Where have the manly movie stars gone?
Not so long ago, Hollywood’s male stars were men’s men. Think John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart and Steve McQueen.
Over the decades, that generation has given way to the likes of Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, Brendan Fraser and Tom Cruise.
Casting the titular tough-guy New York hero of his upcoming adaptation of “The Spirit,” Frank Miller also had trouble finding the right actor.
“Hollywood is great at producing male actors, but sucks at producing men,” says Miller. “I found them all too much like boys.” (He hired New York TV actor Gabriel Macht, 36.)
“We spend a lot of time in the industry talking about that issue,” says Robert Relyea, who produced movies for McQueen and wrote “Not So Quiet on the Set: My Life in Movies During Hollywood’s Macho Era.” “My directors always tried to seek out people who had ‘it,’ which does not exist today. You’ve got copycats trying to be McQueen. They don’t get it.”
These days, studios are hard-pressed to find home-grown traditional male leads to carry their pictures. Their star rosters include countless boy-men who even after they turn 40 are less than credible macho movie stars. Depp powered the “Pirates” franchise with a fey perf that was more fussy Marlon Brando than athletic Errol Flynn.
Even with “The Matrix” series behind him, Reeves is still often defined by “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and other wayward youth roles. He was less than believable as a doctor in “Something’s Gotta Give.” That’s because he’s a boy-man.
So is goofy Fraser, who aged from a boyish “George of the Jungle” to a boyish mummy-fighting father in “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”
“In a global culture, so what if the tough guys come from another country?” asks producer Sean Daniel, who padded “Mummy” with Hong Kong action stars Jet Li and Michele Yeoh. “It’s one big movie culture.”
Not atypically, the year’s top-grossing film, “The Dark Knight,” stars Brits Christian Bale and Michael Caine alongside the late Heath Ledger, from Down Under.
Even New Yorker Woody Allen is drawing his male stars from Europe, with Spain’s Javier Bardem in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Britain’s Ian McShane in “Scoop” and Scotland’s Ewan McGregor and Ireland’s Colin Farrell in “Cassandra’s Dream.”
These days, when John Travolta or Ben Affleck aren’t the right fit for a big actioner, the studios often turn to the likes of rugged Aussies Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, whose perfs can range from both scary and dangerous to powerful and tender. Affleck, like original Jack Ryan Alec Baldwin, could have used a boost from more Tom Clancy installments after “The Sum of All Fears,” but the studio is going another way.
Even comicbook superheroes are boy-men — Brandon Routh as Superman, Edward Norton the Hulk and Tobey Maguire Spider-Man — unless they’re from another country, like Brits Bale (Batman) and “X-Men” stars Ian McKellen (Magneto) and Patrick Stewart (Professor X), or Aussie Hugh Jackman (Wolverine). And while Will Smith played post-apocalyptic hero in “I Am Legend,” his “Hancock” is a post-modern superhero, an alcoholic homeless man — not the stuff of myth and legend.
Two of the top rising action stars right now are both from the U.K.: “300” star Gerard Butler and Jason Statham (“Death Race”).
“We all wish there were five more guys like Jason Statham,” says producer Mark Gill. “There’s no shortage of roles for them. There’s a shortage of guys who can plausibly do them. The more expensive the budget, the narrower the list.”
When James Cameron was casting “Avatar,” he found Sam Worthington, now 32, in Australia, and also recommended him to McG for “Terminator Salvation,” as one of the few young actors who could stand up to Bale’s John Connor.
Where did America’s tough guys go?
Along with stars in the classic mold like Charles Bronson and Charlton Heston, the ’50s and ’60s brought more self-conscious method acting, men who revealed their sensitive side, like Brando, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty. These men explored irony, questioned authority and knew how to engage with a psychotherapist.
With the Me Generation came the move toward impishly rebellious Peter Pans: Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy and John Belushi.
Of course, movie stars are a reflection of their times and culture. Ours is no longer the era of straight-ahead nationalism. Americans question everything, including authority. And they have never been more anxious about staying young.
“It’s like the crisis of the American male,” says screenwriter Kirsten Smith (“The House Bunny”). “We just can’t find a real man.”
For his part, Cruise seems to be trying to pick roles that will deepen his gravitas. But when he played a doctor in “Eyes Wide Shut” and a U.S. senator in “Lions for Lambs,” he seemed out of his league. Now he’s trying again, as a German World War II hero in “Valkyrie.”
Recently, Cruise ran into resistance at Warners when he sought to play a maverick third-party president in “The 28th Amendment.” Instead, the studio wanted Cruise to play the prexy’s ally, a burned-out special forces operative who helps him overcome a shadow government. The star deemed the part too close to “Mission: Impossible.”
“I truly thought Tom would be great in the role of an outsider elected to the highest office,” says director Phil Noyce. “The studio wanted to explore further possibilities for the president, including Denzel.” For them, it was about finding the right balance between the two leads, in a very high-budget political thriller.”
Washington declined the part, but he’s one of the few American stars who can carry a movie as a president. He’s on the short list of in-demand Hollywood stars — all well over 50 — who define larger-than-life heroic masculinity. The others are Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones.
Most American drama stars gain authority with age —Smith, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Nic Cage are all seasoning well — but just what did a star like McQueen have that today’s lack?
“Steve felt less was better,” says Relyea, “Less lines, less everything. In ‘The Magnificent Seven’ when he was going up Boot Hill, he took out a shotgun shell and shook it by his ear. He did it so well you believed it. If someone does it today they make it a three-act play and it’s phony. These guys had a masculinity and toughness that came across. McQueen didn’t give a damn who his makeup man was. It’s not fashionable for actors to be all-American men now; they have to be strange and different.”
Which is perhaps one explanation for the surprise success of AMC’s “Mad Men”: Star Jon Hamm reminds auds what ’60s stars used to be like: laconic, mysterious … and masculine.