Arnie meet Toby


Tobey Maguire very nearly didn’t get the Spider Man role. Studio chiefs said the star of The Cider House Rules and Wonder Boys was too little, too mild.

Maguire’s rise to action star marks something like a trend in Hollywood, a changing of the guard.

The old action star was Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, and Russell Crowe, men of what the New York Times calls a “glinty gaze and an imposing physique.”

The new generation is inclined to “limpid stares and wiry frames.” Maguire’s contemporaries include Jake Gyllenhall, Christian Bale, Orlando Bloom, and Ryan Gosling. According to the NYT, the “he-man” is being replaced by “sensitive guys.”


It may be that this development has been in the works for some time. We might see Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio as transitional figures. Not an imposing physique among them.

These three can actually act and there was perhaps too little joy or challenge in the typical action hero role. It’s hard to imagine Schwarznegger in any of the roles performed by Depp or Di Caprio. His only hope of stardom was action adventure. But when the producers had chops, they had options. They wanted more interesting projects, and Hollywood obliged them.

This may be driven by the consumer side. Hollywood fans have become more sophisticated, and they are inclined to mock the old genres. The “irony” generation was perhaps too savvy to look at Schwarzenegger and Stallone with hero worship. The action adventure is a mythic construction and if you don’t buy the myth, you don’t buy the hero.

This could be driven by the administration side and the new influence of women in Hollywood: Amy Pascal at Sony, Nina Jacobson at Disney, Stacey Snider at Universal, Sherry Lansing at Paramount. These executives have created what Peter Guber calls a “leavening of the testosterone effect.” (And isn’t this what the feminists said would happen when “women rule the world?”)

This could be driven by a shifting of the tectonic plates of culture. As we have noted in this blog, women appear to be resetting their sexuality (The anthropology and economics of the bare mid riff). Perhaps men in Hollywood are doing the same. This could mark the beginning of a new era of gender rapprochement.

But the oddest part of this story is that the transition is partly driven by a problem of supply. Hollywood simply can’t find old model males. The NYT quotes the casting director, Debra Zane as saying, “They are always looking for the macho man, but they are pulling from the more overtly sensitive and more emotionally available [type], because that’s what there is right now.”

This is a puzzle. Surely, Hollywood is in the enviable position of being able to draw from a vast range of talent, people who are prepared to work as waiters and brick layers, waiting for their “big break.” This is a tournament model in which the rewards of success are so great (potentially $20 million a picture) that contestants are prepared to risk everything to stay in play. Apparently, would be action stars folded their tents and left the jousting ground.

Hollywood has solved this problem by going off shore. Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Colin Farrell are all foreign nationals. (And I thought this was just a “call center” issue.) There was one local contestant, Vin Deisel, but this guy makes Arnie look like Gieldgud, and his career is now spluttering.

I think this might reflect a change in the industry. Action stars are actually best when bad actors. When playing out the requirements of this mythic form, talent actually gets in the way. (The actor should be smaller than the role, not bigger. Modesty of talent insures this.)

Hollywood, in spite of its best efforts, is getting better. Everyone is smarter and more talented, the directors, the writers, the actors and the casting agents. There are untalented actors out there, but they just can’t get in. As a result of some kind of Gladwellian tipping point, the dynamics of Hollywood have reversed themselves. Good is now driving out bad.


Gladwell, Malcolm. 2000. The tipping point: how little things can make a big difference. Boston: Little, Brown.

Waxman, Sharon. 2004. Hollywood’s He-Men Are Bumped by Sensitive Guys. The New York Times. July 1, 2004.

21 thoughts on “Arnie meet Toby

  1. Steve Portigal

    No mention of Michael Keaton as Batman? That was the first casting decision from the era described that seemed to challenge the status quo. Every frothy article about the choice (and the unhappiness of Comic Book Guys everywhere) mentioned his lack of “square jaw.”

  2. Grant

    I should be sending you my posts before I post them. You are exactly right and I think we may treat Keaton as another transitional figure. Thanks, Grant

  3. gary

    Good call, Steve.
    Remember also the ‘softening up’ of Michael Keaton as Mr Mom, Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire, and Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie.

    The only hit I can think of portraying women as men was Victor, Victoria.

    We seem pleased to have more feminine men. Of course, go to any Parents Without Partners shindig and watch the women leave with truck driver/cowboy types.

    You can win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.

  4. gary

    That should be, “You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.”

  5. Tyler Durden

    “We might see Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio as transitional figures. Not an imposing physique among them.”

    Uh… dude? I don’t mean to sound gay, but did you see Pitt in Fight Club? I wouldn’t exactly characterize his physique as unimposing.

  6. LK

    nice work tyler. i would add that perhaps the transition grant writes of is related to the heterosexualizing of the “gay gene”. you can be totally straight and still have the gay gene…i.e. know what’s cool before it’s cool, know which belt to pick, know how to tap into the way people other than sports fans think, etc… not so much the softer side, but the smarter, more agile side (the way i see it anyway). those actors who are unafraid to access this side and/or incorporate it into their persona and person increase their value in the marketplace. attractive is finally about more than the ability to kick the crap out of thugs, mutant aliens, and each other. and not a moment too soon.

