‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and Hollywood’s Leading Man Crisis (Opinion)

Charlie Hunnam
Tommaso Boddi/WireImage

Where are the under-40 stars in Hollywood?

For the last 18 months, the ardent fans of “50 Shades of Grey” have engaged in a parlor game of trying to cast Christian Grey. As far as the online groupies are concerned, the frontrunners were, and still are, Matt Bomer and Ian Somerhalder, who may never have actually been in the running with the studio. According to various reports, the role was supposedly offered to Robert Pattinson, Ryan Gosling and Garrett Hedlund, before “Sons of Anarchy” heartthrob Charlie Hunnam reluctantly agreed last month, only to back out of the project this week.

But the real loser in this never-ending casting scrimmage isn’t Focus Features, which is getting the kind of free pre-release publicity heaped on “Avatar.” It’s Hollywood. Even after a ridiculously long casting window, “Fifty Shades of Grey” can’t secure a star because, in part, there is a shortage of young leading men in the industry.

PHOTOS: 10 Actors Who Can Play Christian Grey

It’s been many decades since the public idolized screen legends like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. So, too, are the days gone when Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson ruled the big screen. For a business obsessed with youth, the male box office giants of today are all surprisingly old: Johnny Depp is 50, Brad Pitt is 49, Robert Downey Jr. is 48, Vin Diesel, after all those “Fast and Furious” whirls, is 46, and Will Smith and Hugh Jackman are both 45. Christian Bale, 39, and Leonardo DiCaprio, 38, who came of age just before the Internet transformed celebrity press, are the babies of the group.

There aren’t any male leads in their 20s or early 30s who consistently  appear in blockbusters, unless you count actors — like Daniel Radcliffe and Robert Pattinson — who made multiple appearances in a single franchise. And even then, there are still questions about what will happen to their careers after “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” since they’ve both actively shunned other big studio projects. The same goes for Shia LaBeouf, who publicly badmouthed his “Transformers” series.

And that’s the real problem. Hollywood is a now a town with angst-ridden actors jittery about their own fame. A big part of this change comes from the new reality of stardom, if such a thing even exists anymore. In the era of TMZ, celebrity is a bad word, and the instantaneous news cycle has led to high burnout.

Many successful actors now have to take a break from the spotlight (as Gosling recently announced), and when they return, the industry doesn’t always welcome them back. Has anybody seen Ryan Phillippe, Hayden Christensen or Josh Hartnett lately? Taylor Lautner’s latest role was as a prop in an Adam Sandler comedy. Neither Chris Pine or Zachary Quinto have had big screen success outside “Star Trek.”

After a long hiatus, Orlando Bloom reemerged on Broadway this year following his “Lord of the Rings” run, and Jared Leto went into acting retirement for five years before “Dallas Buyers Club.” James Franco has only survived through his experimental art projects, which has allowed him to work because he’s confused the industry into not typecasting him. Channing Tatum may be the lone young male American movie star.

For a while, Hollywood tried to cope by importing foreign actors for super hero films. That explains why Henry Cavill is the first non-American Superman, Andrew Garfield dons Spidey’s tights and Chris Hemsworth wields Thor’s sledgehammer. But after Hemsworth played a non-super hero in “Rush,” audiences didn’t follow him to the movies.

In the late 90s, when “ER’s” George Clooney was announced as the new “Batman,” there was no Twitter outrage, because it hadn’t been invented yet. The blogosphere did no such favors to Ben Affleck, who had to endure a storm of protest before he even said a line of dialogue as the Dark Knight. Hunnam, who has always been a low profile actor, may have been discouraged from the role after fans started a petition demanding that he quit.

Not all new franchises (i.e., the rebooted “Star Wars”) will endure the same casting pains of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which comes with its own baggage. The movie will be sexually explicit and the source material by E.L. James may not naturally lend itself to a hit film. Then again, there must be an actor somewhere who could play the part, and possibly launch his career like Christian Bale did in “American Psycho.”

The latest reports suggest that Alexander Skarsgard, the “True Blood” hunk who has never been in a successful film (see “Battleship”), is on the studio’s short list along with lesser known actors Jamie Dornan, Theo James and Christian Cooke. ‘

Whoever eventually lands the role should do himself a favor — stay away from your computer.

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  1. BriteBlonde1 says:

    Seems like this might be the male version of Elizabeth Berkley’s career damaging role in Showgirls.

  2. LeslieR says:

    God forbid we stop making a overwhelming amount of movies with leading MEN. Women are half of the population, folks. Also, maybe when we stop concentrating on leading men looking like the same boring chiseled white dude, maybe we will have some actual choices. Want to know the reason that nontraditionally handsome British men are on fire (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, etc)? Because they are SUPERBLY trained and have actual personalities. THAT is what makes a leading man, not some boring hunk of meat. Until the US filmmakers realize that, (along with maybe joining the 21st century and giving women more leading roles) they will continue to have this “problem”.

