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Leading men have come in so many different packages, it's difficult to fit them into specific boxes. But one generalization has always remained true: male attractiveness can be divided into two categories - the strong and the sensitive. Throughout the years, both brands have found outrageous success. First there was the soft, sensitive Valentino, all dewy eyes and creamy skin. Then the rough, tough-talking, ready-to-fight Clark Gable emerged. The dapper, well-spoken and a bit too smooth Cary Grant came next. He was replaced by a take-no-prisoners Steve McQueen, all blue-eyed and salty and full of anger. Pretty boys have dominated since the '80s, from Rob Lowe up until Brad Pitt, who has recently transformed himself into a somewhat scruffy character. When the Australians invaded Hollywood some years back, Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential reminded audiences that a meat-eating man who allows his rage to get the best of him once in a while is really the only type of male who can grab a woman by the neck and keep ahold of her long after she's left the theatre. With Crowe came more rough-and-tumble men, some of which are featured here:
The very fact that Viggo Mortensen has been around Hollywood since the early '80s without breaking into major stardom tells you a lot about his sort of sexual charisma. It's derived from no obvious tradition of studliness, hunkiness or whatever other crude term covers the general phenomenon of broadly perceived male attractiveness. In fact, it defies those categories and doesn't seem eager to promote itself at all. The mere sound of the name Viggo Mortensen hardly conjures up visions of beefcake to begin with. But here he is, well into his 40s, and suddenly his long-term cult following finds itself surrounded by a new fan contingent that thinks of Mortensen as the larger-than-life warrior Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
It would be instructive to look at Mortensen's debut in Peter Weir's 1985 film Witness and his most recent performance, in The Lord of the Rings. Nobody ever seems to have mistaken this actor for an all-American type. In Witness, he was the open-faced, implicitly open-hearted younger brother of Amish farmer stud Alexander Godunov. His features were as clean and untrammelled as a new field of wheat and his eyes were so wide apart you could have driven an Amish buggy between them. Almost 20 years later, he has experience written on him, but he is equally of another time and mindset. Truth is, Mortensen's unusual brand of attractiveness has always been so exotic, and in some ways so florid, that only roles that accommodate that weirdness work for him.
Over the years, Mortensen has been perceived by casting directors as so unlikely in the role of a mainstream character that his physical beauty was played for decadence. How could the future romantic warrior of The Lord of the Rings have been so misunderstood? Part of it is no doubt Mortensen's own self-styled bohemianism - he's a poet and a painter, he'll have you know, and he's not about to be your pinup. But a good part of it is also the physiognomy-is-destiny thing. This is not a Brad Pitt face or a Tom Cruise - it offers none of that reassurance. It looks almost as if it might have been created by a sculptor for the sheer outrageousness of putting these elements in proximity to one another.
One of the roles that best exploited the romantic/unsavoury polarity in Mortensen's screen persona was the 1998 film A Perfect Murder, in which he played the lover of a rich-girl beauty (Gwyneth Paltrow) unhappily married to older control freak Michael Douglas. Mortensen's character starts out as the penniless artiste-lover that a blue-blood blond might sin with, then turns out to be a con-man jailbird with flexible ideas about homicide. And even when you see the worst in him, you don't wonder why Gwyneth spent her lunch hours at his loft. A far less objectionable, but equally illicit Mortensen played married woman Diane Lane's free-love liberator in director Tony Goldwyn's little gem A Walk on the Moon. This role may well have been a crucial turning point for Mortensen. For one thing, he was very good in it, but the important difference was that the extravagance of his romantic looks didn't hide anything dark. He was a self-indulgent hippie, but he was a nice guy. He was good for Diane Lane.
The idea that a man who looks like Viggo Mortensen can be good for you is novel, but Hollywood seems to have accepted it. And now, having played a presence as a romantic and heroic figure in a mammoth hit like The Lord of the Rings, Mortensen is forever changed in the public imagination. Here he's not merely good for someone, he's good, period.
[Benicio Del Toro, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Clive Owen were also featured in the original article.]
Last edited: 29 August 2010 06:05:27