Maybe this thinking is as old as “leading man” itself. But for anybody clinging to the old definition, Tom Cruise appears eager to cling with you. Not too long ago, I walked into Times Square, looked up — way up — and saw him on one of those wraparound billboards. He was looking very Tom — the mussed, inexplicably dark hair; the sunglasses; the mouth open somewhere between smile and smirk. There’s a plane doing something to his right and maybe somebody with a gun. I don’t know, because all you’re supposed to see is Tom Cruise, a man, leading.
I wanted to laugh — the movie is called “American Made.” But I just stood there and took a moment to feel sad. How haven’t we run out of words to jam “American” in front of? And who else would be responsible for those teeth, for all that coiled up youthfulness? I don’t know what “American Made” is about, either — it looks vaguely action-oriented with a dash of the immorality that never scares Leonardo DiCaprio, and a squirt of political comedy. Whatever it is, Tom Cruise really wants you to see him do it.
The man on that billboard also really wants you to believe in him. He hasn’t stopped, so why should you? But I saw him in “The Mummy” a few months ago. So I don’t know what to believe. The mummy was the villain. But the mummy also felt like Tom Cruise. He’s clinging because he’s a traditionalist at a moment in which tradition feels antiquated. Leading women at Mr. Cruise’s level aren’t so clingy this way. They can’t be.
Julia Roberts recently sealed deals to star in series for HBO and Amazon. She hasn’t been near the shrinking center of American movies for years, and yet her joining the armada of film people who act on streaming shows and cable seems less like hopping on a bandwagon and more like proof of a kind of demise, not of the movies, per se, but of a particular kind of persona-driven stardom that’s the only language a guy like Tom Cruise speaks.
There are alternatives — actors can find a home between the responsibilities of leading man-dom and the freedom to disrupt that responsibility. Maybe it feels good to see a guy like Jake Gyllenhaal mess around with the rules a little bit. He manages to work as a movie star, a character actor and some kind of leading man. In 18 months, I’ve seen him as a cracked-up investment banker (“Demolition”), a doctor in outer space trying to kill a people-eating science experiment (“Life”), and both an emotionally tortured writer and the writer’s physically tortured protagonist (“Nocturnal Animals”). He took a small, flashy part in “Okja” as the nervous, nutty host of an animal-centric TV show and, on Broadway, continued his double-role habit as the painter Seurat and his great-grandson in the musical “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Mr. Gyllenhaal works a lot. And he works hard. You’re happy to see him because what you’re seeing is a commitment to several different ways of being an actor — sometimes in the same performance. He’s too restless to remain a leading man for long, and he seems too embarrassed by stardom to do much flirting with it. “Okja” also happens to have an out-there part for Tilda Swinton (two, in fact!). Gonzo comes naturally to her. Mr. Gyllenhaal’s lunatics tend to seem like they’re doing research on lunacy, like the psychotic cameraman he played in the 2014 “Nightcrawler.”
Losing himself is an act before it’s an art. You admire what he’s doing. You just might not feel anything. Sometimes what you see from Mr. Gyllenhaal doesn’t differ too much from what you see from Tom Cruise, and what you see is the work — how hard it is. These are two men who appear to care so much about what they’re doing that they need you to know how much they care. So the care is all you see. This fall Mr. Gyllenhaal is going to show up in “Stronger,” a drama about Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing.
This kind of role — one of those triumphs of the human spirit — makes it hard to see the tribute for the stunt. Vanity is the risk. But prizes are a reward. The reason, of course, never to give up on Mr. Gyllenhaal is the reason not to abandon Mr. Cruise: You never know. They do manage to surprise you. The hard work can work on you.
But a movie like “Stronger” — regardless of its merits — makes me feel a little bad for the Jake Gyllenhaals of the world. There are a lot of us in the audience, at the studios and in the academy who suspect that the best acting involves the most suffering.
Where does that leave acting that involves none? Where does that leave, say, Chris Hemsworth, the Australian who for years has been playing the Norse god Thor as a Shakespearean Brit? The part has never looked like heavy lifting for him. But it’s taken a handful of tries, in his own franchise and as part of an overloaded ensemble in “The Avengers,” to figure out how to have some fun with it. He started off doing bad fish-out-water stuff. It was the kind of “I’m a thespian” acting you might try if Anthony Hopkins were playing your immortal father.
Gradually, though, Mr. Hemsworth was allowed to cut down on the piety and self-seriousness so that, maybe, by the time “Thor: Ragnarok” opens in November, what’s left is a leading-man foundation that takes him from subpar Laurence Olivier to peak Charlton Heston or Mel Gibson. The comic book movie isn’t where you’d think to go for updates on the health of the leading man. But that’s where the men are winding up: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Ben Affleck, Will Smith, Ryan Reynolds, Benedict Cumberbatch and so on.
News like that — that men are now only leading in comic-book franchises — might be part of what’s driving some major actors to streaming. But unlike most of those other actors, who’ve brought their stardom to bear on masks and capes and facial scarring, Mr. Hemsworth is more a star as Thor than he is playing anybody else. And yet if you’re having a good time watching his Thor, it’s probably because he’s having a good time playing superheroism for laughs. It’s prefab-franchise work whose continuum belongs more to the Marvel Universe than to Hollywood. Mr. Hemsworth, though, appears to be coming to life in this one part, doing work that’s harder to discern and applaud. His is a current model of movie stardom that’s diminished but not without common sense, too. Why buy into your own leading-man persona when you can just rent Thor’s?
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