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Discuss: Why Are There So Few Reliable Leading Men, And Who Might Yet Become One?

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 20, 2012 at 4:01PM

The box office is up in 2012, but of the ten biggest grossers of the year so far, only one, "Safe House" was sold on the back of an established A-list star, namely Denzel Washington. The rest, for the most part, featured total unknowns, or in the case of "Act of Valor," active Navy SEALs, rather than actors. This is not, it should be said, a new trend. From "Avatar" to "Star Trek," big movies have been shunning established names in the favor of new faces for quite a while. But it is indicative of a problem that Hollywood has been facing lately: a distinct lack of new leading men.
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Bale, Daniel Craig, Matt Damon and Hugh Jackman

The box office is up in 2012, but of the ten biggest grossers of the year so far, only one, "Safe House" was sold on the back of an established A-list star, namely Denzel Washington. The rest, for the most part, featured total unknowns, or in the case of "Act of Valor," active Navy SEALs, rather than actors. This is not, it should be said, a new trend. From "Avatar" to "Star Trek," big movies have been shunning established names in the favor of new faces for quite a while. But it is indicative of a problem that Hollywood has been facing lately: a distinct lack of new leading men.

As a New York Times piece pointed out recently, the true A-list movie stars are roughly the same now as they were nine or ten years ago: Washington, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio. Since then, Robert Downey Jr. has joined them, thanks to the success of the "Iron Man" and "Sherlock Holmes" franchises. Some, like Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler, are able to bring in the crowds, so long as they stick to comedy. But otherwise, few other actors seem to have joined the top level: people who are able to make a movie an event purely by their presence on the cast list.
   
As the grey lady's piece indicated, executives hope that an answer to their quandry lies in Channing Tatum, whose next picture, "21 Jump Street" followed his last, "The Vow" to the top of the box office. And crucially, it's a left-turn: from romantic drama to a film in which he gets to show both comedy and action chops. As Sony boss Amy Pascal says in the story, "Part of his appeal is old-fashioned movie star charisma — that ‘it factor’ that really is a real thing. But it’s more than that. He has now shown that he can hold a gun, kiss a girl and tell a joke. Most actors are lucky if they can believably do one of those.”

Whether Tatum turns out to be the bona-fide A-lister that many hope he'll be remains to be seen. But it seems like a good opportunity to examine stardom in 2012. Why have the current crop of leading men failed to become the giant, reliable stars that Cruise, Smith et al have become? And which of them might finally break through the ceiling and cement their status as A-list leading men? We've examined ten cases below. And rest assured, we'll be back to look at the leading ladies before too long.

Christian Bale
Christian Bale
The Potential: Bale has been around for twenty-five years now, but only became a household name thanks to his lead in Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins," and its even bigger sequel "The Dark Knight." An Oscar last year for "The Fighter" confirmed that he's an awards calibre actor too.
The Problem: Bale is really a character actor that happens to look like a leading man, something reinforced by his Oscar win last year, and outside of the Batman series, tends to favor playing well written roles, even if it means playsing second fiddle (see "Terminator Salvation," "Public Enemies," "The Fighter"). He's certainly in demand (he's been talked about for everything from "Oldboy" to "Noah" of late), and is one of the few actors who studio bosses will give a greenlight to. But can he continue to draw audiences once Nolan's Bat-trilogy comes to a close? He's not the warmest screen presence around.
The Future: More arthouse and less multiplex. He turned down films like "A Star Is Born" in order to take a pair of Terrence Malick films, and will topline Scott Cooper's neo-noir "Out Of The Furnace" for his next big test. Taking a comedy to soften his image wouldn't be the worst idea in the world; whoever it was that suggested he should have played Mark Wahlberg's part in "The Other Guys" is a genius.

Daniel Craig
Daniel Craig
The Potential: A familiar face in the U.K. since the mid-90s, he followed supporting performances in "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" and "Road To Perdition" with the lead in "Layer Cake," a film that led him to one of the most iconic roles around: James Bond.
The Problem: Even outside of Bond, Craig's been franchise happy, and on paper it paid off: "The Golden Compass," "Cowboys & Aliens," "The Adventures of Tintin" and "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" all made between $175m and $375m worldwide. But none are really perceived as hits: all were hugely expensive, and all underperformed domestically. And his more moderately-budgeted vehicles, like "Defiance" and "Dream House," had pretty disastrous box office results, suggesting that Craig isn't necessarily a draw in and of himself.
The Future: All Craig has on his slate at present is the currently-filming 007 entry "Skyfall," although there'll probably be "The Girl Who Played With Fire" on the way in the near future. Both will keep him visible and theoretically bankable until the franchises wrap up, but he needs to have a stand-alone hit for real longevity.

