From Pretty Boys to Leading Men
A CultureMap®
by Sid Rosenzweig
Published on 2/21/14

The movies have always valued male as well as female beauty, but good film storytelling requires acting ability, not just great abs. This map tracks the careers of a few actors who successfully transitioned from eye candy to Oscar bait. Along the way, we’ll stare at the monochrome past, when beauty meant “white,” and ogle the more colorful present, when the “Sexiest Man Alive” can be anyone—as long as he’s a celebrity.

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Denzel Washington  (b. 1954 | American actor)
to  People’s “Sexiest Man Alive”  (American magazine feature | est. 1985)

Movie studios have deployed male sex symbols since the dawn of film, but all-American racism long prevented Hollywood from featuring any less Waspy than the “Latin lovers” of silent cinema—Italian-born Rudolph Valentino being the preeminent example. And by the 1930s, rugged Yanks such as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper had replaced even them. Because racism often includes a fear of miscegenation, the idea of sexy African American men was once generally unthinkable for mainstream white audiences. Gorgeous, charismatic Sidney Poitier thus spent the 1950s and ’60s playing desexualized, domesticated, sometimes saintly figures. Even his Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Hollywood’s first major interracial romance, is pointedly passionless. But Poitier did win awards, including 1964’s best actor Oscar, the first for an African American.

In 1971 Richard Roundtree’s Shaft was perhaps Hollywood’s first openly sexual black male character, a supercool badass lusted after by chicks of all colors. Other blaxploitation heroes followed, but by the early 1980s they were campy compared to the emerging generation of highly talented black actors led by Denzel Washington. Washington became the second African American to win the best actor Oscar, and in 1996 he was first to be People’s Sexiest Man Alive.

Denzel Washington  (b. 1954 | American actor)
to  George Clooney  (b. 1961 | American actor)

Denzel Washington and George Clooney were never just pretty boys; both confirmed their acting ability by playing doctors on TV’s most popular, critically hailed hospital dramas of the 1980s and ’90s (St. Elsewhere for Washington, ER for Clooney). And both were more suavely handsome than baby-faced pretty. Their killer smiles exude the warmth, self-confidence and self-deprecating humor of such definitive leading men as Clark Gable and Cary Grant, not to mention the hint of danger lurking just beneath their glamour.

Yet when those earlier actors became stars, they were usually stuck playing good guys. Gable’s Oscar-winning turn as a newspaperman in It Happened One Night (1934) includes a scene parodying his tough-mug gangster parts from the early 1930s; but he’s just a knight in reporter’s armor, building the famous “Walls of Jericho” to help him resist Claudette Colbert’s considerable allure when they must share a room for the night. Washington gets to be as sexy as he wants, and he brings the danger to the surface. He won his best actor Oscar for playing a violent, corrupt cop in the thriller Training Day (2001).

George Clooney  (b. 1961 | American actor)
to  Magic Mike  (Steven Soderbergh (dir.) | film | 2012)

George Clooney and Magic Mike’s director, Steven Soderbergh, have made six films together, partnered in a production company and helped each other achieve what may be ideal Hollywood careers, alternating blockbusters with satisfyingly personal projects. Soderbergh’s 1989 debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, ignited the indie explosion when it made him the youngest director (at 26) to win Cannes’s Palme d’Or. He immediately followed it with some eccentric, commercially unsuccessful films, including Kafka and The Underneath. Meanwhile, Clooney was doing mostly bad television and low-budget features (e.g., the camp horror sequel Return of the Killer Tomatoes!) until his stint on ER (1994–1999) made him a fan fave and a leading man in bigger films.

But Clooney and Soderbergh’s first collaboration, crime romcom Out of Sight (1998), sped their careers into successful sync. The director proved he could please mainstream audiences, the actor was toasted for talent and looks, and soon their company, Section Eight Productions, was born. It allowed Clooney to direct (and earn an Oscar nomination for his second project, Edward R. Murrow biopic Good Night, and Good Luck) and Soderbergh to swing between the profitable Ocean’s trilogy and such quirky fare as Full Frontal and The Good German.

George Clooney  (b. 1961 | American actor)
to  Brad Pitt  (b. 1963 | American actor)

What’s so special about the letters CG, anyway? Cary Grant, Clark Gable—flip ’em for Gary Cooper and George Clooney. Among contemporary leading men, Clooney and Brad Pitt (along with Denzel Washington) most embody the golden age Hollywood seductiveness of those classic CGs: the dashing, debonair style of Grant; the tough but sensitive warmth of Gable; the man-of-few-words moral high ground of Cooper.

Early in their careers, Pitt and Clooney were competitors. Sensing the star-making potential of 1991’s feminist buddy film Thelma & Louise, they both sought the role of J.D., the hitchhiking hustler who becomes Thelma’s boy toy. Pitt got the part, and it set his star afire. Cut to 10 years later. Both are obscenely rich, successful celebrities—and pretty good actors, to boot. Why not celebrate by replicating the Rat Pack on-screen in a remake of the 1960 heist caper Ocean’s Eleven (2001)? The following year, Pitt had a cameo in Clooney’s directorial debut, the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Later they worked together in the Ocean’s sequels; in a typically quirky Coen brothers’ concoction, Burn After Reading; and for various good political and charitable causes.

