The accomplished actor has made his career by defining himself as everything a movie star isn’t.
Image Jackie Nickerson.
© New York Times.
By Thessaly La Force
Oct. 15, 2018
IN THE INFORMAL taxonomy of Hollywood's leading men, there are several obvious types. There is Brad Pitt: too lean and too chiseled to ignore, rangy and funny but emotionally aloof. He doesn't understand you, but then again, as with all beautiful people, you don't need him to. There is the spiritual descendant of Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, that boyish, Peter Pan type who still happens, however incongruously, to be in possession of an old soul. There's Matthew McConaughey and Keanu Reeves — dreaming, or maybe just out to lunch. There are the jerks: Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire. The preppies: Jude Law, Christian Bale. The guys who can make you laugh, even when you're annoyed at them: Will Smith, George Clooney. There's the men you'd want to carry you from a burning building, flames licking at their heels: Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis. The meat and potatoes: solid and reliable, like Matt Damon and Russell Crowe.
And then there's Viggo Mortensen. A man who can — at his very best — assume a certain density on the screen, who is somehow able to project a sense of vast interiority with just the flicker of his eyes or the nod of his chin. His face is strangely feline in its geometry, heart shaped, the sharp lines of his cheekbones framing his blue eyes. Even when he is covered in dirt or sweat or blood (or sometimes all three), he's still in possession of a dignity that few other actors can rival. He has played everything from a traveling shirt salesman (1999's "A Walk on the Moon") to a forest-bathing libertarian (2016's "Captain Fantastic") to Sigmund Freud (2011's "A Dangerous Method") to a reckless con man (2014's "The Two Faces of January") to a Navy SEAL (1997's "G.I. Jane"). He is perfectly comfortable being naked ("Captain Fantastic," 2007's "Eastern Promises"), his characters perform oral sex as if breathing air (1998's "A Perfect Murder," "A Walk on the Moon," 2005's "A History of Violence") — and yet he can easily kill his foes with his bare hands ("The Two Faces of January," "A History of Violence"), with a sword while riding a horse (2001-3's "The Lord of the Rings"), point blank with a gun ("A History of Violence," 2009's "The Road," 2008's "Appaloosa") and God knows how else.
Traditional male movie stars are now, despite both their abundance and popularity, something of an anachronism. For better or worse, Hollywood has defined toxic masculinity more aptly than most other industries. Women today expect men on-screen not to be the stuff dreams are made of: We want vulnerability and communication and responsibility and all the uncertainty in between. I watched "The Bachelor" for the first time while writing this piece and realized with dismay how America's obsession with love had long ago departed narrative film for reality television. It's just not practical to make out with a man who has a gun tucked in his tuxedo or to quit your job (that comes with health care) for Jerry Maguire. Movies may be an escape from the drudgery of our lives, sure, but sweeping a woman off her proverbial feet isn't that straightforward anymore.