There are many archetypes in Hollywood, recognisable characters from throughout cinematic history that keep cropping up, occasionally shape-shifting into slightly different forms, but still undeniable in their essence. Femme fatales, bad boys, angry young men, damsels in distress, you get the picture. All of these archetypes can be happily filed under two umbrella characters: the leading man and the leading lady, and what’s interesting is how certain archetypes become more popular or more present in different periods of history, responding to cultural and cinematic changes.
Right now one actor holds the leading man crown more than most – Ryan Gosling. Comparisons to De Niro, James Dean, Steve McQueen et al have been forthcoming, but really Gosling is a different kind of leading man, sharing the limelight at the moment with the likes of Bradley Cooper and Robert Pattinson. All are following a similar trajectory, from teen heartthrob to fully fledged leading man, though arguably Pattinson’s got more of an uphill task given his vampirical exploits. Gosling’s shift can be summed up in two films: The Notebook (2004) and Drive (2011).
On a rain-soaked jetty stood in front of Rachel McAdams, his long hair matted and his beard like a shaggy dog, the relentless teetering between the two characters explodes with a kiss that makes teenage girls coo and all men vomit. That was the moment that Gosling won the hearts of all females ever, dead ones too. He showed himself to be rugged (beard), masculine (lifting that boat out of the river), sexy (soaked in rain, c’mon, don’t pretend you didn’t quiver a little) and intensely romantic (“I wrote you a letter everyday for a year!” – mug). Despite future incarnations of Gosling, this is still the image by which he is best known.
What’s interesting is how Gosling’s character in Drive both subscribes to and rejects this persona. Ok, he’s brooding and mysterious, intensified by the lyrics to the film’s theme song “Real Hero” (“...Your pursuits are called outstanding, you’re emotionally complex...”), but he’s also obviously traditional and intensely romantic. He immediately falls in love with a single mother of a young boy, helps her with her shopping, takes them on a romantic sun-soaked drive and generally acts in a very non-threatening, paternal way when around her – hell, he doesn’t even try to kiss her for ages. Even when carrying out the more unsavoury parts of his job he is very clear about what his role is – he doesn’t carry a gun, he doesn’t get involved, he just drives. It is only when he feels that his position is being compromised by Christina Hendricks’ character that the darker side of his character comes out to play. Not only does he hit her to get the information he needs – a moment which the film glosses over somewhat – he then, with extreme violence and minimal effort, disposes of the two men who’ve come to kill him. With a blood soaked face, surrounded by dead bodies, he couldn’t be further from that rain-drenched heartthrob on the jetty.
Cooper and Pattinson are both in the process of completing this same shift themselves. Last summer’s Cosmopolis saw Pattinson portray a psychotic, fractious character with extremely violent, masochistic tendencies. The award-winning Silver Linings Playbook saw Cooper play a typical Romantic lead as someone with bipolar – a violent man, but in a story where the violence is being interrogated, where the question of “why?” is being asked. Compare this to the leading men of recent past. In the 90s, for example, you either had barn-storming, gun-toting, balls-out hard men, in Bruce Willis, Sly Stallones, and Arnie, or you had hunky heartthrobs: Cruise, Pitt, Reeves etc. With the former, masculinity was overwhelmingly physical, the films full of explosions, collateral damage, muscles, abs and vests. The latter were more romantic, more introverted, still athletic but less aggressive. The 21st century leading man is a kind of amalgam of the two, and to my mind, you can put it down to one film: David Fincher’s Fight Club.
Let it never be overstated: Fight Club is a terrific film. Superbly written, tremendous performances and incredibly indicative of a particular era. It also contains Brad Pitt’s best screen outing. The whole film is about a kind of generational, white-collar, middle class angst. A feeling of emasculation, of men becoming feminized. Brad Pitt, a typical 90s leading man, who by this point represents a decade of cinematic hunks and hard nuts, strides round with his shirt off and encourages other emasculated men to channel their inner Willis, Stallone and Arnie. It is this duality that resonates in the likes of Gosling, Cooper and Pattinson. An outward softness, metrosexuality, masking an inward aggression, an unpredictability, even occasionally madness.
If that wasn’t enough, Willis, Stallone and Arnie aren’t leaving the screen without a fight, their performances exhibiting an obvious self-awareness absent from their 90s output (Die Hard an exception, I grant you). The Expendables series has its tongue firmly rammed in its cheek, while in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Bruce Willis played a character who for the first half of the film was a meek, timid wannabe father figure, before remembering that he was in fact Bruce Willis and had to go all action-hero: essentially, the same duality exhibited by Gosling et al, but more knowing given Willis’ existing star profile.
I guess what all this points to is a pretty healthy climate at the moment for versatile character actors. As well as the three I’ve just mentioned – I know there’ll be some raised eyebrows at R-Patz, but give him time, he’s working with Herzog next, he’s no mug – you can throw in a fine trio of Brits, each of whom has more than excelled in violent, visceral, physical roles: Christian Bale (Batman, American Psycho), Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Lawless, Warrior, Bronson) and Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Shame) spring to mind. The hard-man, action-hero archetype hasn’t disappeared as such, it’s just been honed and developed into more well rounded, fully fledged characters, played by actors schooled on a wider variety of cinema and developing relationships with young filmmakers keen to assert their individuality. Enjoy the next 10 years of cinema with that in mind folks, there could be some interesting stuff coming out, even without Gosling for the next couple years.