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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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-

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