The movie industry has been put on the back burner for over a year—releases were delayed; production ground to a halt; the cinematic well temporarily dried. But film festivals have begun to reemerge in the flesh and fanatics have returned to the theaters—and thus, so has the leading man to the silver screen. A quick Google search will tell you that Hollywood’s leading man is striking and confident, commanding and charismatic. Visions of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca or Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire may enter your daydreams.
But what does it take to be a leading man in 2021? Have we transcended beyond the historical framework of the dashing, masculine hero? Feminism and conversations about toxic masculinity have altered our perception of what’s attractive to the masses. Internet discourse on “men written by women” has pervaded TikTok and Twitter, reframing the “female gaze” against the dominating male gaze. Today’s Hollywood leading man reflects the varied desires of the current moment—from 1950s manliness to the grungy heartthrob of the 1990s to the androgynous charmers of the 2020s. Looking ahead at the slate of moving pictures to be released this fall, three standout guys are evident, both in sheer number of features and in impact of roles: Adam Driver, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Timothée Chalament. These are the next generation of swoon-worthy subjects.
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If his recent viral equine-themed advertisement for Burberry’s Hugo perfume didn’t already hint at the particular stanship around actor Adam Driver, his packed autumn slate certainly does. With three films on the books for the late summer and fall, this Oscar-nominee’s fandom will have even more to celebrate. This August, Driver stars in the peculiar, surrealist Leos Carax musical Annette, which opened 2021’s Cannes Film Festival and two Ridley Scott titles: House of Gucci, alongside Lady Gaga, and the star-studded medieval film The Last Duel. Driver is known for his baritone voice and intense yet slightly unsettling demeanor, making him the perfect candidate for roles like Star Wars’s misunderstood villain Kylo Ren and the volatile husband in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019).
This fall sees Driver once again taking the helm of films defined by their conflicts. Though the three films vary in scope and era, a common thread runs through the fabric of Annette, House of Gucci and The Last Duel—all consider the emotional and physical violence that can exist in a marriage, from Patrizia Reggiani’s (Gaga) murder of her husband Maurizio Gucci (Driver), to the mysterious ferocity suggested in Annette, to a couple tested by an accusation of rape in 14th-century France. Driver doesn’t take on light projects—he repeatedly probes the emotional limits of a role, suggesting an alluring complexity underneath the surface. The actor’s ability to perform the torturous or the psychological on the screen explains not only his award-winning resume but the obsession surrounding him. Driver may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for many, his unconventionality and complexity make him the leading man of the moment.
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Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II only began his acting career in 2016 but has already appeared in some of our favorite films and television shows—Watchmen, Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), The Handmaid’s Tale, Black Mirror, The Greatest Showman (2017). Most recently, Abdul-Mateen played Black Panther Party founder Bobby Seale in the lauded Aaron Sorkin film The Trial of Chicago 7 (2020). Now, he makes his Hollywood comeback this autumn with two box office knockouts: Candyman (produced by Jordan Peele) and the upcoming, untitled Matrix film. We know, we know—a very unimpressive CV for an actor with only five years under his belt.
With a gleaming smile and a six-foot, three-inch stature, Abdul-Mateen is easily identifiable as Hollywood hero material. But his leading man charm goes beyond his striking looks and masculinity—Abdul-Mateen has repeatedly demonstrated his natural talent and versatility, playing a variety of roles with equal amounts of candor and vigor. As the 35-year-old moves up Peele’s lineup from supporting role to starring lead with Candyman, which premieres August 27, he also establishes himself as a new hero in one of the most iconic Sci-Fi series of all time. The upcoming season will no doubt be huge for Abdul-Mateen—and could (deservingly so) establish the actor as both a household name and a fixture on Hollywood’s unofficial roster of leading men.
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We all saw this coming. What would a study of 2021’s men of cinema be without a mention of the seemingly ubiquitous Timothée Chalamet? Whereas Abdul-Mateen owns classic, rugged charisma, Chalamet signals a new brand of leading man. Hollywood is familiar with the dashing wunderkind—Leonardo DiCaprio, River Phoenix and Brad Pitt come to mind—but Chalamet has taken the notion of the highbrow heartthrob and turned it on its head. Browse his name on social media and impassioned words about his quirkiness, femininity and lankiness immediately arise. The obsession began sometime around 2017, when Chalamet starred in the hit queer romance film Call Me By Your Name (2017), immediately followed by his performance as pretentious indie boy Kyle in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017). And no one can forget his endearing Laurie in the Gerwig adaptation of Little Women (2019).
However, this fall, Chalamet moves away from his previous persona as the endearing (and always a little bit pretentious) male love interest to roles that will diversify his already impressive portfolio. The 25-year-old will star as student revolutionary Zeffirelli in Wes Anderson’s highly anticipated The French Dispatch, which premiered at Cannes this summer and will hit theaters on October 22—the same day as Dune, Chalamet’s other fall box office release. Switching from the artful, cartoonish whimsy of Anderson, Chalamet plays reluctant intergalactic hero Paul Atreides who must navigate the perils of his new home planet. Loved for his lanky frame, his soft-spoken and boyish manner and his notorious presence on the NYU social scene (hawk-eyed devotees have made a game of spotting him at Tompkins Square Bagels in the East Village), how will fans react to his moves towards more heroic instances? If there’s one thing that Hollywood has come to—or perhaps more accurately, been forced to—embrace, it’s a diversity of typecasts. Whether the fans follow is another story.
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