In the late 1990s, there was one question I wanted to ask all the women I knew: ‘What is so freaking great about Brad Pitt?’
I’d seen Thelma & Louise (1991). I’d seen Se7en (1995). I’d seen Fight Club (1999), and Interview with the Vampire (1994), too. I’d even seen Meet Joe Black (1998), in which Pitt’s aggressive blond tips couldn’t distract me from my boredom. It was clear that he was no kind of clanger visually, and most of the movies were fine, but what was all the fuss about? Yes, he was ultra-masculine, with unpredictable hair and a musculature that sent his countless fans into a tizzy when he appeared with his shirt off, but I wasn’t moved.
The noughties crowned a new Hollywood hunk supreme: George Clooney. Although Clooney had been causing heart palpitations before the birth of the new millennium as Dr Doug Ross in the television series ER, his appearances in the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001) erased everyone’s memories of the execrable Batman & Robin (1997) and the salt-and-pepper-haired actor took off as a universal fantasy boyfriend.
Again, I was bemused. I understood Clooney’s appeal better than I did Pitt’s: Clooney’s svelte good looks and air of sophistication recalled those of Hollywood’s quintessential leading men, Cary Grant and Clark Gable. Plus, he had quirks that indicated an actual personality: he’d once kept a pet pig, and in 2007 he had a stoush with Fabio in an Italian restaurant. Still, I remained unmoved.
Evidently, the whole Hollywood hunk thing has always seemed a bit alien to me. And, until very recently, I thought I remained untouched by its fakey, media-fuelled, socially constituted grasp.
Not too long ago, I was saying to a friend that I wanted to see the latest Nicolas Winding Refn film, Drive (2011), starring Ryan Gosling. Her eyes rolled. ‘Who’s this Ryan Gosling guy?’ she asked. ‘Everyone seems to love him so much.’
My eyes did some rolling of their own – ten full rotations – in disbelief. How could she not know who the 31-year-old Canadian was? ‘I love Ryan Gosling,’ I said, and then clapped my hands over my mouth.
The 2010s are young, but the odds are that it’s Gosling’s decade for universal worship. Anecdotal evidence for his popularity abounds at every event attended by 20-to- 35-year-old women – even women who, like Jezebel’s Irin Carmon, ‘don’t usually go for fair-haired’.
I was at a dinner party the other night, for example, and every woman in the room visibly wilted and began to purr at the mention of the actor’s name. When faced with the idea of a vegan Ryan Gosling, local bon vivant Marieke Hardy tweeted: ‘The sad thing is, vegan Ryan Gosling actually gives me a thrill in my pants.’ Josh Horowitz, interviewing Gosling on MTV After Hours, led with the statement, ‘Literally every woman I know is in love with you.’ Today I received an email from a colleague that says, ‘I want to lick him.’
Men love him too: in his review of Drive, Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw wrote that ‘there is hardly a male pundit or columnist in Britain under 70 who hasn’t declared a simpering man-crush on its star, Ryan Gosling’.
Feverish Gosling fans have proliferated since his turn in 2004 weepie The Notebook, but I never took much notice of him before last year. I was like Jezebel’s Lane Moore: ‘Not super on board with the RyanGoslingSuperMania – I get it, I like a few of his movies, I’ve just never been much for mania.’
But the internet has provided some extra ballast to the Gosling allure. In 2008, Douglas Reinhardt started the ‘Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling’ Tumblr as a lark: he liked Gosling as an actor, and he ‘seemed to be an actor that girls were generally attracted to’. The Tumblr features photos of Gosling adorned with captions of things he might say to you if you were his girlfriend. Each begins with ‘Hey Girl’. For example, a topless Gosling, looking pensively at a washbasin, accompanied by the caption, ‘Hey Girl. Did you steal all of my shirts? I can’t go to work shirtless, again.’
The meme slunk gently around the internet’s nether regions until late in 2010 when Gosling himself read some of the ‘Hey Girl’ quotes on MTV, with bashful good humour. The meme exploded, inspiring several spin- off sites, with arguably the best known being Danielle Henderson’s ‘Feminist Ryan Gosling’. Initiated in October 2011, the site imbues the faux-Gosling’s catchphrases with feminist theory. Example: ‘Hey Girl. Sometimes I think about Foucault’s theory of marriage as a governmentally developed tool that interferes with the appropriation of land rights, normalizes heterosexuality and subjugates a woman’s sexuality and it makes me want to cry with you.’ Henderson’s Gosling ventriloquism has been so popular that she is now writing a book based on the Tumblr, online magazine Rookie recently ran a Valentine’s Day ‘Feminist Ryan Gosling’ special, and the site has been featured on riot-grrrl queen Kathleen Hanna’s blog.
