Man Power

Male movie stars fall somewhere along a spectrum with one extreme being soft and sensitive pretty boys and the other being rugged manly men.  According to this article from the September 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, twenty-five years ago movies experienced a resurgence in machismo (much of it on loan from Australia.  The magazine named five hunky stars who were heating up the movies.

Leading men have come in so many different packages, it’s difficult to fit them into specific boxes. But one generalization has always remained true: male attractiveness can be divided into two categories–the strong and the sensitive. Throughout the years, both brands have found outrageous success. First there was the soft, sensitive Valentino, all dewy eyes and creamy skin. Then the rough, tough-talking, ready-to-fight Clark Gable emerged. The dapper, well-spoken and a bit too smooth Cary Grant came next. He was replaced by a take-no-prisoners Steve McQueen, all blue-eyed and salty and full of anger. Pretty boys have dominated since the ’80s, from Rob Lowe up until Brad Pitt, who has recently transformed himself into somewhat of a scruffy character. When the Australians invaded Hollywood some years back, Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential reminded audiences that a meat-eating man who allows his rage to get the best of him once in a while is really the only type of male who can grab a woman by the neck and keep a hold of her long after she’s left the theater. With Crowe came more rough-and-tumble men, some of which are featured here.


So much of what is presented as masculine beauty in Hollywood is appallingly overgroomed. It’s not just the calculated hair and the gym-cut bodies–Los Angeles is a city where a women can’t go into a nail salon without the threat of encountering a man getting a pedicure. In this culture of disguised and undisguised dandyism, Benicio Del Toro stands out as a guy who doesn’t have anything against soap, but just wouldn’t think of a thing like getting a weekly facial.

A crucial part of Del Toro’s sexual power on-screen comes from one’s being unable at any given moment to decide whether he’d be best described by the word “ravishing” or the word “ravaged.” He started out years ago as a model, so it’s not a matter of his stromy looks having been ignored by him or anyone else. His uncanny resemblance to the ultra-looker Brad Pitt has been noted, and he has, after all, been cast as the love object of Alicia Silverstone (in Excess Baggage). But it’s the wear and tear on Del Toro that has brought out his deepest, darkest appeal. Even before he made a memorable appearance as a villain back in 1989’s License to Kill, Del Toro was an actor’s actor well known and respected among Hollywood insiders with an eye for talent, but it took years for him to reach the mainstream, because the feel of authenticity about him took time to find its outward expression. What were exotically wide-narrow eyes all along are now unapologetically hooded and bagged. The whole presence of the man implies a willingness to take a bite out of life and live with the consequences.

It is probably always a mistake to think an actor anything but self-absorbed. That’s what gives an irresistible allure to actors who seem not to be. Del Toro always has the look of a man who is embroiled in thought behind that simultaneously stoical and expressionistic face, but not thoughts about himself. By extension, he seems to lack the other dimensions of actors’ vanity. There’s also an absence of self-regard about the way he moves. Both on-screen and off, he has an unmannered body language that is all the more interesting in view of the finesse he displays in the physical aspect of acting–his performance as Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez in Traffic was full of original, naturalistic detail in every gesture.

What Del Toro projects in the place of vanity is confidence, the ineffable key to masculine attractiveness that is too often paired with swagger. Del Toro is utterly above swagger. Perhaps as a young man, when he had the looks and physical stature to get away with swaggering to his heart’s content, he realized that playing against his most obvious traits would be most effective.


Russell Crowe looks like no one else. A movie star’s face is eloquent by definition, but his face speaks in the special poetry of contradictions being brought moment by moment into an ever-new, precarious balance. The eyes are hooded but direct to the point of piercing. The mouth is childlike in size but its upper lip is etched in with precision that suggests almost bitter determination. The forehead is high and open but not remotely serene. The chin is sensually cleft but angled as if absolutely unafraid of a fist. The nose is the most straightforward aspect of his appearance, a perfect camouflage for the secrets hidden in the eyes and kept by the lips. If you really look at Russell Crowe’s face, plumb its improbabilities, you can see the very key to what makes him the signature heroic figure of the post-millennial big screen. It is not a comforting sight. His features vibrate with mutually exclusive potentials–yes, he is modern, hence conflicted–but he stares right at you with an unwillingness to entertain ambivalence.

