When I was a young child, back in the day of VHS tapes, my brothers and I would watch a particular pair of movies over and over as our sources of entertainment. One of which was Batman (1966) and the other was Star Trek IV: A Voyage Home (1986). Of course, neither of these were related other than in our hearts, but both of these were taped off the television for our repeated viewing. One of the things that was special about recording things off the TV is the archiving process of commercials. It is like a time capsule of a particular culture. Nevertheless, for kids sitting on the floor or the couch, watching the same movies repeatedly, you not only memorize the movies, but you also memorize the advertisements.
Now, this is just a simple framing of the story.
Jack Palance was born in 1919 and died in late 2006. If you cannot do the math, he was 87 years old. Son of a Ukrainian coal miner, Jack was a professional boxer in his early years, and was reportedly quite good. Moreover, this was during the age when you probably had to bare-knuckle box hobos in box cars in order to build up your career. During WWII, Jack became a fighter pilot in the Air Force, earning his signature rugged Hollywood face after escaping from a burning plane. After the war, he graduated from Stanford with a degree in Drama. That is right. The son of a coal miner, professional boxer, and WWII bomber turned to the stage. He had the freedom in his life to pursue his dreams. Anyway, he was quite good, and earned a couple of Oscar nominations in his youth. He probably was best known to me for his appearance in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), a film I loved, which was cemented in my brothers and my endless viewing of the 1960’s TV show and movie. There are some famous clips on Youtube of him doing one-armed push-ups in his 70s during his Oscars appearance in the 1990s.
Again, more framing.
One of the commercials that we watched constantly featured Jack Palance. Now, I cannot remember which of the above-mentioned movies featured this ad, but it was one of the two. The truth has been lost to the annals of time, since I no longer own a VCR, and the tapes are…somewhere.
It was a simple ad for Skin Bracer, an aftershave. Jack, posing on screen in a rugged Indiana Jones-style shirt, in some sort of cowboy bedroom, begins to tell the audience about the aftershave with his voice that sounds like he has been gargling gravel – like a true man. “I don’t need some fancy cologne to tell me I’m a man. I use Skin Bracer. It smells great, but it also cools and tones my skin. Confidence is very sexy, don’t you think?”
These words have been burned in my mind for over two decades. As a boy, anything involving shaving is foreign and exciting. Yes, I will shave someday, I will be a man, and it will be great! However, there is so much more going on. And this is more than a group of young boys giggling over an old man saying “sexy” on TV.
This commercial taught me so much about life. Firstly, it was probably one of the first examples that I can remember showing an old person who was not someone who I perceived of as dying. Jack was full of life, almost definitely a real-life cowboy, and ready to fuck any number of young, nubile women. I mean, this is what the commercial is all about. Getting ready for sex. Being a real man.
This was probably somewhat damaging to my young psyche. Here is what I learned about being a real man – You have to be in your 70s before this can happen. Shaving happens when you are impossibly old. So does sex. Hell, I cannot even imagine talking to a girl before 50. For women to be attracted to you, you need to be an awesome cowboy. You need magical liquid to smell good. I am maybe 6 years old. This is not the greatest way for a child to formulate his mental image on the potential future of his own masculinity.
Nor is it a way for a young child to develop his confidence into his teenage years. What confidence? Where do you get this? Does it come in the container? Do you splash it on your face? My only knowledge about confidence is that you get it from being a fucking cowboy WWII Fighter Ace. I am a child, struggling every day to be cool and have friends. I am not confident. The struggle continued through high school, as I bounced from awkward crush to awkward crush. I waited months to build up the courage to ask a girl out, and just when I was about to do this, I was informed that she was thrilled that she was going out with another guy in our art class. Did I shave that afternoon? I should have done this in a horse stable, or on the edge of a cliff spanning infinity. What was I thinking? Confidence? I had zero. I was not able to do one-armed pushups and I certainly was not able to speak to the one girl who was capable of making me smile. The ghost of cool alcohol burn against my pubescent skin. As the haunting green liquid’s specter evaporates, so does the only time I would ever bother to ask her.
This is the single thing in my life that stopped me from being able to talk to women. Jack Palance. The grizzly echoes of a man’s voice in the back of my head, “Confidence is sexy,” as I struggle to be that very thing. No matter how confident I thought I was, it was and never will be enough. A handsome cowboy stares down at me from the heavens, glaring as I attempt to flirt. I am not wearing Skin Bracer, and he is disappointed.