Humphrey Bogart. Fred Astaire. Marlon Brando. Male leads that came to define an era, flag-bearers of the golden age of Hollywood, and actors that have meagre equivalents (at best) in today’s cinematic landscape. Accompanied by such legendary leading ladies as Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Mae West and Marilyn Monroe, these men epitomised that which all women wanted, and all men wanted to be. Calculated, classy and effortlessly cool, these men in their sharp suits and calm demeanour represent the classic idol of American culture: a man who could take charge of any situation, his character rooted in suaveness and machismo. These men are a dying breed across cinema today, with collected masculinity slowly phased out in favour of more relatable, less idyllic characters. Men still exist, however, that fit the bill of classic leading man, but for how much longer? It seems that the heady days of silver screen heroes are over, with only the still-warm ashes left stirring in today’s male leads.
There is no single quality that all classic leads share. Few would argue that there’s a lot of difference between the soft-spoken toughness of John Wayne to the raw animal magnetism of Brando, yet both occupy the same role: figurehead of a lost generation of cool, admirable leading men. In today’s celebrity culture, efforts are made to humanise actors and actresses, and we are constantly reminded that these men and women are just like us. They have children, pay taxes and feel neuroses like everyone else. In Bogart’s day, leading men were heroes. Transcending popular culture, they represented everything the American Dream stood for: an unmatched power of personality, the classic underdog triumph and the manly manhood that encapsulated what it meant to be a gentleman of the times. Many endure to this day as cultural icons of bygone days, with Brando in particular representing the antisocial hero that bucks trends and rebels against a society he knows is built on the wrong foundations. A contemporary version of the free American, he reminds viewers of their roots and remains the most exciting actor to grace American screens.
John Wayne, another enduring American icon, was famed for his rugged masculinity and distinctive physical attributes. He symbolized and communicated ideals and values of the era, something which catapulted him into the forefront of cultural recognition to such an extent that when Japanese Emperor Hirohito visited the USA in 1975, he asked to meet John Wayne, a man who represented his country’s former enemy. Wayne was the ultimate movie war hero, and perhaps this is the key to understanding why so few of today’s actors succeed in capturing the hearts of the audience like their predecessors readily did. Men like Wayne were stars in an era that knew itself entirely; the American dream was alive and kicking and there was a solid, tangible picture (that the actors themselves espoused) of what the contemporary American man should be like. Nowadays, the actors we compare to these are men like Clint Eastwood, who gained prominence as a gritty, hard-hitting lead with a cutting edge. Eastwood and actors like him are throwbacks to the era of concrete ideals and staunch support of them rather than representatives of the modern muddle we see in politics, cinema and even culture as a whole today.
The American people look back to an era of class, rebellion and undoubted resilience and see the leading men of old as representatives of it. James Dean is today seen as the cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, just as other great actors have come to define their own strata of the American experience. That is why these characters have been so loved throughout recent history: their representation of the experiences and ideals of American culture remains unmatched in today’s field of undoubtedly talented actors and actresses. Though actors like Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are (arguably) every bit as skilled as the actors of that age, they lack the ability to encapsulate an entire era in the same way, and hence cannot possibly be called ‘heroes’ in the same way.