Rooster Cogburn in True Grit and Rick Blaine in Casablanca.

The Tough Guy With the Heart of Gold and the Lesson He Taught Me

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The tough guy with the heart of gold requires a sociopathy: he knows that he can feel but does not believe others feel in the same dimensions as he does. Acts of self-sacrifice characterize him, his love language a perverse Act of Service, the logical syllogism that he can suffer in the stead of the person whom he loves, thinking it spares the object of his love from suffering. Everyone knows (except for the tough guy with the heart of gold, of course), that love requires suffering by proxy: when a person you love hurts, so do you. His martyrdom is wholly selfish. He stars in his own production and takes emotional hostages.

This is what happens when they try to make people into characters. In real life, there is no fourth wall separating their self-sabotage from their audience, and they don’t realize that although they imitate characters on a screen, this is no performance.


Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

(image: Paramount Pictures)

She said, Goodbye, Reuben, a love of decency does not abide in you… I said Goodbye, Nola, I hope that little nail-selling bastard keeps you happy this time.

–Rooster Cogburn, True Grit

Mattie Ross takes her family’s savings into town in search of a bounty hunter to avenge her daddy’s death. She asks around, and when she finally confronts U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, he’s standing trial for murder. On the way out of the courtroom, Mattie Ross insists that she has to be the person to kill Tom Chaney, or no one will avenge her father’s death, not even the law. She says, “My brother is a child, and my mother is indecisive and hobbled by grief.” He won’t agree, doesn’t believe she has the money, and walks out of the courthouse in the other direction.

Our affection for U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn grows every time we see him commend or defend Mattie, whether it’s when she swims her horse across the river to catch up to him and accuse him of stealing her money, when he threatens to shoot Texas Ranger LaBeouf for spanking Mattie, when he explains his strategy for finding Tom Chaney, or even when he incorporates her help into his plan. Though his character unmistakably warrants that of the antihero—for what killer can allow himself empathy?—we love Rooster for these small kindnesses. In the wild west, where Mattie Ross, however precocious and quick-witted she is, would have no chance at avenging her father’s murder, Rooster provides that service—for a nominal fee.

On a traditional alignment scale, bounty hunters function as chaotic neutral, for hire by the highest payer, regardless of whether they’re aligned with the Law. Rooster proves himself honorable: “If you find I fail to satisfy your terms, I will return your money at the end of this expedition.” A sensible person does not forget that he has killed so many people that he appears to have lost count, or if he has not lost count, then he is having fun with the attorney prosecuting him for murder in the courthouse.

By the time the movie ends, though, its audience is no longer filled with objective, sensible people: we love Rooster for his good deeds, his overall moral nature, although his moral ambiguity does not align with ours, generally speaking. Against all odds, he has chosen to be Good, in this case, by saving Mattie Ross and disappearing without taking his fee.


Luca Brasi in The Godfather.

(image: Paramount Pictures)

Luca Brasi, played by the 6’6”, 320-pound Lenny Montana, is observed at Connie Corleone’s wedding by a plus-one: “Why is that scary man over there talking to himself?” The audience learns, with Kay, that Luca Brasi is Don Vito Corleone’s most trusted enforcer, that he is the one man capable of hitting a mark by himself, that he is the one who held the pistol to Les Halley’s head and said either his signature or his brains would be on Johnny Fontaine’s release form. Brasi is not the one who makes the unrefusable offers, but he is the one who enforces their consequences.

It’s hard to picture that, though, in the context of the party, looking at the sweating, nervous Brasi. He holds a scrap of paper and reads it to himself over and over as he waits outside the Don’s study to observe the Sicilian tradition. On his daughter’s wedding day, anyone can ask a man for a favor. Because Don Corleone is a man of whom everyone wants favors, his queue is extensive. When Don Corleone rises and announces that he wants to enjoy his daughter’s wedding reception, his consigliere reminds him that he has one more meeting.

Even more difficult to align in the viewer’s head is the image of the giant Brasi trembling at the thought of Don Corleone. When he enters the study, Brasi tries to recite from memory, “Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter…’s wedding… on the day of your daughter’s wedding. And I hope their first child be a masculine child. I pledge my never-ending loyalty—” and as children come into the room playing, he slides an envelope into Don Corleone’s hand and concludes, “for your daughter’s bridal purse.”

Among the entire line of wedding guests, he alone does not ask a favor. He only wants to remind the godfather of his gratitude because Brasi is a tough guy—he does not see himself as anything else. Corleone thanks him. Brasi says, “I’m gonna leave you now because I know you are busy,” and he does.

We are led to assume that Brasi both respects and fears Don Corleone, in the way that we so often want to impress the person that we respect, and we fear what will happen to our psyche if we disappoint them.


Rick Blaine in Casablanca.

(image: Warner Bros.)

Rick Blaine is unlikeable when we first meet him in his saloon, in his white tuxedo, chin tipped down but eyes tipped up, smoking a cigar over a chess table and bouncing someone from his lounge. His friend describes Rick as “totally neutral” among the Allied and Axis powers of World War II, and he never provides travel visas illegally, not to any refugee. In passing, he says, “I stick my neck out for no one.”

