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.