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

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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