It’s little wonder that, in the wake of all the male sensitivity training that ran parallel to late 20th century feminist excesses, we should take the guy behind LA. Confidential‘s volcanic-romantic cop Bud White to our hearts. Crowe’s sexual charisma is a complex concoction for which there is no formula, but the part of it that rises from his overt blending of desire with non-ambivalence is a near-miraculous blessing both to women and men. Women who long ago were sickened by tom-tom beating, Iron John-reading men enjoyed watching Bud White beat the crap out of an abusive husband and fall for a whore. It was refreshing to see a man being aggressive and forgetting what was proper.

Gladiator was the film in which Crowe was given a vehicle for becoming the audience’s fondest fantasy of him. You could take the romantic obsessive-compulsiveness of Bud White, overlay it with the brilliance and self-effacing conscience of The Insider‘s Jeffrey Wigand, and then see it pumped up with Maximus’s brawn, patriotism and emotional loyalty. The starvation for heartfelt straight-aheadedness had been so long-lasting, there would be no early end to the feast. Crowe’s inherent and earned screen power was particularly evident in Proof of Life, because his character, Terry Thorne, another tough/soft combination of commitment and romantic impulse, was the only thing in the whole movie keeping the action from sliding off the screen. Then came A Beautiful Mind, in which Crowe plays a man utterly devoid of charm–and that’s before his schizoid break with reality. Once again, the pure beauty of a determined mind motivated by an aroused heart proves irresistible in Crowe’s portrayal.

Not even Crowe’s witheringly high celebrity profile can dull the feeling he exudes on-screen that he is, if not unknowable, then at least not to be reduced. Steve McQueen, a potent force of masculinity in his day, was rather like Crowe, only he wasn’t half the actor. McQueen on-screen was opaque and combative. Crowe is certainly the latter. Think this man will go along with your prized notions of refinement, or, for that matter, of “manliness”? Think again. But Crowe is anything but opaque. His face makes you think again, which, in the daunting redefinition of what “masculine” means these days, is not a bad idea.


As far as U.S. moviegoers were concerned, Hugh Jackman came out of nowhere (you know, the London stage) to play Wolverine in the 2000 superhero saga X-Men. In the first image presented to Americans, then, one of Jackman’s defining facial characteristics–his jawline–was camouflaged by mutant fuzz. His commanding performance in the admirably off-center X-Men came through in any case, but the impact of Jackman’s actual looks was blunted and thus his power as a future star was delayed. When he was photographed clean for accompanying press coverage, though, the open planes of his face and elegant cheekbones were at least a minor revelation, and his resemblance to the chiseled, young Clint Eastwood was duly noted.

Looking like a still-living screen icon is not necessarily a wonderful thing (no one who “looks like Tom Cruise” has been helped by it), but this comparison benefited Hugh Jackman greatly, because he may look a bit like Clint Eastwood but he doesn’t seem like Clint Eastwood at all. The very similarity between them serves to point up the happily substantial difference. Where Eastwood looks on screen as if he is forever biting some invisible bullet, Jackman looks, even when effectively menacing his fellows with steel claws, to be at most seconds away from some solidly affable demeanor. Where Eastwood radiates the uncompromising Mars side of the I’m-from-Mars-You’re-from-Venus equation so intensely that you suspect no real interplanetary travel is possible, Jackman comes across as the dignified but enthusiastic Martian ambassador to Venus.