We are made to believe that Rick has no emotions, that his morality is so specialized that it looks like anarchy to anyone else, as he waves hello to a Nazi soldier and opens his doors to European refugees alike. Yet, Renault says of him, “Rick is the kind of man … well, if I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.” He says so to the woman with whom Rick was once in love—Ilsa, in Paris, before she abandoned him to board the train en route to Casablanca alone.

Rick is understandably cold toward Ilsa when they meet in Casablanca, but he is cold to nearly everyone, maintaining his “totally neutral” stance in all dichotomies until a beautiful, underage Bulgarian woman in a trim black dress and a flawless pageboy haircut bats her large, dark, dewy eyes at him and asks him if he can vouch for Captain Renault, with whom she has traded sex for her and her husband’s travel visas. When he says, neutrally, that Captain Renault always has kept his word, the woman asks, “If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing she wanted in the world, and she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?”

He replies almost immediately, staring into the middle distance, “Nobody ever loved me that much … Everybody in Casablanca has problems. Yours may work out.” In the first heartfelt action we see from Rick in real time, he finds the woman’s husband at the roulette table, and with the same poker face, tells him to bet twice on the number 22. When he wins, Rick whispers sternly, “Cash it in, and don’t come back.” The woman is so happy that she hugs Rick and nearly cries.

Here, the audience empathizes with Rick. Before, we knew he was cool because he was aloof … but now we see that his toughness is only a defense mechanism. He loves Ilsa. He would do anything for her. The Bulgarian girl is her proxy. This small kindness makes us want happiness for Rick. Suddenly, it confirms the suspicions that he is worthy of our infatuation, and it confirms out belief that despite his hardboiled exterior, he is, deep down, the “rank sentimentalist” Renault accuses him of being. His inner sentimentalism, his heart of gold, is what makes Casablanca the greatest love story ever told.

Never mind that Ilsa does not ask anything of him. Never mind that she saves his soul, too, by convincing him his life is not pointless, and she inadvertently motivates him to join the resistance. Rick is redeemed, we think, through the love of a good woman. We all hope to be her.


Now look. That damned cowboy is the President of the United States.

–Mark Hanna

In many ways, Theodore Roosevelt is the offscreen archetype for the tough guy with the heart of gold, as evidenced in his multiple popular cultural representations. Among his myriad tough-guy accomplishments, he was a boxer and a rower, joined the United States Army and then National Guard, and he helped to form the Rough Riders of the Spanish American War. He was police chief of New York City in the late 1800s. When President McKinley was assassinated, and T.R. was to be inaugurated his successor, it is rumored that he was found only by shooting straight up in the air from his hunting camp.

While campaigning for a third presidential term in an independent party, T.R. was shot in the chest with a .38. He is recorded as saying, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” His Party was henceforward known as the Bull Moose Party, and that speech lasted 84 minutes. It will surprise no one to hear that he is also the only U.S. president with a confirmed tattoo.

He is also responsible for our National Parks. He kept a pocket journal, and he was so very in love with his wife that when she died giving birth, he wrote in his diary a large X, and underneath it one simple sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.” We all wish to be the light of their lives, but Theodore Roosevelt was a human man, not a character, and certainly not a Bull Moose. His love of his wife is little-known and mostly overshadowed by his more traditionally masculine accomplishments.

The Teddy Bear is, of course, named for him.


Here’s looking at you, kid. –Casablanca

I wish I knew how to quit you. –Brokeback Mountain

Well, come see a one-eyed fat man sometime. –True Grit

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. –Gone with the Wind

It is a far, far better thing I do, than I ever have done. –A Tale of Two Cities

Go on, you’re free. Get outta here! Go on! Go! –White Fang

We always hope we’ll be the Lauren Bacall to the Humphrey Bogart because it makes us feel special to land someone as fiercely independent as he, but Humphrey Bogart was not actually Phillip Marlow. It was a role he was paid to play, a character, a private detective who was not very good at his job. Rooster Cogburn was a bounty hunter. Luca Brasi was a hit man. Rick Blaine owned a bar and had to be persuaded to take a side in World War II. Those qualities are the ones we have romanticized. These are not good men.

It was them I saw when the handsome, grizzled detective at the end of the bar was listening to my conversation. My girl friend invited him to the show in the bar’s basement, and he paid for my entry. He told me about the friends he was training for bareknuckle boxing and asked me to watch his bag of surveillance equipment when he went to the bathroom.

“Why’d you ask me to do that?” I asked. “What makes you think I wouldn’t steal it?”

“Seed of doubt,” he said.

I went out with him anyway.

He showed his devotion through offering background checks on men my mother dated, running plates of people who dinged my car when it was street-parked, picking almost-fights with men who flirted with me at his regular bar, taking me to Cuba illegally, and buying our cab ride to the airport with a bottle of rum when we ran out of money. The drama was important, the need to control uncontrollable variables, the ability to predict what people will likely do, based on past behaviors. It was exciting and exhausting.

