Why Ryan Gosling’s refusal to play it safe has seen him become one of Tinseltown’s most bankable young stars.
He has his own feminist meme, his own band, he fights crime and he hands out cookies to total strangers. Ryan Gosling as a human being is odd enough, but Ryan Gosling as a movie star is one of the weirdest contradictions in Hollywood. He’s a loveable hard man known for breathtaking romantic gestures as well as for unapologetically smashing skulls in elevators. He’s a no-nonsense, womanising killer in Gangster Squad and a Nicholas Sparks-designed lover in The Notebook. Could it be that Ryan Gosling doesn’t know what kind of star he wants to be? Or does he just balance screen personalities (along with audience expectations) with all the skill of the smartest man in Hollywood?
There was a ferocious early turn in The Believer and early box office success with The Notebook, but the real change came after Half Nelson, when the New York-accented Canadian self-destructed his way to an Oscar nomination. Someone took notice, and Gosling started cherry-picking projects: Lars and the Real Girl saw him go introverted and peculiar as a man falling in love with a sex doll. The unflinchingly honest Blue Valentine turned him weaselly and pathetic as a man losing grip on his marriage. Both films brought him praise from journos and attention from film fans.
But 2011 was Gosling’s year. The Ides of March saw him work under George Clooney, the man who rules Hollywood like a silver-haired emperor, in a symbolic passing of the torch for movie heartthrobs. Drive gave cineastes and hard-boiled Lee Marvin-types a gaudy revenge masterpiece, with Gosling giving perhaps his best, most focused performance yet as a taciturn getaway driver and, it’s later revealed, murder fetishist. It was a hit with critics and movie-lovers that entirely differed from Gosling’s next release, Crazy, Stupid, Love. This Steve Carell rom-com actually acted as a vehicle for Gosling, its heart and narrative smarts giving the actor room to breathe, break out of the indie scene and cement himself as an instant movie star.
Now, it seems he can’t put a foot wrong. Even in the critically-derided Gangster Squad, Gosling was the best thing in it, and marketed as the big draw of the film. Over the last few years he’s been able to establish himself as a box office-friendly man of range, even if lately he’s largely played variations on his iconic Drive persona (the cool, sensitive tough guy figure). But no matter what, the films have all been of a high calibre. A Ryan Gosling movie is a sign of quality, with almost all his work of the last five years (Gangster Squad aside) raking in critical praise as well as audience bucks.
Coming up next month is The Place Beyond The Pines, the epic crime drama that sees Gosling work alongside Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance for a second time, and has already drawn rave reviews stateside. Bradley Cooper, Gosling’s co-star in Pines, is another current Next Big Thing – perhaps the only true rival to Gosling’s Big Thing crown – but his film choices have so far been uniformly terrible, Silver Linings Playbook, Limitless and The Hangover aside. There’s an unofficial mini battle between Gosling and Cooper going on for biggest new star in Hollywood, which depressingly came about around the time that Cooper, and not Gosling, was voted People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2011. The fact that Gosling is top-billed in Pines over Cooper – who it’s said is the real star of the film – is quite telling as to who’s really winning.
Cooper may be trying to make his way into the indie scene (and made a spectacularly good start with Silver Linings), but Gosling’s been entrenched there for years, and in just one year established himself as a bankable Hollywood star, too. As Cooper tries to broaden his horizons beyond the mainstream, Gosling has already comfortably made his way in, after confirming himself as an arthouse hit years ago. Where so many actors struggle to break out of their respective mainstream or arthouse niches, the ‘Hey Girl’ guy comfortably straddles both. He’s somehow made friends with critics as well as casual cinema-goers, just like he has fans of violent action, gritty drama, and sentimental romance all on his side. Whatever it is that he’s doing, Ryan Gosling must surely be the smartest young star in Hollywood.
Photo: Focus Features