  7. Grant

    Tyler, good point, I thought someone was going to object to the suggestion that he could act, and was preparing “Fight Club” as my case in point. But isn’t still true that Brad, while muscular, isn’t bulked up. Lean and mean, not brawny.

    Leora, yes, there was something “overdetermined” about the old model, a restricted range of what could plausibly be said and done. You wouldn’t expect Arnie to be witty and the idea of him having to dance anything other than ballroom was too terrifying to think about. But then again some people find safety in a narrow range…but it doesn’t do anything to maximize the complex adaptive system.

    Thanks, Grant

  8. ss

    It’s possible that America is starting to treat male beauty like female beauty, the younger and thinner the better. I agree with Leonora, in that witty is cool and cool is attractive. Look at the cast of the OC. When else in recent pop culture could Adam Brody become a sex icon?

  9. Grant

    SS, yes, that’s one of the arguments, that our response to feminism was not to stop turning women into sexual objects, but to make men sexual objects too. It is a kind of equity. And it may be one of the things that provoked that Hip Hop hyper masculinity. Thanks, Grant

  10. Grant

    Is no one going to point out that one of the posts above, the one about Brad Pitt in Fight Club, is signed Tyler Durden. This is the first time this blog has had a visit from a fictional character. (Tyler Durden is of course one of the creatures in Fight Club.) I wish to extend this welcome to all movie characters to continue reading and to make free with their comments. Grant

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  12. Kevin Robinson

    I think that you are overthinking this. One good reason to cast a Toby-type as Peter Parker/Spider-Man is because he does, in fact, have the body type that Steve Ditko drew in the first 38 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man. “Puny” Parker, as his high school nemesis, jock “Flash” Thompson liked to call him, was a spindly runt. Now, when 4-F volunteer Steve Rogers took the super-soldier serum back before Pearl Harbor, to become Captain America, Jack Kirby drew him as transforming from a whisp of a guy into an Adonis. Stan Lee and Ditko turned the cliche on its head, by having the newly super-powered wallcrawler maintain his wiry physique. It fit the spider theme better, anyway.

    Over the years, under the ministrations of later artists – notably love comics veteran John Romita, Sr., Pete fleshed out. He graduated high school, and eventually college, ditched his no longer needed glasses, and was increasingly drawn, as many comics heroes are, as a clothed David out of Bridgman’s Anatomy. Occasionally artists who were influenced by Ditko – Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane – would restore a lean, gangly look to Spidey, to the delight of older readers, if not the younger ones.

    The truly amazing thing is that Hollywood did not demand that a Vin Diesel type be cast as Spider-Man, or someone any more bulked up than Ben Afflek as Daredevil.

    That Spider-Man seemed normal-sized to young readers brought up on the chiseled-from-stone depiction of Superman, as produced by Joe Shuster’s successor, Wayne Boring, was certainly part of his appeal. Superman readers may have been more inclined to seek an ideal as a hero-figure, while fans of the webspinner identified more with a growing, changing adolescent.

    (Just discovered this blog, due to a Reason – Hit & Run link. Very interesting stuff.)


  13. Gabriel Rossman

    I would suggest a supply side factor: computer graphics. CGI, together with Hong Kong influences, has changed the action film’s focus from power to agility. It is easier to imagine a little guy having the latter than the former.

  14. Grant

    Gabrielle, Excellent. The words Arnie and agility will never appear in the same sentence (again). Thanks, Grant

  15. Grant

    Kevin, I really hate it when the details get in the way. But thank you. I will take this as a mark of the maturation of popular culture. Collectively, we know it down to the ground. Thanks for a superb post. And for spoiling the fun! What, he says, somewhat plaintively, about the larger argument? Best, Grant

  16. Kevin Robinson


    Thanks for the reply. imagine my chagrin when I realized that I was giving a (COMICS) a comics art history lesson to an art history prof! I can barely tell my Botticelli from my vermicelli. But I do know what Spider-Man should look like. When John Romita was acting as art director at Marvel, he often had to rein in artists who drew Spidey on too-heroic proportions, and make corrections.

    “SPURGEON: Was every change you made directly from Stan, or had you internalized what Stan wanted and made changes yourself on that basis?

    ROMITA: Every single one from Stan. I never changed — I’ll rescind that. I changed a Spider-Man figure on an artist I won’t mention. [Laughter.] Because he had the arms and legs so long it was ludicrous. I had to cut a half inch out of each arm and each leg.

    SPURGEON: Was that Gil Kane?

    ROMITA: No. But I will tell you that yes, Gil Kane used to make Spider-Man six foot five. My answer to that was that I would make his head bigger, so he would look five foot ten. That I did. But that was not a knock at his artwork. That was a knock at his characterization.”