He FaceTimed me once, tailing someone just outside my apartment. The subject went to two Waffle Houses, another diner, and then the Jamaican hole-in-the-wall down the street from where I lounged on my velvet sofa, an open novel resting on my belly. “He’s making drops,” I said.

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” he said. “I’m just observing and reporting.”

“I’m not jumping. Dat Fire Jerk Chicken is closed on Mondays. It devastates me every time.”

Once, he let me ride along. He told me to dress plainly. I wore a white t-shirt and black leggings, pulled my hair into a ponytail, and met him outside his home. He sized me up from inside his expensive sunglasses, exhaling the smoke of a Camel. “Real discreet,” he said. “Look at your boobs. Your hair. The way you’re walking. You just stand out. You’re not forgettable. You’re supposed to blend in. Are you wearing lipstick?”

“Of course I’m wearing lipstick,” I said, looking at him sideways in what I could only imagine was my best possible lighting. “I’m the femme fatale. My role is to get you into dangerous situations, not out of them. That’s your job.” I thought I was just playing along.

We saw a special screening of Notorious in which he laughed aloud at Cary Grant snapping Ingrid Bergman’s neck. He said, “That … doesn’t make any sense.” I told him later that, when interviewed, Grant said Bergman should get an Oscar every year, whether or not she was in a movie. He imitated her mid-Atlantic accent, and when I did the one I had been practicing for years, he covered his face. “I have a terrible smile. I didn’t have any wrinkles before I met you. Now I laugh all the time.”

On Halloween, we dressed up as Rosa Diaz and Adrian Pimento from Brooklyn 99. When I made him watch, he said, “This guy is just like me. Except funny.” He laughed aloud when Pimento tells Terry Crews, “Oh, I’d kill ALL of you for her,” and then said, “but there’s no way they’d have him go undercover for TWELVE YEARS.”

He paused Jackie Brown when she’s confronted in the parking deck to say, “Just so you know, if the police ask you to search your bag, you can just say no. If she had just said no, this whole thing could have been prevented.”

And I countered, but then she wouldn’t have been able to out-badass-motherfucker Samuel L. Jackson. He tried to argue with me, and I said, “The way I see it, we only have one thing to talk about. One thing. And that’s what you are willing to do for me.” He laughed and covered his face again. We had a solid repartee.

He paused the third season of True Detective for similar reasons, to say, “That’s a fucking terrible surveillance position.” Later, he said of Mahershala Ali’s character, “Their relationship is really dysfunctional.” He’s a detective, and she’s a writer. So were we. I did not say how much they reminded me of us, that we were living a noir movie. I noticed the similarities between them, the deception poorly hidden. The fights they had that weren’t really about the things they fought over. We fought about other aspects of the show instead.

Burning bloody clothes doesn’t mean forensic science can’t detect the blood.

Yes, it does, Mary Kay: you’re destroying evidence.

No, you’re destroying the shirt, not the evidence.

And other proxy wars.

I loved his mystery in theory, but not in practice. I almost never mentioned him punching a wall after I threw him a surprise party and he got too drunk to see that I was not actually mad at him. The time he asked my best friend if he could kiss her. The time he videoed a fight we were having so that I couldn’t say that he did something he never did. And when I tell the story of our trip to Cuba, I don’t mention that the reason we ran out of money was because he snuck off to have drinks at the bar.

Or the fight we had before we flew on another trip, where I voiced my travel anxiety about being Arab near TSA, and he scoffed that I was being ridiculous, yelling over his shoulder as he walked into the other room, “It’s not like you’re going to be waterboarded.” I tell almost no one that he loved pictures of me when I was younger, or that after he told me he was a mercenary in Iraq, and that he’d followed an order to execute children, I had a recurring nightmare that he executed a dozen children who looked like me. I don’t tell anyone of the nightmare I have where I let him drown in Havana as the streets flooded and I take a 1940s-style taxi back to the hotel.

“I meant everything I ever said to you,” he said finally, when he called me, drunk, to end things. “You are the most loving, beautiful, smart, and talented woman that I have ever known. But I ain’t the one. I can’t give you the future you want. You deserve better than my limitations. I’m sorry. This had to happen. I’m meant to die hard. And alone. You wanted the tough guy with the heart of gold. This is that.”

Leaving is the main quality of men of this ilk, in the movies and out, whether they end by falling on their sword for you, shipping you into your new life with your new husband, scouting the intentions of your rivals, or thirty years later performing in a Wild West show, they leave, because the tough guy with the heart of gold trope requires him to sacrifice himself for a greater good, even if that greater good, by definition, would never, ever want or ask him to do that. The self-sacrifice is allegedly for the one he loves, but really, it’s just to maintain the image of the tough guy with the heart of gold, walking alone into the sunset, hoping that someone is watching longingly as he goes but not turning his head to check.

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Mary Kay McBrayer
Mary Kay is the author of the nonfiction novel <a href=""><em>America's First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster</em></a>. You can hear her analysis (and jokes) about scary movies on the podcast she co-founded, <em>Everything Trying to Kill Yo</em>. Follow her on Twitter <a href="">@mkmcbrayer</a> and Instagram <a href="">@marykaymcbrayer.</a>