Brad Pitt  (b. 1963 | American actor)
to  Johnny Depp  (b. 1963 | American actor)

Tim Burton is to Johnny Depp what Steven Soderbergh is to George Clooney: the director who gave the actor the adventurous career he deserved. Depp became a teen idol on TV cop show 21 Jump Street (1987–1990), then sought offbeat, talent-stretching roles not meant to please hunk-hungry adolescents. He found these parts with indie icons John Waters (Cry-Baby) and Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man) but especially in the eight films he has elevated for quirk master Burton, beginning by making Goth adorable with Edward Scissorhands (1990).

Brad Pitt, Depp’s contemporary, made different choices. He popped up in a 1988 Jump Street episode, one of many TV spots for the unknown actor. After his 1991 breakthrough as a hustling hitchhiker in Thelma & Louise, however, Pitt picked good mainstream films aimed at the widest audiences (fly-fishing drama A River Runs Through It, Anne Rice adaptation Interview With the Vampire and romantic saga Legends of the Fall, equally starring Pitt’s sun-dappled long hair). But the two do share a crowning achievement: Both are members of the small but buff body of men who have twice been anointed People’s Sexiest Man Alive. Clooney is the only other.

Johnny Depp  (b. 1963 | American actor)
to  People’s “Sexiest Man Alive”  (American magazine feature | est. 1985)

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 academic article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” virtually invented feminist film criticism, arguing that men in Hollywood movies—on-screen and in the audience—are active lookers, while women are passive, looked-at objects. But subsequent critics showed how movies objectify men as well. A decade later, and as far from the academy as possible, People recognized that beefcake is as important as cheesecake by announcing its first Sexiest Man Alive honoree: Mel Gibson. Dark-eyed, fine-boned Johnny Depp has taken home the honor twice, in 2003 and 2009—the second at age 46.

After displaying his talent in a wide array of serious roles as outsiders, Depp inflated his commercial success as a cutlass-wielding pirate of the Caribbean. This career path runs counter to the typical mid-20th-century hunk’s progress. Take Tony Curtis. Before James Dean, before Elvis Presley, he embodied the look and style of the 1950s rebel boy (too bad he was born too early to win People’s honor). From Westerns and sword-swinging epics, Curtis moved on to dramas and sophisticated comedies, proving his acting chops in the socially conscious Defiant Ones; the dark, disturbing Boston Strangler; and the hysterical cross-dressing farce Some Like It Hot.

People’s “Sexiest Man Alive”  (American magazine feature | est. 1985)
to  Ryan Gosling  (b. 1980 | American actor)

Ryan Gosling was five when People announced its first Sexiest Man Alive. The youngest of our pretty boys (beating Magic Mike’s Channing Tatum by about seven months), he’s the only one who hasn’t won the title. His rejection three years in a row has inspired internet furor and raises a fascinating question: Are rave reviews, an Oscar nod, and acting honors from film fests, critics associations and fan groups really more valuable than a celebrity rag’s attitude about your abs?

Gosling went from child stardom on The All New Mickey Mouse Club to playing a neo-Nazi in The Believer (2001), which earned him the first of those raves. He has since proven adept at action (Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines), romance (The Notebook), dark drama (Half Nelson) and sexy comedy (Crazy, Stupid, Love). As for those abs, they are the undisputed star of Crazy, prompting Emma Stone’s character to exclaim, “Seriously? It’s like you’re Photoshopped!” One critic called Gosling “our next George Clooney,” while another issued the ultimate warning by putting him on a list of “10 overexposed actors who should take a break before we get sick of them.” Also on the list: Channing Tatum.

Magic Mike  (Steven Soderbergh (dir.) | film | 2012)
to  Brad Pitt  (b. 1963 | American actor)

Channing Tatum’s bio reads like a stereotypical starlet’s: rural Mississippi childhood, college dropout, menial jobs and finally stripping for a living. But his saga has a Hollywood ending. The stripper becomes a highly paid model and transitions to commercials; then a string of movies leads him to stardom.

Those movies have varied between interesting but little-seen indies and crowd-pleasing crap (tales of dancing teens, swoony romance and living action figures). But he got to tell a fictionalized version of his own ecdysiast adventures in Magic Mike, the story of a male stripper, which became a mega-moneymaker and Tatum’s most critically praised performance to date. The film’s director, Steven Soderbergh, compares Tatum favorably with Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Matt Damon—and Soderbergh should know, having celebrated Pitt & Co.’s superstardom (and supercool style) in the Ocean’s trilogy. Like Pitt, Tatum first attracted attention as a boy toy, and also like Pitt, Tatum won the maximum accolade, People’s Sexiest Man Alive.