Obviously, Gosling has never said any of these things. But the reason this meme has been so popular might have something to do with Gosling’s off-screen persona, which is charming and interesting, and also feminism-friendly. When Blue Valentine (2010), in which Gosling starred with Michelle Williams, received an NC-17 rating, ostensibly because of a scene where Gosling’s character performs oral sex on Williams’, he commented, ‘You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen.’
It’s comments like this that makes Gosling’s appeal so different from that of most Hollywood heart-throbs: he’s a man that card-carrying feminists feel okay about fawning over. Yes, it’s beyond ridiculous to be romantically interested in a Hollywood actor, but God knows I would love to snuggle with that guy.
The other factor in Gosling’s recent popularity has been prolificacy: in 2010 and 2011 he was seen in five feature films: Blue Valentine (2010), All Good Things (2010), The Ides of March (2011), Drive (2011) and Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). My first encounter with Gosling was Blue Valentine, a movie likely to inspire melancholy in even the most sanguine of viewers. Gosling plays Dean, an almost-alcoholic occasional labourer whose devotion to his daughter and his wife Cindy (Michelle Williams) constitutes his sole raison d’être. With its disorienting cuts between past and present, which juxtapose and blur love’s heady mix of serendipity and early pursuit with the tragedy of mismatched growth, Blue Valentine is a heart-rending portrait of a decaying relationship.
Blue Valentine is all about its two leads. Gosling turns in a powerful performance in two parts: first, as a youth ready to do anything for the woman he loves; and second, as a man driven to desperation, mystified by the fact that Cindy no longer wants exactly what they had six years ago. Williams is equally excellent: in flashbacks, a fragile young woman to whom love has brought hope; in present-day scenes, pale and with restrained rancour, a woman from whom love has long fled.
It’s hard not to see Blue Valentine as a weird alternate-future companion of The Notebook, which drives towards a will-she-won’t-she reunion between two Southern sweethearts (Gosling and Rachel McAdams). Based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks (with the wistful arpeggios and bird shadows one would expect in such fare), this was the film that really brought the XX chromosome to the Gosling party. It’s no masterpiece, but it made me realise that you need to see Gosling in action to find him appealing. Yes, he’s handsome when static, but in a glassy, impersonal way, and his lips are kind of thin and duckish. But as Noah, the working-class paramour aspiring to the love of a wealthy girl, Gosling gives the viewer something that George Clooney never does: the sense that his character is giving everything he’s got. Add to this a voice that sounds clogged with emotion, even when it isn’t, and you’ve got yourself a heart-throb.
In Drive, Refn’s highly stylised homage to the 1980s, Gosling plays an unnamed Driver, who fixes cars during the day and mans getaway cars at night. Slick and affecting, Drive combines a slow but pulsing aggregation of criminality with fast-car fetishism. Against a surreal blend of grisly mob scenes and robotic soundtrack, Gosling turns in a moving performance as an outsider who decides to help the husband of Irene, the woman he loves, by bringing off a heist.
As the stoic, speech-averse Driver sets out on an irreversible track to protect Irene and her son, he remains sympathetic – even when stomping a man’s head in while Irene, shocked by his violence, looks on. The film places the Driver on a moral pedestal: he’s sacrificed his own happiness to secure hers.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘So what? The guy can play a laconic crim and a lovelorn no-hoper (twice), in films designed to glorify his characters.’ I get it, I really do. But Gosling has true skill as an actor. Take Lars and the Real Girl (2007), a well-meaning yet overly earnest film, in which Gosling plays the titular Lars, a traumatised young man who believes that a life-sized sex doll is his girlfriend. Easily the best thing about the film, Gosling plays Lars without irony, taking him from A to B sans the pat eagerness otherwise threatening the film.
Similarly, in The Ides of March, Gosling is Stephen Meyers, a press secretary working on a neck-and-neck presidential primary. Again, the plotting is solid rather than sophisticated, delineating a clear idealist-to-operator trajectory for Meyers. But Gosling’s performance is multifaceted, kinetic.
From the film’s outset, Gosling’s Meyers is all charisma, shoeshine and the kind of confidence that comes from conviction. This staffer is keyed up because he knows his guy will win: rock-star Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), who says all the right things and refuses to do dirty deals. Yet when some manipulative interference from the outside precipitates a misstep on Meyers’ part, events cascade towards a desperate showdown that sees Meyers exchange rectitude for raw ambition. The Ides of March has a high-functioning cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as top cats relishing the political chess game, and Gosling is appropriately cast alongside these acting greats as the understudy waiting to surface in the spotlight.
It remains to be seen whether Ryan Gosling has the staying power of megastars Clooney and Pitt. But right now, given the perfect storm of good looks, great skills, canny employment choices, feminism-friendly sound bites and tenacious viral internet appreciation, it looks like Gosling fever is here to stay. I’ve certainly got it bad. And why not? As ‘Feminist Ryan Gosling’ would say, ‘Gender is a social construct, but everyone likes to cuddle.’