David Poland has an interesting thread on his blog tied to his provocative Friday column about machismo – or, more specifically, the lack thereof – in this summer’s movies. To quote Poland: “The top five movies of this year are [movies with] male leads [played] by Tobey Maguire, Mike Myers, Johnny Depp, Shia LeBeouf, and Daniel Radcliffe. There might be plenty to love or lust at for any of these men, but machismo is not a part of the equation. They might outthink you, but don't expect to see a fist from a-one of them.”
Poland may have a point (though I would dispute his take on Maguire, if only on the strength of the actor's performance in Ride with the Devil.). But if he does, I would argue that the status quo Poland describes stems from a phenomenon that’s bigger than mere machismo, or the ability to look comfortable (and, more important, effortlessly authoritative) while handling guns. Rather, I would argue that there’s a dearth of contemporary actors in their 20s and 30s who have sufficient gravitas to be taken altogether seriously as…. well, adult males. Even when -- no, make that especially when -- it comes to something as seemingly simple as conveying sufficient self-assured virility to be believable as a grown-up romantic comedy lead.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with producer Lynda Obst just before the release of her How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. She noted that, as odd as it might sound, it was extremely difficult to cast the lead role in her movie, and that Matthew McConaughey – OK, go ahead and laugh if you insist – is one of only a handful of his contemporaries who could make the part work.
Now, remember, we’re not talking about a role of tremendous depth and complexity here. We’re talking about a part that, in his heyday as a rom-com lead, Rock Hudson could have played in his sleep. (Please spare me the closeted-gay jokes – go back and look at Pillow Talk and you’ll see what I mean.) As Obst said: “These days, the hardest thing about making romantic comedies is casting the guy. Casting the woman? Easy. But you always have the same scripts chasing the same six guys – most of whom can’t do it, won’t do it, are afraid to do it [my emphasis added], or can’t get hired by the studio.”
Don’t get me wrong: I think there are plenty of young guys out there right now who can kick ass as efficiently as Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne did in their respective primes. And I've been told by women whose opinion that I respect that Seth Rogan comes across as a cuddly teddy bear. But who among The New Breed is ready to play rakish charmers like Cary Grant or Clark Gable or even James Garner in modern-day rom-coms? Who could do sensitive-yet-substantial like James Stewart? What the hell, who’s got the chops to tackle the Rock Hudson roles? Keanu Reeves made a tentative move in that direction with the unfortunate Sweet November, but he’s over 40. So are George Clooney and John Cusack, two guys who can, when the spirit moves them, do light comedy with Old Hollywood flair. But as for those guys 39 or younger? Well, there’s Will Smith (though, age-wise, he just makes the cut). And maybe (no kidding) LL Cool J, yes, Matthew McConaughey. And…. ?