Is there one type of actor that you think is better than the others? Perhaps you have a specific actor in mind when thinking about this question, but perhaps you’re not sure. Perhaps you even think that there is no best actor or actress. We’re going to examine the case for each of the top-tier leading men and women as well as challenge these notions.
The Leading Man
When we think about Hollywood, there are usually two names that instantly come to mind when discussions about the best leading men in film history ensue: Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda. Cooper, for his role in the 1936 movie Singin’ in the Rain, was the epitome of a leading man. Standing six-feet tall with a chiseled physique, he projected an image of masculinity and charm. Even the ladies seemed impressed by his magnetic personality. According to Richard Brody, author of The American Movie: 1st Edition, “[Cooper’s] presence was electric, and the aura he projected was more Hollywood than the movies.”
Although Cooper’s legacy as a film icon is undisputed, his career was hardly without controversy. In the words of one interviewee, “He was very good at playing a man of authority,” and in another, “he was always very cool and collected, like a god.” This apparent aloofness may have contributed to Cooper’s larger-than-life persona, which made him an intimidating presence onscreen. And although he played a wide range of characters throughout his career, Cooper usually reserved the most memorable roles for himself, displaying an “I’m a big star, so you’d better watch me.”
Another leading man whose star power was unquestionable was Henry Fonda. Nicknamed the “Weary Willie,” due to his long-winded monologues and frequent scowls, Fonda became a Hollywood legend for his performance as a hard-working, whiskey-loving small-town physician in the 1959 movie, Marty. Marty was based on the true story of a young Indiana farmhand who, in order to pay off his family’s debts, jumped at the chance to play American history using his own likeness. The film is filled with humorous asides and feisty interactions between the protagonist, Marty, and the townspeople, which make it a true classic of the genre.
Like Cooper, Fonda was originally from Ohio and attended Columbia University, before heading to Hollywood in the 30s. Like Cooper, Fonda was also a Method actor, which helped him to attain a heightened level of realism and believability when portraying a character. In fact, Fonda stated in an interview that he modeled his acting style on that of a 19th century Scottish playwright, William Shakespeare.
The Sexy Sheik
Although we might assume that Hollywood leads today are a thing of the past, it’s easy to be mistaken. Thanks to the popularity of online dating and reality TV shows, certain types of actors and actresses have become extremely fashionable, capturing the public eye and proving that style and brains can go hand-in-hand. Take, for example, Robert Pattinson, who is arguably one of Hollywood’s most fashionable leading men of our time. Pattinson, who is best known for starring in the Twilight series, has managed to marry his undoubted good looks with an extraordinary acting talent. In the words of Christian Bale, star of the Dark Knight trilogy, “[Pattinson’s] scenes always looked like scenes from a fashion magazine.”
There is, however, a significant difference between the fashion-forward, style-savvy attitude that Pattinson projects off-screen and the complex, nuanced characters that he plays on-screen. Take, for example, the character of Scottie Ferguson in the 2009 movie, The Twilight Saga: New Moon. A lonely, overweight, thirty-something, Scottie embarks on a journey to find love, and discovers a hidden passion for fashion. In an interview, Pattinson stated that he based this character on himself, adding that he “always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, so I guess that’s what [Ferguson] is like.” It’s this very difference that makes him an exceptional actor; instead of conforming to Hollywood’s stereotypes, Pattinson has become one of its most interesting new faces.
One of the most exciting things about following Hollywood’s shifting cultural landscape is the fact that heroes have become more complex than ever before. Thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and films like The Dark Knight Rises, we are now seeing leading men and women who aren’t necessarily “good” by traditional standards. This has led to a new breed of anti-hero, whose bad-boy persona serves as a counterpoint to their good-guy acting. Take, for example, Batman, starring in The Dark Knight Rises and continuing in the upcoming DC Films’ Aquaman and Shazam!, who are essentially anti-heroes, as are many others from Marvel’s past and present. For fans of the comics, the parallels between the onscreen characters and their comic book counterparts are uncanny. Like their comic book counterparts, these film superheroes are highly skilled, often grimacing warriors whose appearance and attire serve as a stark contrast to their “nice guy” behavior.
While it’s easy to see how these characters could be classified as anti-heroes, the line between good and evil is often blurry when it comes to these cinematic heroes. Take, for example, Christian Bale, who played Batman in The Dark Knight and its prequel, The Dark Knight Rises. While Bale is in no way a traditional “good guy,” the actor was heavily influenced by his time living in post-9/11 London, where he witnessed first-hand the toll that terrorism had on society. As a result, his performance as Batman is filled with unexpected depths and textures, a far cry from the typically clean-cut good guy he usually plays. According to Bale, “People [who saw the film] didn’t realize that it was actually a dark and serious movie.” In another interview, Bale described his character as “a man who’s lost trust and faith in humanity and believes that society is completely out to get him,” which is certainly an accurate depiction of the protagonist of The Dark Knight Rises. The Dark Knight Rises is filled with action and special effects, but it also boasts one of the deepest emotional cores of any mainstream superhero movie to date.
While movies have always focused on the triumph of good over evil, they’ve rarely depicted the more “traditional” relationship trajectories that feature an older man and a younger woman. Romantic comedies, as they’re often described, offer a glimpse of what a “normal” relationship might look like, as they focus on the budding romance between a seemingly unlikely pair. For a while, there seemed to be a dearth of romantic comedy films, with box-office hits like How to Marry a Millionaire and Mamma Mia! being two of the most prominent examples. However, in the past few years, we’ve seen a rise in serious romantic comedies, led by the massive international popularity of films like Noah and The Fault in Our Stars. Romantic dramas offer audiences a more balanced depiction of relationships, as they bring to light the complexities that can arise from an interpersonal connection. Even Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is filled with action and adventure, offers up a tender scene between the series’ two leads in which they share an intimate moment in an elevator.
While we may not have seen the last of romance in Hollywood’s leading men, these three characters—Cooper, Fonda, and Pattinson—have undoubtedly paved the way for the next wave of attractive, complex heroes.