The New and Improved Leading Man

Heard all the Hollywood hand-wringing about the death of the movie star? About how the only things that can get people to the box office are comic-book heroes and animated sequels? The people who say this definitely haven’t seen Magic Mike or Argo. The thing is, the leading man isn’t dead, but he’s evolving into something a little more complicated. Mark Harris explains the rules of leading men and tells us who is one (Channing Tatum), who isn’t (Taylor Kitsch, at least not yet), and why:

At the beginning of last year, there were two particularly strong candidates to become a one-namer: Channing Tatum and Taylor Kitsch. For one thing, they were the right age: Tatum is 32; Kitsch is 31. That works, because, with rare exceptions (Travolta in the ’70s, Cruise in the ’80s), we don’t usually want male movie stars to be in their twenties. We’ll watch them, we’ll like them, we’ll go to their films, but being handsome (or pretty) and devoid of life experience—the age at which your clear, healthy, unlined face is a map of nothing but optimism untouched by personal history—that’s not quite the look of a movie star. Stardom is something you have to grow into. The beginning of your thirties is a good time to make the jump, and it should be a jump, an ascension, an unexpected upsurge that makes people feel that even though they’ve seen you before, they’re now seeing into you for the first time.

Tatum spent the past five years serving as the most ingratiating element of unmemorable movies like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Step Up 2 the Streets. Kitsch’s main credit was five seasons on Friday Night Lights. As résumés go, these were modest but promising, the kind of credits that often precede an official moment, that tick of the career clock when executives and directors and producers and media people all start to ask, “Yes or no?”

Kitsch got to don the armature of two oversize, very expensive would-be franchises, John Carter and Battleship. About half a billion budget dollars—serious money even in a profligate industry—rode on the bet that he could be the dude at the center of the trailer. Tatum, meanwhile, worked in two less costly subgenres—the romantic melodrama (The Vow) and the TV retread (21 Jump Street). Besides those lunges for popular acceptance, each guy took an ass-baring chance on artistic credibility—Kitsch pounding away atop Blake Lively in Oliver Stone’s Savages, Tatum reprocessing his own past as a stripper for Steven Soderbergh in Magic Mike.

If we’re grading these guys, money matters. You can’t be a movie star if nobody sees your movies. But even the stats start to crumble when you look at them closely. All three of Tatum’s films were hits, not huge but solid, each grossing between $100 and $140 million in the U.S. Moreover, they represented an undeniably efficient return on investment. (Magic Mike, for instance, was made for just $7 million.) Kitsch’s movies were not hits; they earned too little domestically—between $50 and $75 million apiece—and, except for Savages, they cost too much. But the movies are a worldwide business and, globally, Kitsch’s three pictures took in $669 million, substantially outperforming Tatum’s. What, therefore, does the math add up to? A wash.

Still, there’s no mistaking the outcome. The dust clears. We survey the landscape. Channing Tatum is now a movie star. And Taylor Kitsch is not. How did this transition, not particularly predictable a year ago, happen for one of them? Why did it fail to happen for the other?