George Clooney
George Clooney
The Potential: Probably the most famous on this list in terms of being tabloid-fodder, Clooney of course got his break on "E.R." and, after a rough start, had hits with "The Perfect Storm" and the "Ocean's" trilogy, as well as winning acclaim as both an actor and a writer/director (seven Oscar nominations in seven years, plus one win).
The Problem: Too much of that damned integrity. After getting burned early with "Batman and Robin," Clooney has since put quality first, and would rather work on smart (often issue-led) scripts with smart directors than lead some action tentpole. He's super-famous, but not actually a huge box-office draw: he can take a comedy-drama like "The Descendants" to $80m domestic, but hasn't had a $100 million hit since "Ocean's Thirteen"
The Future: His next film, "Gravity" is an atypical film: a big effects-driven sci-fi picture. We suspect it's going to be a giant hit, but Clooney only has a supporting role in the film. Otherwise, he's focusing on directing, with "Monuments Men" and "Our Brand Is Crisis" looking like possible next films. But to be honest, if he keeps using his fame for smart pictures, and for political activism like his Sudanese embassy arrest last week, we're fine with him being less of a draw than Will Smith.

Russell Crowe
Russell Crowe
The Potential: Coming to Hollywood's attention with "Romper Stomper," Crowe broke out with "L.A. Confidential," which landed him the lead in monster hit "Gladiator" for which he went on to win a Best Actor Oscar, then a year later he was nominated for "A Beautiful Mind." "Master and Commander" and "Cinderella Man" both did well too.
The Problem: He's had some modest hits in the recent past: "Robin Hood" did well internationally, "American Gangster" did well everywhere, although it was arguably sold more on Denzel than Crowe. But more common have been the flops -- "A Good Year," "Body Of Lies," "State of Play," "The Next Three Days." Well-documented temper flare-ups gave him a prickly reputation, which may not have helped his public persona.
The Future: Crowe's getting bolder, no longer insisting on leading men parts evidenced by taking turns as Superman's dad in "Man of Steel," the villain in RZA's "The Man With The Golden Fists," singing in "Les Miserables." And mixing it up seems to have worked; he's been courted for "Robocop" and "Harker," and is locked into Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," which has the very real potential to return him to his "Gladiator" glory days.

Matt Damon
Matt Damon
The Potential: Along with Ben Affleck, Damon became Hollywood's next big thing after "Good Will Hunting." He was a little slower out of the gates than Affleck, but soon got a monster hit franchise with "The Bourne Identity."
The Problem: Damon is a valuable addition to a starry ensemble -- "Ocean's," "The Departed," "True Grit," "Contagion" -- but on his own, he's actually not much of a draw. Like Clooney, working with interesting directors comes first, but the dice rolls have come out less well, with films like "Invictus," "Green Zone" and "Hereafter" disappointing both critics and studio accountants.
The Future: "We Bought A Zoo" was quietly a modest hit (and is still rolling out in many territories), which suggests Damon could go to the romantic/comedy well more often, and Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land" (originally meant to be Damon's directorial debut) could be in that same sweet spot. "The Adjustment Bureau" was also a decent hit last spring as well. Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi actioner "Elysium" will be a bigger test, though.

Colin Farrell
Colin Farrell
The Potential: After Farrell broke out in Joel Schumacher's "Tigerland," EVERYBODY wanted to cast him: Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Terrence Malick, while he turned up in his fare share of commercial fare too, films like "Phone Booth" and "The Recruit."
The Problem: The trouble is, few of those films, bar "S.W.A.T.", made much coin and some, like Stone's "Alexander," were hall-of-fame disasters. And Farrell's own problems with substance abuse got in the way too, although he's now clean and sober again, and impressing with performances like the one in "In Bruges."
The Future: Farrell had a mixed summer last year, "Horrible Bosses" proving a big hit, but "Fright Night" flopping hugely. But Sony is rolling the dice on him again with "Total Recall," and only last week it was revealed that WB wants him for "Arthur & Lancelot." Neither seem like solid prospects, to be honest, so we may be about to see history repeat itself again.

Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman
The Potential: A virtual unknown when he was plucked by Bryan Singer from the London stage to play Wolverine when original choice Dougray Scott was held up on "Mission: Impossible II," Hugh Jackman became an instant icon in the "X-Men" movies, and it was clear he had the charisma to do almost anything -- drama, rom-com, musicals.
The Problem: The thing is, outside of his "X-Men" movies, Jackman has never been that reliable of a draw. Generally speaking, his would-be blockbusters or franchises ("Van Helsing," "Australia," "Real Steel") have underperformed, and smaller star vehicles did even worse: "Scoop," "The Fountain" and "Deception" made only $25 million between them. With claws and pointy hair, Jackman's a star, without, we're not so sure.
The Future: If anything could help to cement Jackman on the A-list, it's "Les Miserables," which will let him display his singing skills on the big screen for the first time, as well as giving him material that might well attract awards attention. And if not, he's returning to his trademark role for "The Wolverine" soon afterwards.

Dwayne Johnson
Dwayne Johnson
The Potential: One of the more charismatic wrestlers to emerge... well, ever, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson started to look like he could become the next big action star a decade ago, after appearing (mostly as an all-time trough for CGI effects) in "The Mummy Returns." He got his own moderately successful spin-off afterwards, and seemed to be on the track to be the next Arnie, and one who could successfully deliver dialog, no less.
The Problem: For the longest time, none of his films were terribly successful: stuff like "The Rundown," "Walking Tall," "Doom" or "Gridiron Gang" never made much of an impact. He actually gave fun performances in non-action roles, but the movies ("Be Cool" and "Southland Tales") were terrible. Like Vin Diesel, however, he found an audience with kids flicks like "The Game Plan" and "Race To Witch Mountain," and that's opened the door a little wider: he's now had two huge hits in a row in jumping on someone else's franchise, with "Fast Five" and "Journey 2."
The Future: He's hoping to make it three-for-three as franchise Viagra with "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" -- if that film significantly improves on its predecessor, than he'll get a big chunk of the credit. That being said, solo-actioner "Faster" didn't do that well only a year ago -- it's clear that he's not much of a draw in R-rated fare. And he could do with having an original, trademark role to call his own, in the way that Arnie, Sly and Bruce all had.

Ryan Reynolds
Ryan Reynolds
The Potential: The Canadian actor broke out as the star of minor teen flick "Van Wilder," but swiftly made an attempt to show his range, thanks to actioner "Blade: Trinity" and scarefest "The Amityville Horror." He continued to leap between rom-com, drama and genre fare until 2009's monster hit "The Proposal," with Sandra Bullock, seemed to put him on the map.
The Problem: The thing is, Reynolds hadn't had many big hits before that film (which was probably based more on Bullock's appeal), films like "Smokin' Aces" and "Definitely Maybe" generally falling flat, and it's been pretty grim afterwards: "Buried," which consisted of nothing else but Reynolds in a box, was a disaster, and he had two blows last summer when both "Green Lantern" and "The Change-Up" tanked. Did people just not want to see him in things?
The Future: February brought a redemption of a sort with "Safe House" -- while the film was sold on Denzel Washington, it performed far better than his films normally do, so Reynolds gets some of the credit. But next summer will be his biggest test, with "Ghostbusters"-style tentpole "R.I.P.D." With only Jeff Bridges to help carry the can, it'll be the clearest indicator yet as to whether Reynolds can bring in the crowds.

Mark Wahlberg
Mark Wahlberg
The Potential: The one-time hip hop artist and underwear model moved into acting with "The Basketball Diaries" and "Fear," and soon found critical respect with films like "Boogie Nights" and "Three Kings." His leading man status was assured when he was picked to star in Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes," which, while critically reviled, remains Wahlberg's biggest hit.
The Problem: Wahlberg doesn't so much have a problem as a window: rather like Denzel Washington (but slightly less so), he's a reliable draw, but only up to a point, his films consistently taking between $40 and $70 million. But he's not had a solo $100 million hit since "The Italian Job" in 2003, although "The Fighter" came very close to the magic number. Can he break through his box office ceiling?
The Future: His next film, the Seth MacFarlane comedy "Ted" has the potential to be a massive hit, and could provide the real breakout that he needs. Otherwise, he seems happy with his place in the world, lining up mostly commercial programmers like "Broken City" (which also features another man on this list, Russell Crowe). If anything has the potential to breakout, it's either Michael Bay's "Pain and Gain" or the action team-up "2 Guns."

Anyone else you think is up to taking on the A-list mantle? Who from the younger generation -- the Goslings and Fassbenders and Hardys and Pines and Gordon-Levitts of the world -- do you think has the stuff to be lasting leading men? Weigh in below.

This article is related to: Features, Daniel Craig, Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, Ryan Reynolds, Hugh Jackman, Colin Farrell


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