(Originally posted September 22nd 2011)
There has been a quiet, but insistent cry behind casting here in the USA over the past ten years : “where are the American men?” It’s an interesting issue, and also quite a thorny one, too. So I want to throw out a few thoughts about it.
Firstly, let’s be clear – ‘man’ doesn’t mean either ‘misogynist’ or ‘instrument of death’. It is not ‘man’ in the David Mamet definition of the word. ‘Man’ is also not the opposite of ‘woman’. ‘Man’ does not have to mean ‘antagonist to woman’. Instead, I’m interested in ‘man’ as defined as ‘movie star’, in the sense that Paul Newman was a star, or James Dean, or Steve McQueen. ‘Movie star’ also implies ‘hero’ or ‘male ingénue’, which is separate from a so-called ‘character actor’ (Phillip Seymor-Hoffman [author note : this was written before Mr Seymor-Hoffman's tragic death in 2014] is a great example of an exceptional American character actor). And ‘ingénue’ does not mean ‘meathead’. They must be able to both carry a movie and carry the audience’s empathy.
A male ingénue must also be under 30. So, for the purposes of my post, I am ruling out Jonny Depp, Leo DiCaprio, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and their peers. Being a male ingénue necessitates youth, which in turn can mean inexperience. Having the right balance of vitality and experience to carry a film is tough. It is hardly a surprise there are only a few actors in the world who can fit the bill. That hasn’t changed. Nonetheless, the ‘hero’ as archetype in movies is still a trope that requires a voice. ‘Hero’ does not have to mean ‘man’, of course. Nor should it. But it would be valuable for the voice of a ‘hero’ to at least have the option of being male. Finally, if the movie is American, it might also be nice to have an American male capable of voicing that role.
Every year tens of thousands of guys decide to become actors. Some go to LA or NYC, some go to university acting programs, some make a movie right away, some use the connections they already have and some go into a related field and build a pathway towards a career in acting. So there is a lotof choice for casting directors. But from what I hear, and from what I read, casting directors are finding it harder and harder to find an American actor to play a ‘hero’. How hard can it really be to find an American leading man?
‘Exhibit A’ to the disappearance of the American leading actor is almost every superhero/comic book movie made in the last 5 years. Batman, the new Superman, the new Spiderman, Wolverine, Conan, Thor, Magneto, Professor X, the 300 – all foreign. Captain America actually had to enforce a restriction on foreign actors from being considered for the leading role. As if it were a presidential race.This trend prompted an interesting article in New York Magazine examining the phenomena. But it left a number of gaping blindspots in the argument. The first one is the omission of actors of color. While Leonardo diCaprio struggled to leave behind his boyish looks, Denzel Washington was immediately able to fill the shoes of a ‘hero’. He just wasn’t considered to be ‘like’ Leo, casting wise. A more recent example would be Anthony Mackie, who has proven his capability for playing a ‘hero’. However, the industry blinds itself to actors like this, even in 2011. ‘Hero’, therefore, becomes partly a question of race.
Television fares a little better with leading American males. Joe Manganiello and Matt Bomer (go Tartans!) are both mentioned in the NYM article. But that also reveals another ‘blindspot’ to their argument. There are many capable young leading actors of color who could be cast, but instead lots of older white men are cast. John Hamm, Brian Cranston, Mark Harmon, Timothy Olyphant, Charlie Sheen/Ashton Kutchner and pretty much any lead of a CSI franchise are all doing fine as ‘heroes’. But they’re all in the forties, at least. ‘Quirky’ guys can also do very well on television and can carry a show. However, ‘quirky’ can also occasionally used as a pseudonym for ‘gay’. Neil Patrick Harris can boost the ratings of anything he appears on, and the success of Glee and Big Bang Theory must be taken into consideration. But this point reveals another oversight of the NYM article, because what they mean by ‘leading actor’ is ‘straight leading actor’. You can be a leading man on tv if you are gay, just don’t act gay….
So perhaps the real cry of casting directors is “where are the young, straight, white American leading men?” But that sounds offensive when you articulate it like that. Fewer groups are more empowered in 2011 America than young, straight, white men. So maybe we need to delve into who is consuming popular media, and what do they want to see. A far more insightful article circling this subject peaked my interest this week. It’s focused on the changing ‘positioning’ of women in television. Author Hannah Rosin points out that the emphasis for this fall season is on empowered women and pathetic men. By ‘pathetic’ men, I mean men who overstate their manliness, though are consistently subjugated by their wives/girlfriends. This plays on two tropes that are tired : posturing misogynists and ‘whip-cracking’, ball-busting women who seek to control their men. But looking at the schedule for the tv season this fall, that is where the money has gone. We’ve freed ourselves, it seems, from someof the institutional misogyny of television’s past. And yet it has left an undeniable gap in the storytelling landscape.
