Movies & TV

Who Is Hollywood's Next Leading Man (If There Is One)?

And do they stand a chance at the old guard-favoring award ceremonies?
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This Sunday, the winners at the 92nd Academy Awards will be announced. They'll each be given shiny gold statues, and we'll finally know the identities of the most exciting actors working in Hollywood. Or, rather, which ones the Academy deems to have served their shift.

The Oscars claim to be a marker of the industry's best talent, but in 2020 the dearth of new names is noticeable. As well as being made up entirely of white actors, the nominees for 'Best Actor' and 'Best Supporting Actor' are roll call of Hollywood Legends: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins. Nearly all of those in the race are surfing on former glories, and the frontrunners in both categoriesPitt for Supporting, Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actorwill most likely win their first Academy Awards for performances that aren't necessarily career highlights.

The Oscars have a habit of playing it safe when it comes to breakthrough performances. This year alone, the Academy has bottled it by ignoring the career-redefining performances of Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers and Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems. And there's no new faces in the banner categories, with snubs for Kelvin Harrison Jr's standout work in Waves and Jimmie Fails for his mesmerising performance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

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Awards shows often get it wrong, and yes, perhaps they don't mean all that much anyway, but this lack of recognition for the new generation of actors is making them feel increasingly disconnected. The major acting awards are morphing into lifetime achievement gongs; younger actors have to wait their turn. This issue begs the question of who Hollywood's next leading men might be when the current crop is (shortly) aged out.

Old Guard: Al Pacino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt during their award season campaigning this year.

Photo by MICHAEL KOVAC.
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In a 2013 article, Variety posited that Hollywood was suffering from a "leading man crisis", arguing that the era of "idolised screen legends like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Fred Astaire" was over, and that the crop of actors that were consistently big at the box office were all in or approaching their 40s.

Since then there have been some new entrants to the game. English infiltrators such as Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch; spandex-ready The Chrisescomprised of Messrs Pratt, Pine, Hemsworth and Evans; the gruff Michael Fassbender; the winsome Ryan Reynolds. These are names that were once synonymous with craft but now more commonly open tentpole features. They're noticeably absent during awards season. The Marvel Effect has widened the gulf between popular actors and rewarded ones. Often an actor has a strong run where it looks like they're the next big thing (see: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper) then it fades away, or an exciting new name gives a standout performance, but the awards never materialise (see: Shia LaBeouf, Miles Teller).

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Mahershala Ali winning his second consecutive Academy Award in 2019.

Photo by JEFF KRAVITZ.

Relatively new names like Christoph Waltz or Mahershala Ali have dominated the acting categories in recent years, but neither is exactly a whippersnapper. The youngest man in the leading man conversation might be poor, 36-year-old Adam Driver, who in the last few years has worked with the pantheon of great directors (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch) and yet keeps coming up empty handed.

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This year it looks like he'll again lose out in the 'Best Actor' race to Phoenix, who looks set to be rewarded for a strong career, rather than one standout performance (if you think his turn as Arthur Fleck beats his Johnny Cash, his Commodus or his Freddie Quell, you're insane). Driver's turn in Noah Baumbach's tearjerker Marriage Story is far more nuanced than Phoenix's work in Joker, but was light on massive weight change or intense physicality, which too often serve as shorthand for 'doing the acting' (just see Leonardo DiCaprio's win for The Revenant).

Adam Driver in Marriage Story, who is set to lose out in the Best Actor Oscar race to Joaquin Phoenix.

Photo by NETFLIX.
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Meanwhile, the frontrunner in the 'Best Supporting Actor' race is Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, who, at 56, is the youngest of his fellow nominees in a category with a combined age of 356. Pitt is, confusingly, running the career revival campaign of a former heavyweight despite never having won an Academy Award. Even more confusingly, he's a relative newcomer compared to rivals Joe Pesci, Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino.

The path to leading man status is changing. Take Timothée Chalamet, one of the most exciting young male actors working at the moment. Where would he be now if we lived in a (more just) world in which he had beaten Gary Oldman to the Academy Award for 'Best Actor' in 2018? Would the gothic-looking heartthrob have cemented his status as the heir apparent to the throne of Hollywood's next leading man?

Chalamet's breakout turn in Call Me By Your Name, the gay love story set over a sun-drenched Italian summer, was his audition to the league of great actors. His early promise earned him comparisons to Leonardo DiCaprio, who at 24 – the age Chalamet is now – had already appeared in Titanic, Romeo + Juliet and The Basketball Diaries. Aside Ladybird, his work since has been a series of films which haven't quite lived up to their promise, with Beautiful Boy, The King and White Boy Rick all disappointing.

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Timothée Chalamet’s breakout role in Call Me By Your Name, a role which made him the youngest Best Actor nominee in 80 years.

Photo by SONY PICTURES.

His performance in Greta Gerwig's Oscar-nominated Little Women is excellent but naturally takes a backseat to the performances of Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan as the March sisters. The roles on his horizon, as the lead in Denis Villeneuve's reboot of Dune, in Wes Anderson's "love letter to journalism" The French Dispatch, and CMBYN sequel Find Me, are releases which will put his acting in the spotlight. Yet Chalamet's acting talent feels almost incidental to the celebrity buzz around him, pointing to the fact that the our idea of a leading man has changed as internet culture has evolved. The headlines he makes are for the transgressive things he does: wearing a provocative harness on the red carpet or donating the salary he earned working with Woody Allen.

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Robert Pattinson has had a similar buzz around him, but his career has seen him intentionally eschew Oscar-bait movies, choosing a strange collection of recent projects including High Life, Good Time and The Lighthouse. Each has seen praise heaped on his performances, but have been a bit too left-field for the Academy. His next move? Playing the caped crusader in The Batman which, given how well Joker has gone down with Academy members, might ironically put him in contention for a little gold man. Relative youngster Rami Malek won 'Best Actor' in 2018 for Bohemian Rhapsody, but it was surely in part due to a weak set of performances he was up against that year.

Robert Pattinson with Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse, the zany A24 film which won him acclaim but was overlooked by award ceremonies.
Photo by PLANET PHOTOS.
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Pattinson is part of a new generation of leading men, one who are more sensitive and emotionally vulnerable, and less swaggering and womanising than the on-screen leading men of yore. Think of the endearingly awkward Lucas Hedges or the quietly magnetic Daniel Kaluuya. Then there's the brilliantly unconventional LaKeith Stanfield, whose is consistently appearing in the films generating the most conversation while being steadfastly ignored by award ceremonies, from Get Out to Sorry To Bother You to Uncut Gems to Knives Out.

Despite changes to Academy membership, new ideas and new faces are not permeating the Oscars status quo. The endgame of this is the Oscars being a back-patting but largely irrelevant ceremony, one where the major acting categories are interchangeable with the lifetime achievement awards, while the genuinely exciting acting talent are appearing in small indie films, mammoth blockbusters, and not much in-between.

Perhaps the question is not who is Hollywood's 'next leading man', but whether there will be one.

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This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.

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