly signature: Restraint, without backing down. Chief Gillespie: “Virgil, that’s a funny name for a n— boy from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?” Virgil Tibbs [Thundering]: “They call me Mister Tibbs.”
What we can learn from him: Tibbs is given multiple outs by Chief Gillespie, and he’s got plenty of reasons to get the first train out of town, but he stays and finishes the job.
4. Errol Flynn as Robin Hood in The Adventures of Robin Hood
How he’s a gentleman: This swashbuckling version of Sherwood Forest’s outlaw—who loves the fight, risk and adventure—happily throws away his riches and position, and by risking himself for others finds plenty of people who are willing to follow him.
Gentlemanly signature: Whether it’s a quip, an insult or a ‘wetting’, his response is always the same: a throw-the-head-back belly laugh.
What we can learn from him: Sure, you can sacrifice everything for others, but you don’t have to look so goddamn serious about it.
5. Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File
How he’s a gentleman: He may slouch like a pregnant camel. He may speak in libraries (the monster). He may be insubordinate, insolent, a trickster, possibly with criminal tendencies, but he reads, listens to Mozart and thinks nothing of spending an extra 10 pence on a tin of compagnon to cook a colleague the best meal she’s ever eaten.
Gentlemanly signature: Doing up the top button of his shirt. Waking up in Albanian prison is no excuse for not being appropriately buttoned up, dammit.
What we can learn from him: It’s important to be dependable. As his superior says, “I was counting on you to be an insubordinate bastard, Palmer.”
6. Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
How he’s a gentleman: Oldman’s character is straight from the British old school. Perhaps he says so little because of his stiff upper lip. He’s no sap, though, and is steadfast while others fall prey to laziness and greed. And he knows when to produce a bottle to enliven afternoon tea.
Gentlemanly signature: Oldman’s character is encapsulated in an uneventful scene in a car. Benedict Cumberbatch flaps ineffectually at a buzzing fly. Oldman watches, then, at the opportune moment, rolls down the window and the fly is gone.
What we can learn from him: Composure. To mangle Rudyard Kipling: If you can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs, you’ll be a gentleman. (Bonus tip, courtesy of John Hurt’s character, Control: “A man should know when to leave the party.” Very sage advice, that.)
7. Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall
How he’s a gentleman: James Bond is commonly held to be the quintessential English gentleman spy. Which means a smug womanizing imperialist who knows when it’s appropriate to don a tux. Compared to his forebears, Craig’s Bond is a thoroughly modern man: he doesn’t bed every woman that bats her eyelashes at him, keeps the boozing under control and is totally cool with a female boss.
Gentlemanly signature: Still knows when it’s appropriate to don a tux.
What we can learn from him: Being secure in your sexuality would be one thing. When Javier Bardem caresses Daniel Craig’s thighs and purrs “first time for everything,” Bond replies, “what makes you think it’s my first time?” Touché.
8. Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown in The Thomas Crown Affair
How he’s a gentleman: Here, McQueen is the archetypal self-made international playboy: bestriding business like a colossus, flying a glider, playing polo, tearing around a beach on a dune buggy and occupying himself as a gentleman thief, orchestrating (almost) victimless bank robberies and depositing the proceeds himself at a Swiss bank. This is a guy who’s seriously capable.
Gentlemanly signature: Another cracking laugh every time he bests the system.
What we can learn from him: It’s not all about the Benjamins. It’s about the challenge.
9. Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca
How he’s a gentleman: Cynical Rick is stuck in purgatory after his love abandoned him in Paris. When she returns with her husband—and not any old schmuck, one of the leaders of the resistance no less (typical)—it turns out Bogie’s holding all the cards, and can be rid of his love rival and keep hold of his girl. But that not’s ol’ Hump’s style. As Captain Renault observes: “Under that cruel shell, you’re a sentimentalist.”
Gentlemanly signature: Acting with purpose. There’s no hint of Rick’s intention when he leaves a Bulgarian refugee who’s faced with the prospect of pleasing Captain Renault to get her young husband and herself out of Dodge. But he’s straight to the roulette table, getting his own house to pay out.
What we can learn from him: There’s nothing wrong with sentimentalism driving your actions, as long as you have resolve. There’s no wavering on Rick’s part as he executes his plan to aid the escape of his true love and love rival.
10. James Stewart as John “Scottie” Ferguson in Vertigo
How he’s a gentleman: Jimmy Stewart’s always been a good guy, and he’s got all of the chivalrous and heroic qualities here—jumping across rooftops in pursuit of a criminal and flinging himself into the Bay in pursuit of a damsel—although there’s a little more edge in this picture. He’s not afraid of a little “mussing,” oh no.
Gentlemanly signature: It’s still “Gee whiz”: Stewart just can’t help himself.
What we can learn from him: Not wearing a tie is only acceptable when suffering from acute melancholia and a guilt complex, but this is also something of a cautionary tale—infatuation can make even the nicest fellow hella creepy.