Many female moviegoers caught Jackman for the first time in the Christmas chick flick Kate and Leopold. It’s understandable that up until then they’d missed someone they were destined to adore. X-Men‘s massive box office constituency was not primarily female– most of the tickets were bought by nerd-boys. Someone Like You was sunk commercially by Ashley Judd’s attempt to be Meg Ryan. Swordfish was just big and stupid. Kate and Leopold was in a sense Jackman’s debut film, and it was a most fortuitous entrance. Playing a progressive 19th-century aristocrat on a rabbit-hole adventure in 21st-century Manhattan, he was able to be courtly but accessible, dashing but self-effacing, romantic but supremely masculine. As Leopold Alexis Elijah Walker Gareth Thomas Mountbatten, he sent a wave of welcoming erotic affection through female moviegoers. Here was fluff whipped into shape by an actor with the technical finesse to make girl-fantasy silliness work, the masculine aura to make mannered behavior alluring and the low-key charm to make ravishing good looks seem compatible with basic niceness.

It’s not an accident that the current wave of masculine charisma on the big screen has a distinct Down Under quality to it. It isn’t just Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman following in Mel Gibson’s footsteps–there are Heath Ledger, Guy Pearce, Simon Baker and others. The cultural milieu these guys come out of clearly hasn’t dealt in the genderized navel-gazing and political placation that American males have been encouraged by their society to pursue. And so, perversely enough, though not surprisingly, American women love these un-browbeat specimens. American men like them too, and Hugh Jackman is the best example of why. Jackman is so good at his job he makes it look easy–men like that. He’s physically handsome and strong, but he seems to know he’s lucky in the DNA department and you’d never believe he’d cultivated his look in a mirror. Hugh Jackman makes it seem possible, even in this new century, to be that thing which is constantly undergoing redefinition but can only bear so much of it–a man. And not just a man, but a good man.


Clive Owen is the minimalist’s sex symbol–his ability to invite erotic attention by doing almost nothing is uncanny. Even now he may be best known as the thoroughly anonymous “driver” in that cool series of Internet films/commercials directed by stylishly selected auteurs for BMW, and that is appropriate. It deals in and depends on edgy mystique, which its unknown star–the oxymoron is the message–exudes (Owen plays a similar character, an unfeeling assassin, in The Bourne Identity). David Fincher, whose company produced BMW’s little coup, knew an actor who could conjure whole worlds of postmodern noir when he saw one, and he saw one in Croupier, the film that quietly introduced Owen to American audiences. It was a movie that banked 100 percent on its leading man and gave him, in his role as a self-involved writer turned card dealer, no fireworks to set off, just minute-by-minute of close-up screen time and voiceover to inform us of such things as, “I’m not an enigma, I’m a contradiction.” Enigma, contradiction, sure; we’ll ponder the distinction as long as it calls for us to keep looking at him. Owen is so interestingly cold you can’t help getting yourself tangled up in ideas about what might warm him.

Owen’s masculine underplay works like a charm because his subtle register of expression and gesture withholds any apparent wish to charm–this in a profession that is ever so desperate to charm. Little wonder he was the ultimate saving grace in the almost too-charming British comedy dedicated to the notion of the redemptive power of gardening, Greenfingers. Playing an emotionally battened-down prisoner given new inner life by unexpected horticultural success with a packet of flower seeds, Owen was required to play a man transformed from a state of defeated hostility to one of romantic vulnerability in less than two hours. There are many formulaic ways to do this without being very convincing on either end of the spectrum, but Owen refrained from all of them, finding fresh means of sidestepping the sentimentality that the material all but begged for.

Owen’s dramatic thrift must owe quite a lot to his particular nature, but it must reflect an acquired wisdom about his own face as well. Quite an involving face this is, reconciling, as it does, slight hints of Mel Gibson’s stunning looks with the cruder handsomeness of Dylan McDermott. Like McDermott, he works well on TV–in the British series “Second Sight,” which played on PBS in America– where the blunt clarity of his features seals the viewer off from distractions that usually plague TV watching.