    • steve says:

      I agree with your thoughts about avoiding the prototypical white boy. But unfortunately for women- they don’t sell as leading roles. The VERY few who do include Julia Roberts, Ann Hathaway and Sandra Bullock. The studios have done a great deal of movies with women in leading roles or as the main character- but they don’t make the kind of money that “guy films” do *again, unfortunately. Though women comprise half the world- the majority seem to prefer watching guys on screen and guys like the action films/comedies that their fellows make. The only truly/constantly successful- across the board- movies being made with women leads are pornography.

      • Really, Steve? Women sold as leads — outsold men as leads — for the first several decades of the film industry. They basically “stopped selling” when Hollywood decided to buy into blockbuster strategy, and also decided that only young white men should be leads in blockbusters (unless they’re Will Smith, and even then generally somebody else got asked first). Fact is, Melissa McCarthy pulled in more moviegoer dollars this year than any male actor out there — and the only person who outearned her was Sandra Bullock. Hollywood (and you) have decided to believe this, will ignore every piece of evidence to the contrary, and do everything possible not to give actresses any chance to definitively prove this wrong.

      • Jen says:

        Suprisingly, the overwhelmingly male studio heads, directors, and screenwriters agree with you.

  3. MichaelZ says:

    The premise upon which your entire article is based would be laughable if Hollywood’s “follower” mentality didn’t make it so serious (i.e. an alleged “shortage of young leading men in the industry” is the reason producers of a HORRIBLE series of books are struggling to find a leading man).

    In truth, “Fifty Shades of Grey” was pathetically weak but somehow became popular with straight women. The cringe-worthy, repetitive and sloppy writing (e.g. “He touched me – there”) was a huge/instant turn off for men; actors and theater goers. The current script is almost as bad.

    So, the issue is not a shortage of leading men, it’s a shortage of good material.

    As for “Grey,” it’s characters could be turned into something great — with a great writer. Only then will obvious leading man candidates like Alex Petyfer, Hedlund, etc. fight for the part.

  4. Paula says:

    Has anyone considered Brant Daugherty?

  5. Linda says:

    Definately Eric from True Blood.

  6. michelle says:

    I think Eric Dane should play Christian Grey hes perfection

    • Benny says:

      Uh…Christian Grey is something like 28, not 40. One of the many problems with the book was that the characters were too young, making the story even more implausible.

      • Boo says:

        Uh, Eric Dane is not from True Blood – he’s an actor from Grey’s Anatomy.

        And changing the male character’s age would make the movie seem like a typical too-older male with a near-teenage girl pedo-fantasy.

        The best thing would be to not make this trash at all.

        And they can stop fantasizing about getting anyone within sniffing distance of the a-list. Dreamers.

      • d says:

        Yes Eric from True Blood, as for the age, Hollywood changes such things all the time from book to screen. It is one of the major stumbling blocks in the story, completely unbelievable. Make the character just a bit older, it will work.

  7. Toon says:

    In reading this book, I pictured someone older, more like George Clooney. Where do you get young man from? Younger men aren’t sophisticated enough for this role.

    • Me says:

      Perhaps you weren’t reading closely when his age was given as 27.

    • lol says:

      People don’t apreaciate young men,because there are no good scripts in HW for young actors.All good things are written for older men and for of course their much,much younger female partners.I’m not saying that 50 is good thing but always is that when movie is anticipated everybody think about older actor,despite Christian is 27.People are expecting for being the lead an older actor,because they are seening it in almost every movie.It’s unfair,because young actors don’t have opportunity to show their skills.IMO in the worst position in HW are young actors and older actresess,there are either too young(men) and too old(women)for getting interesting/good role.

  8. DougW says:

    For some time now it seems if you’re an American actor or actress in your twenties you can pretty much forget about starring in Hollywood films.

  9. Matt says:

    Whayvdoes explicit mean? Is the actor going to do multi full frontal scenes? Probably not. But in a way it’s refreshing that some actors actually take their craft & careers seriously & want to act – – not just be an US weekly/tmz/kardashian like tabloid celebrity. Or be so locked into the role that they’ll find it hard to be seen as anything but Grey. Maybe they should talk to Jennifer Lawrence

  10. Aurelie says:

    The project is doomed. I agree with the other poster, career suicide indeed. Look at actors like Hayden Christensen and Robert Patterson all stereotyped and pigeonholed now. I can see this movie on like lifetime not on the big screen though.

    • Deb says:

      Why would you say Robert Pattinson is pigeonholed? He starred in Cosmopolis, which was directed by David Cronenberg & recently completed filming for The Rover, directed by David Michod and Maps to the Stars, another Cronenberg movie. I understand he’s still attached to Queen of the Desert with Werner Herzog and Mission Blacklist with Jesper Ganslandt. Not to mention his sweet deal as the face of Dior Homme. That doesn’t sound pigeonholed to me. It sounds like a young actor with an impressive resume.

  11. Esther says:

    Any Actor they think of offering the role to should think seriously about not accepting. This is clearly what can be termed as career sucide for those with established careers. For those starting out, why kill your career before it starts?
    Cannot really see a lot of people seeing this baggage of crap at the cinemas really besides seems so last year if it makes any sense.
    Heard all the hype, tried reading the books but did not make it past page 50 and the pages I did read was a struggle to get through.

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