With our current obsession with the ‘beautiful’ leading man, 70s heavyweights like Hackman, Nicholson and Pacino wouldn’t stand a chance.
The 70s were to cinema what the 60s were to music: a period of immense artistic merit and innovation unsurpassed by any decade since. There’s a strong claim to be made after last year’s array of great films, though, that the 2010s are doing their very best to at least emulate some of the 70s’ success. If not in terms of sheer influence and importance, then definitely in terms of the overall quality of some of this decade’s finest films.
The likes of Cumberbatch and Fassbender are fine actors, their looks part of the package. But what about the ordinary man?
If there’s a marked difference between that decade and this one, however, it is the metamorphosis of The Leading Man, and how today’s stars are, quite simply put, better looking. In this age of vanity, the cinema – as it has in every decade other than the 70s – stands as a benchmark of aesthetic value for the modern man. Whether it’s the utterly gorgeous English perfection of a Benedict Cumberbatch – all middle-class-white-prim-and-proper – or the dashing allure of a Michael Fassbender – all devastating eyes and cheekbone, with a hushed Irish accent that could be registered as a lethal weapon to women everywhere – cinema’s prime actors of the decade are, for lack of a more original word, beautiful.
This is by no means a bad thing: film is built on a history of smouldering leading men (Brando, Dean, Beatty, Newman, McQueen, Redford etc), and the current crop only serve to carry on the tradition. Furthermore, the likes of Cumberbatch, Fassbender and co (Gosling, Cooper, McConaughey, Hardy et al) are all fine actors in their own right, thus ensuring that their looks are only part of the package. (In contrast to, say, a Taylor Lautner, whose beautiful veil reveals a shining shit when lifted.) This is all well and good, but what about the ordinary man?
The 70s had perhaps the greatest bench of acting talent in film history, but if you look at that bench, the men sitting on it – though not necessarily unattractive – all look rather normal. Odd, even. There’s De Niro, whip-cord thin, gaunt and pale, handsome in the weirdest way possible but with danger behind his tracing eyes; there’s Pacino, gloriously haired but a little short, a little lost-looking, a little unkempt and wild; there’s Robert Duvall, a man bald as a coot since birth but still getting top billing; and there’s Jack Nicholson, he too balding and short, his famed eyebrows lifting, his malevolent grin ensuring that trouble is always close as he becomes perhaps the star of the decade (bedding close to a thousand women in the process, I might add).
De Niro, Pacino, Duvall, Nicholson – these guys would be relegated to character actor territory today, in the same way that Paul Giamatti or Ben Mendelsohn now are
These guys would be relegated to character actor territory today, in the same way that Paul Giamatti or Ben Mendelsohn are. It’s a sign of the times that some of the best actors working will never helm a big, mainstream picture on account of their protruding bellies or balding heads or dangerous looks. Hell, even the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman – a character actor who seemed to appeal to even the most mainstream of fans – never really got top billing until late in his career, and even then it was in the likes of Capote and The Master, films rooted in arthouse sensibilities.
The key word here has already been mentioned: danger. Today’s crop certainly play some dangerous characters – Fassbender, Gosling and Hardy especially – but off-screen they all seem very nice, the type of men, who, despite the abs and jawlines and biceps to signal it, would never really go for violence. They look like all a bit of bark without the bite, like they’d much rather stay in with the missus before meeting her parents, who would remark at what a strong, handsome, nice, well-mannered boy their daughter had brought home.
Read more on De Niro: We love his 70s cycle
Wedding bells would toll. It would all be kind of, well, perfect. There’s even a WASP element to all of this (though one must be careful when using that term), as if these tall specimens of the middle class were destined to rule over cinema. (Note here: I’m not necessarily saying that all of the mentioned actors are of a WASP background, but rather that they all at least pertain to some element of it.)
There are actors – Michael Shannon the prime example – who still offer that danger. It’s just that they’re hiding in the shadows
But again, there’s De Niro and Pacino, steeped to an extent in the catholic guilt they would channel into their performances, giving mumbling interviews, all mood and atmosphere; there’s Jack, tripping on LSD with Dennis Hopper; there’s Gene Hackman, the antithesis to the current model of the Leading Man, ordering another whiskey at the bar. These were dangerous men, and cinema was rewarded for risking them – these were ordinary men in the most extraordinary way. Of course, that isn’t to say that the cinema is suffering for a lack of these sorts, and there are actors out there – Michael Shannon being the prime example – who still offer that danger, that element of fucked-up-ness. It’s just that they’re hiding, rather fittingly, in the shadows.
Read more on Pacino: We love his 70s cycle
Featured image: 20th Century Fox
Inset images: Paramount; Focus Features