The much-admired Gosford Park owes its entire erotic tick to Owen. He is, of course, with Helen Mirren, the big dramatic secret of the piece, but long before we’ve been clued into that, he’s taken over the proceedings from the sidelines by saying little and provoking our curiosity. In Gosford Park, though, Owen shows an intensified, cameo version of what he’s suggested elsewhere–the presence of a secret agenda that it’s our pleasure to uncover. As Robert Parks, he is a man of self-defining purpose in the guise of a servant following orders. The hidden decisiveness is silently attractive, and we can’t help being gratified when it expresses itself briefly in a stolen kiss. That is precisely what one hopes from an actor who keeps a lid on the obvious while letting mystery roil under the surface–that the ultimate objective of the thief we fear he is will be stealing kisses.


The very fact that Viggo Mortensen has been around Hollywood since the early ’80s without breaking into major stardom tells you a lot about his sort of sexual charisma. It’s derived from no obvious tradition of studliness, hunkiness or whatever other crude term covers the general phenomenon of broadly perceived male attractiveness. In fact, it defies those categories and doesn’t seem eager to promote itself at all. The mere sound of the name Viggo Mortensen hardly conjures up visions of beefcake to begin with. But here he is, well into his 40s, and suddenly his long-term cult following finds itself surrounded by a new fan contingent that thinks of Mortensen as the larger-than-life warrior Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

It would be instructive to look at Mortensen’s debut in Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness and his most recent performance, in The Lord of the Rings. Nobody ever seems to have mistaken this actor for an all-American type. In Witness, he was the open-faced, implicitly open-hearted younger brother of Amish farmer stud Alexander Godunov. His features were as clean and untrammeled as a new field of wheat and his eyes were so wide apart you could have driven an Amish buggy between them. Almost 20 years later, he has experience written on him, but he is equally of another time and mindset. Truth is, Mortensen’s unusual brand of attractiveness has always been so exotic, and in some ways so florid, that only roles that accommodate that weirdness work for him.

Over the years, Mortensen has been perceived by casting directors as so unlikely in the role of a mainstream character that his physical beauty was played for decadence. How could the future romantic warrior of The Lord of the Rings have been so misunderstood? Part of it is no doubt Mortensen’s own self-styled bohemianism–he’s a poet and a painter, he’ll have you know, and he’s not about to be your pinup. But a good part of it is also the physiognomy-is-destiny thing. This is not a Brad Pitt face or a Tom Cruise–it offers none of that reassurance. It looks almost as if it might have been created by a sculptor for the sheer outrageousness of putting these elements in proximity to one another.

One of the roles that best exploited the romantic/unsavory polarity in Mortensen’s screen persona was the 1998 film A Perfect Murder, in which he played the lover of a rich-girl beauty (Gwyneth Paltrow) unhappily married to older control freak Michael Douglas. Mortensen’s character starts out as the penniless artiste-lover that a blue-blood blonde might sin with, then turns out to be a con-man jailbird with flexible ideas about homicide. And even when you see the worst in him, you don’t wonder why Gwyneth spent her lunch hours at his loft. A far less objectionable, but equally illicit Mortensen played married woman Diane Lane’s free-love liberator in director Tony Goldwyn’s little gem A Walk on the Moon. This role may well have been a crucial turning point for Mortensen. For one thing, he was very good in it, but the important difference was that the extravagance of his romantic looks didn’t hide anything dark. He was a self-indulgent hippie, but he was a nice guy. He was good for Diane Lane.

The idea that a man who looks like Viggo Mortensen can be good for you is novel, but Hollywood seems to have accepted it. And now, having played a presence as a romantic and heroic figure in a mammoth hit like The Lord of the Rings, Mortensen is forever changed in the public imagination. Here he’s not merely good for someone, he’s good, period.


Posted on September 14, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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