NO MAN’S LAND
Young guns were once the toast of Hollywood. Now, they are an endangered species. Where is film’s new generation of leading men, asks Rosemary Neill
When the first Twilight film premiered in Sydney in 2008, the opening night screening had overtones of the Beatlemania that erupted around the Fab Four’s tour of Australia decades before. Teenage girls and young, welldressed women dominated the audience. While they weren’t dissolving in tears or passing out as the Beatles’ fans did back in 1964, there was a similar release of pent-up emotion as newly minted screen heart-throb Robert Pattinson made his debut as Edward Cullen.
Cullen is the 108-year-old vampire who will always seem 17, and looking pale and aloof with his James Dean quiff and those transgressively pointy teeth, Pattinson didn’t have to do much to get a reaction from his infatuated fans. I still vividly remember the collective scream that went up when the model minority vampire — he and his otherworldly kin drink the blood of animals rather than humans — removed his sunglasses. This apparently shriek-worthy act revealed Cullen’s unnaturally bright brown eyes, set above cheek bones so high you could bungee jump from them.
As is well known, the Twilight franchise is a lucrative Hollywood vampire romance based on Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling novels. Running to five films, the series has grossed more than $US3 billion internationally. At one point, it saw Pattinson become the biggest drawcard for young female cinemagoers since a baby-faced Leonardo di Caprio stopped Kate Winslet’s troubled society girl jumping off the aft deck in Titanic.
But for the British actor, who was just 22 when the first Twilight film was released, this adoration has not translated into long-term leading man status. Outside the franchise, he has appeared in mostly art-house films ( The Rover, Maps to the Stars) without coming close to reprising the fame he enjoyed as the vampire who falls for the sullen, mildly alienated teenager Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). Indeed, a recent article published on The Vulture website revealed that male respondents to the site’s e-polls were “utterly repulsed’’ by actors (like Pattinson and Zac Efron) who had vaulted to stardom in franchises aimed at young, predominantly female audiences.
Some of those hostile respondents may have been trolls. Nevertheless, Pattinson’s sharp detour into the auteur scene highlights a puzzling 21st-century trend: Hollywood’s inability to produce a new generation of young male superstars (especially homegrown stars), even though the industry relies heavily on the same male demographic for its largest box office returns.
George. Tom. Brad. Denzel. Leonardo. In their mega buck-earning heyday, these leading men combined chiselled good looks with empathy and star power — a quality at once hard to pin down and palpable — whether they were playing a cocky navy jet pilot (Cruise in Top Gun) or mashing up a bleached blonde surfer look with androgynous thigh-high leather boots (Pitt in Troy).
Di Caprio was just 22 when he (reluctantly at first) signed up for Titanic, which was released in 1997 and became the highest-grossing film to that point. Cruise was 24 when he starred as a maverick pilot in Top Gun, which, against expectations, became the biggest earning film of 1986. A 27-year-old Pitt was sporting a cowboy hat when he flaunted his toned, shirtless torso in front of an appreciative female global audience, in his breakthrough role in 1991’s Thelma & Louise. In contrast, in the US today, there is talk of a drought of leading men under 40 (combined with unease at the invasion of British and Australian actors showing the Yanks how it’s done). In July, The Atlantic published an article titled “The Decline of the American Actor’’, which asked why “the under-40s generation of leading men in the US is struggling’’.
The Vulture website concurred that in contrast to the proliferation of young female stars (Jennifer Lawrence, Saoirse Ronan, Bel Powley, Elle Fanning) in recent or forthcoming movies, “it’s starting to feel like we’re in the middle of a pretty severe young-actor drought’’. The site conducted a survey of Oscar nominees aged 25 or under from the past decade, and discovered a stark gender imbalance — in favour of actresses. While 15 young women, including Emma Stone, Lawrence and Keira Knightley, received Academy Award nominations between 2005 and 2014, only three young men achieved this. Two of them (Ryan Gosling and our own Heath Ledger) were non-Americans.
Writer Kyle Buchanan commented: “Over the last decade, Hollywood has failed to grow a new crop of young leading men like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Gosling, all of whom were Oscar-nominated for 25and-under roles that helped establish them as the standard-bearers of their generation.’’ He concluded: “It’s clearly a boom time for acclaimed ingenues, but young men aren’t holding up their end of the bargain.’’
Of course, the dominance of actresses aged under 25 in Oscar nominations also reflects the paucity of decent roles for older women. Make no mistake: Although younger women are having a reasonable run in the film colony (especially in franchise and ensemble action movies), the time-honoured Hollywood tradition of hitching a fresh-faced beauty to an actor who could pass for her favourite uncle, shows no sign of fading. In the 2011 action film Unknown, Liam Neeson, then in his late 50s, was married to 33-year-old January Jones. Two years on, in Third Person, the hyperactive Irish sexagenarian was paired with 29-yearold Olivia Wilde. As one blogger wryly noted, that’s virtually a full January Jones between them.
While Hollywood’s distaste for middleaged actresses is almost a given, the shortage of young, bankable male stars seems surprising, counterintuitive even. So what is fuelling this trend? Two-time Oscar winner Michael Douglas reckons there is a “crisis in young American actors right now”. The Hollywood veteran has said a younger generation of Americans obsessed with social media and self-image have ceded coveted roles to nonAmericans, including Australians. “Everyone’s much more image conscious than they are (passionate) about actually playing the part,” Douglas said in an interview with Britain’s The Independent newspaper earlier this year. While the British “take their training seriously’’, Aus-