Arms and the Chan: The State of Leading Men in Hollywood

(Ethan Gates)– There were so many, many things wrong with this article in the New York Times last Friday. First and most egregious, of course, is the oft-repeated assertion that Channing Tatum can act. I have yet to see any evidence of this claim beyond Tatum’s killer Matthew McConaughey impression on Saturday Night Live. But beyond that, Brooks Barnes’ analysis of the state of Hollywood’s leading men is based on so many misinterpretations of various individual careers that I don’t even know where to start.

The face that launched a thousand flops.

If you didn’t want to waste one of your 20 free monthly NYTimes articles by clicking on that link, let me break down Barnes’ argument for you: in the 90’s, Hollywood churned out a sizable generation of blockbuster-anchoring, box-office-generating stars, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Adam Sandler, George Clooney and Will Smith. Over the past 15 years, however, Hollywood has failed to mint any new heavyweights, relying instead on this increasingly aging group while new stars sputter and ultimately fail to catch fire on their own. Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, Jake Gyllenhaal, Garrett Hedlund, Ryan Reynolds, Zac Efron, Taylor Lautner, Shia LeBeouf, etc., etc – all have tried and failed to star in their own money-making vehicles, only to be handed flops like “Kingdom of Heaven,” “The Hulk,” “Prince of Persia,” “TRON: Legacy,” “Green Lantern,” “Charlie St. Cloud,” “Abduction” and “Eagle Eye” (yiiiiiikes). That much, I’ll agree with: the only stars that remain reliably bankable are pretty much all in the 40-or-above demographic.

Then Barnes starts to go off the rails, daring to lump Edward Norton and Christian Bale in that same “failed leading man” category. I’m sorry, what? Last I checked, Bale’s two Batman films had grossed over $800 million – and that’s just in the U.S. alone. Yet he’s “more Claude Rains than Clark Gable”??? I love Claude Rains more than anyone, but the man never got to lead a film himself, much less break box office records in a film he led. And besides, Bale really belongs more to the DiCaprio-Damon generation.

Claude "Batman" Rains.

Ed Norton? Has Hollywood even ever tried to make Norton a bankable leading man? Barnes must be thinking of 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk,” which certainly didn’t set the world on fire like “The Dark Knight” did, but it was also hardly a disappointment like “Green Lantern.” Beyond that, Ed Norton has pretty much spent his career propelling atypical independent fare like “Fight Club,” “The Illusionist” and “The 25th Hour” to more-than respectable box office numbers, and making small passion projects. And again, he’s 42, putting him way more in the league of Bale and Damon and Pitt than Hedlund and Lautner and Alex Pettyfer.

These casual dismissals of two well-established actors is bizarre enough. Barnes then insists that there are three up-and-coming stars that Hollywood can pin its hopes on: Taylor Kitsch, Jeremy Renner, and Channing Tatum. Ummmm…ok. I sort of understand Kitsch – he had a substantial following on “Friday Night Lights,” but after “John Carter” flopped at the box office this weekend (and presuming the bizarre “Battleship” movie does the same this summer), I don’t really see him going places. Jeremy Renner I understand and heartily approve of: the former “Hurt Locker” star showed his action-movie chops in “Mission:Impossible IV,” gets to be part of the mega-blockbuster “The Avengers” in May, and seems a capable replacement to take over the Bourne franchise come August. I expect all those films will end up being successful, and I think the new Bourne movie in particular will announce that Renner has arrived.

But Channing Tatum? Yes, he has been in hits like “G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra,” “Dear John,” and “The Vow.” Yes, “21 Jump Street” actually looks like it’ll be pretty funny. But seriously, was anyone excited to see those movies particularly because Channing Tatum was in them? No! People (mostly adolescent boys) went to see “G.I. Joe” because it was summertime and over-paying to see terrible action movies in the summer is a timeless tradition, and people (mostly adolescent girls) went to go see “Dear John” and “The Vow” because of the serious dearth of romantic films coming out of Hollywood in general. I suppose Mr. Tatum is, shall we say, a hunk (let’s not forget that he started his career as a male stripper), but seriously, you can’t tell me that women wouldn’t be just as, if not more pleased to watch Tom Hardy or Armie Hammer’s Chin or Andrew Garfield in one of those Nicholas Sparks-ish romances.

If women prefer Robert Pattinson to this, I don't understand anything about women and I don't want to.

Speaking of Tom Hardy and Armie Hammer and Andrew Garfield – it’s a funny thing, but Barnes doesn’t mention any of those guys. All three of them are going to have substantial opportunities in the near future to prove their star mettle (Hardy has “The Dark Knight Rises,” Hammer will be Prince Charming in “Mirror Mirror” AND The Lone Ranger, Garfield has the chance to helm a new Spider-Man series). Or how about Chris Pine (“Star Trek,” “Unstoppable”)? How about James Franco (“Spider-Man,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Pineapple Express”)? How about Chris Pine (“Star Trek,” “Unstoppable”)? How about Michael Fassbender (“X-Men: First Class”)? How about Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“500 Days of Summer,” “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises”)?

And I don’t know how you can write an article about the emergence of recent crossover stars and not mention Ryan Gosling. Seriously, who doesn’t like Ryan Gosling? The man can handle chick flicks (“The Notebook”), rom-coms (“Crazy Stupid Love”), art-house dramas (“Half Nelson,” “Blue Valentine”), and pulpy action flicks (“Drive”) with equal aplomb. You want a bankable star? Replace Channing Tatum in schlock like “The Eagle” or “Fighting” with Ryan Gosling. I probably would’ve been there (not that you ever could’ve gotten Gosling to be in those films, but I can dream).

Another crazy idea: let a female star lead a summer blockbuster that’s NOT a rom-com. Kristin Wiig? Emma Stone? Anne Hathaway? Sandra Bullock? Emily Blunt? Natalie Portman? Ellen Page? Rooney Mara? Jennifer Lawrence? (hello, “Hunger Games”) These are all people I would rather watch lead a film than Tatum. What happened to the days when “Erin Brokovich” made $123 million? Hell, what happened to the days when “Bridesmaids” made $170 million? It was only last year! Does Hollywood forget these things so quickly?

I would absolutely see this movie.

Am I way off base here? Is Channing Tatum really the next big thing? I don’t mean it to sound like I have anything against the guy, really – I just think that if Hollywood is really pinning their hopes on Tatum to save their butts, they’d best start looking elsewhere.