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?


Leading Mannequins

It’s an open secret that movie stars don’t dress themselves any more than your 2-year-old does. Think Tom Cruise knew what a shawl collar was before someone put him in one? Or that Ryan Gosling woke up one day in a Henley? (Well, maybe.) Which is why the most important person behind an actor’s image isn’t his agent—it’s his stylist. For our April 2012 special issue—The Style Bible—GQ sent Molly Young to spend a week with a Hollywood dresser to find out who picks the clothes that make the man. Below is our favorite bit from the story. The rest is here.

It seems fair to note here that no one in Hollywood buys his own clothes. No actor does, I mean. They don’t. “They won’t even buy a fucking T-shirt,” Ilaria marvels. She means this in two senses: One, actors don’t physically go shopping (their stylists do), and two, they do not pay money for the clothes they wear. At Ferragamo, for example, I watch a PR woman show Ilaria a butterscotch suede bomber jacket, to which the stylist’s one-word reply is: “Bradley.” And that’s it—that’s all it takes. Later in the day, an assistant will be dispatched to drop the item off at Bradley Cooper’s place. Maybe he’ll like it, maybe not. The piece retails for $4,700.

Back at Armani, Ilaria is trailed by a PR guy. At one point, he pauses and holds up a velvet jacket. “So rico suave,” he says. “For Armie [Hammer]?”

"It’s beautiful, and I get it," Ilaria says, "but no. For Nic Cage, yes. Not for Armie." Nic Cage likes deep, lordly colors. And velvet. "I think it’s good to have a, uh, velvet selection for Cage," she remarks.

But Ilaria knew that Armani wasn’t lending to Cage. She’d received an e-mail from Armani that afternoon saying as much. I’d asked her why—had his stock as an actor fallen? Is that how it worked? “Not really,” Ilaria said. When a brand refuses to dress a person, she explained, it’s because that person doesn’t mesh with the brand’s conception of itself. The rest was implied. I guess Armani doesn’t conceive of itself as a turbulent and possibly bankrupt label that collects classic comic books.

After outfits for Armie are pulled, the PR guy pauses for a brief time-out period for awards gossip and speculation. He distributes Red Vines from a tub, which prompts everyone to say, “Ugh, I shouldn’t,” and then guiltily eat some. (People in L.A. talk about their bodies the way people in New York talk about their work, which is fucking constantly. The next day I will hear Armie Hammer’s publicist tell him with zero irony: “Your dog is in great shape.”)

"You’re gonna put Armie in Armani, right?" I ask Ilaria as we leave. For a traditionally formed (read: man-shaped) man like Armie, there seems to be no choice but Armani, and I am still drunk on luxury. But Ilaria shrugs: "May the best tux win."