This gap is not unrelated to the arguments being made about American men in film. Because it is not only superhero movies that are hunting for leading American men. Director Gavin O’Connor recently spoke of his casting process for Warrior. Ultimately, he cast two foreign actors (Tom Hardy & Joel Edgerton) in the leading roles. He justified this decision by stating that the demands of these particular roles were clearly not within the skillset of American actors. He had no problem casting an American as the patriarchal father (Nick Nolte), though. Probably because Nolte is older, and older white guys in leading roles is not a situation Hollywood is going to alter anytime soon. But the younger male roles were a problem, and this is something I’d like to pull apart and examine.
What does O’Connor mean when he states that the “demands of these particular roles” were beyond the skillset of an American actor? Given that the movie is set in and around the world of Mixed Martial Arts, I presume he means that America doesn’t have a handsome, tough and emotionally complex actor who can be convincing. The expression ‘triple threat’ has been used for actors in this country for a long time, and it refers to ‘acting’, ‘singing’ and ‘dancing’. Maybe in 2011 the ‘new’ triple threat for a young, straight, white male is being handsome, tough and emotionally complex? Plenty of actors today are one or two of these – Jessie Eisenberg is emotionally complex and arguably handsome, ‘The Rock’ is tough, Shia Labeouf is… well, he’s in movies that are financially very successful… I simply cannot believe that there are no American actors capable of tackling roles that require a ‘triple threat’. Too many actors are out there. This is also hardly a ‘new’ issue. Remember that it was a Canadianand then a Brit who captained the Starship Enterprise. Instead, it is we the consumers who don’t want there to be any young, white, straight leading men. I don’t want to dwell on why that is, though my first instinct is to say that many of us hardly see ourselves as young, white, straight men with a ‘triple threat’. We therefore find it hard to empathize with anyone who is. Perhaps these male ‘ingénues’ are a symbol of a sordid past of sexist, racist, homophobic entertainment? Or perhaps they return us to our own sordid past of being bullied in school (is it just me or does every star in entertainment right now have stories of how they were unpopular in school and bullied? Why is everyone so keen to victimize themselves for an audience?). The consumer for American entertainment, for better or worse, has been cast in a role, too : outsider. Geek, nerd, weirdo, wimp, brainiac, stoner, goth… the list goes on and on. I think an American audience wants representation in what they watch, rather than just archetypes to aspire to (or perhaps accept that they are?).
The last strand of this issue I want to reference is an actor close to my heart – Ryan Gosling. He’s Canadian, so I can swell with pride for that. He’s also a hell of an actor. His work in The Notebook is often reduced to little more than that of ‘heartthrob’. What that accusation really means, though, is that his work in The Notebook is only as good as people who like the movie. In an article for The Atlantic, those people are apparently “13 year old girls” having “sleepovers”. The article is titled Ryan Gosling is Not a Movie Star, and it addresses my final point about a supposed ‘lack’ of American young ingénues. The article’s author asserts that Ryan Gosling and the publicity surrounding him may beinsisting that he is a star, but he really isn’t. Ryan Reynolds has been accused of the same thing. Ray Gustini dismantles Gosling’s career to quippy one-liners, dismissing his work in Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl, and even Blue Valentine. It also dismisses his work in Drive, which Gustini seems to insist is a great movie in spite of Gosling’s performance.
What is so revealing about the article, though, is Gustini’s resentment that Gosling could be (or may already be) a ‘movie star’. And I interpret his use of the term ‘movie star’ as meaning ‘young, white, straight leading actor’. I don’t think Gustini wants anyone like Gosling to be a movie star. It isn’t justthat he’s Canadian (though that is also lampooned and condescended to in the article), it isn’t just that he’s the ‘triple threat’ I spoke of earlier (though the writer denies Gosling is capable of emotional complexity), it isn’t just that he’s had a diverse career that has included a few very successful and critically acclaimed movies – it is in fact all of those things. “Here”, writes Gustini “[is] Hollywood’s long-awaited blond, hunky savior, custom-built for prime placement on freeway billboards.” But Gustini simply refuses to accept that fact, and denies Gosling’s skill, career and track record. I’m sure Gustini would argue he is asserting that the ‘Emperor has no clothes’. But this particular ‘Emperor’ does have clothes. He just doesn’t have the clothes the writer wants him to have. Gosling is a movie star, if you will let him be.
For the past 50 years, ‘foreigners’ in American movies usually meant one of two things – an exotic love interest (female) or a villain (male). British actors playing bad guys for years didn’t seem to upset critics that much. These British actors were also taking away jobs from thousands of perfectly qualified American actors, and usually they were taking the best written roles (as villains frequently are). However, now that foreign actors are taking leading male roles, the issue is suddenly being fretted over. My appeal is to stop blaming the actors, their generation, their training, their parenting or their country of birth. The problem is the audience and what they want to see. What they won’t look at or aren’t looking at (leading actors of color, gay actors, foreign actors who are clearly stars and even American leading men) are just waiting to solve the supposed ‘problem’ of fewer American ‘triple threats’. Will you let them?