    John Romita Interviewed by Tom Spurgeon, excerpted from The Comics Journal
    #252 found @

    As for action heroes in the films, I’m no expert, but there seems to have developed a trend, over time, of replacing muscle-men who had been taught to “act” with actors who adopt their physique to a role. “Buster” Crabbe and Johnny Weismuller are examples of the first, as was Steve (Hercules) Reeves. When it came time to cast Superman in the late 1970’s, Richard Donner and the Salkinds chose a little known stage actor with one film under his belt who looked the part of Clark Kent, and put him through weight training to fit the tights. By 1980’s Raging Bull, Robert DeNiro was willing to train up to a standard that made him believable as Jake LaMotta at his championship best, and to also gain considerable as the overweight retired version. Advances in personal training have become so commonplace that even an actress who depends on her beauty the way Charlize Theron does will put on weight and muscle for a part, such as her Oscar-winning turn in Monster. She took the weight off and looks as gorgeous as ever. Sly Stallone fattened up for Cop Land, then hit the gym after it wrapped. Even Maguire slimmed down for Seabiscuit and shaped up for Spiderm-Man 2.

    ISTM that directors would sooner find an actor they trust can pull off a role with some substance, and expect them to show up for shooting looking the part. There is still a place for the hunky looking actor, but it helps if they have some onscreen spark. The “next Arnold” is generally thought to be
    Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, WWE wrestling great and star of The Scorpion King and of the Walking Tall remake.

    I agree with Gabrielle about the HK and CGI effects. But we are indeed living in a new world, where Hugh Jaclman can play the built, near-homicidal Canucklehead, Wolverine, then win a Tony by playing Peter Allen!


  17. Grant

    Wonderfully said, again. And not to worry. I teach in an Art History department but I am a lowly anthropologist.

    Yes, I think the willingness of actors to transform themselves for the role (DeNiro and Theron) shows not so much a selflessness as an artist interest in going where the role takes them AND the larger motive for much of our transformations, curiosity. What WOULD it be like that to be like that. And what they can’t manage on their own is enhanced, as Gabrielle points out, by CGI. Now the audience member has the possibility of identification strengthened (always tough in Arnie’s case) and our own transformational opportunities multiplied. And, yes, very good point on Jackson. Who would have guessed there was an actor with the transformational range to play both the Wolverine and Peter Allen…or that we as auditors would not put our foot down and say, “one or the other, buddy. Not both.” Thanks again, Grant

  18. steve

    The NY Times keeps writing this story and keeps ignoring Will Smith and Wesley Snipes and even Samuel Jackson–three action heroes who are pretty much in the all-American butt-kicking tradition but aren’t white. Vin Diesel and The Rock, racially ambiguous, also fit the traditional macho mold. What is happening is that the action genre has expanded so much (partly due to globalization of the market, because action travels internationally better than other genres), that there is room for guys like Matt Damon to get action roles.

    One geeky note: While Kevin is absolutely correct about the authenticity of a skinny Spider-Man, Tobey MacGuire’s quiet, wistful approach to Peter Parker seems to me a bit of a departure from the comics. Lee’s Peter Parker was whip-smart, wise-cracking, quick on the uptake, pretty aggressive, and prone more to bitterness than depression in the face of his conundrum. He had as much of a temper as a normal person, and his circumstances caused it to surface with some frequency (although he had considerable respect for his elders). Black humor was a primary coping mechanism.

    MacGuire’s version is more “sensitive”–his Peter Parker has the superhuman ability to melt the hearts of women with his air of vulnerability and unalloyed goodness. He comes off as more suffering and saintly than Lee’s original. It’s a great interpretation of the character, but I think it does support your original point about the feminization of the action hero a bit more than Kevin’s comment might imply.

  19. Grant

    Thank you, Steve. Splendid, as always. But does this trend mark a “feminization.” I think it might merely open up the cultural category “male” and define it with sufficient range that a guy in a flashy costume can have emotions as well as the ability to kick everybody’s ass. And it seems to me that Will Smith and the early Wesley Snipes had precisely this ability to travel a broader gender register. (The later Wesley went for something more monolithic and look where it got him!) In fact, I believe that Will Smith plays the gender registrer with something like the skill and versatility with which he plays the speech register. Men in Black has him “code-shifting” from Standard received American English to urban street so subtlety that we never say “hey, what just happened there?” The gendered and the linguistic shifting give him an ability to engage us intellectually and emotionally in any given action adventure AND it allows him to play other, broader parts. Poor Diesel and The Rock! These guys can’t even sustain the range needed to sustain a genre specific picture, let alone a career. Thoughts only. Thanks for the nuanced view of Spider Man. Was it everyone knows more about super heroes than me. Plainly, I read the wrong comic books. No, that’s not it. As I recall, my mother kept encouraging me to “go play in the traffic.” Thanks, Grant

  20. Pavel Mao

    The continuing epidemic of obesity in America could wipe out many of the recent improvements in health within the next 20 years, according to a new U.S. analysis released on Tuesday.

    If Americans continue to get fatter at current rates, by 2020 about one in five health-care dollars spent on people aged 50 to 69 could be due to obesity — 50 percent more than now, the Rand Corporation study found.

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