Hollywood’s Leading Men: Then and Now
Let’s rewind a hundred years back, all the way to the roaring 20s – the decade marked by flapper dresses and the birth of jazz – Hollywood was reigned by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Together, they held extravagant parties at their home they called ‘Pickfair’, and anyone who was someone would be seen at their lavish events.
Widely considered as the first king and queen of Hollywood, Fairbanks and Pickford paved the way to what we consider today as the “leading man” and “it-girl”.
Today, we round-up some of the most iconic leading men of the first century that captured audiences worldwide -- who followed after Douglas Fairbanks, and who are their modern-day counterparts?
Then: Humphrey Bogart
Most-known for his performance in Casablanca (1942), Bogey is probably one of the most iconic leading men to ever grace the silverscreen. His trademark film persona was the arrogant but tough protagonist – often aloof or emotionally distant, but rugged and still in-control. He was also part of original Hollywood Rat Pack together with Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and other famous actors.
Most Iconic Movies: Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), The African Queen (1951).
Oscar Wins: 1 | Oscar Nominations: 3
Now: Robert Downey, Jr.
With the Marvel Cinematic Universe captivating the screen, who doesn’t love Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man? Like Bogey, RDJ is also known for his trademark cinematic character – arrogant, and emotionally unavailable. Like Bogey, he was also part of a famous Hollywood circle: The Brat Pack of the 1980s. Like the Rat Pack, these group of actors were also known for their constant partying and ‘bratty’ demeanour.
Most Iconic Movies: The Iron Man franchise, Marvel’s The Avengers franchise, Chances Are (1989), Tropic Thunder (2008).
Oscars Wins: 0 | Oscar Nominations: 2
Then: Clark Gable
Known simply as “The King”, Clark Gable starred in more than 60 motion pictures. He gained popularity during the early 1930s, cementing his fame as a leading man for the decades to come. His persona was that of a “man’s man” – masculine, straight-forward, and of course, a known-lothario. Not that different on-screen and in real life, Gable was difficult to pin down. Not until he met the love of his life Carole Lombard. Sadly, several years into their tumultuous yet promising marriage, Lombard passed away in a tragic plane crash.
Most Iconic Movies: Gone With the Wind (1939), It Happened One Night (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Misfits (1961).
Oscar Wins: 2 | Oscar Nominations: 3
Now: George Clooney
He started as a TV heartthrob in the hit-series ER. He transitioned to cinematic fame later on in his career. Also known as a long time ladies’ man, George Clooney has been Hollywood’s most coveted bachelor for years. Later in his life (much like Gable), he met his wife and the love of his life, Amal Alammudin, a famed human-rights litigator.
Most Iconic Movies: The “Ocean’s” franchise, Michael Clayton (2007), Up in the Air (2009), Gravity (2013).
Oscar Wins: 2 | Oscar Nominations: 8
Then: Cary Grant
He began a career in Hollywood in the early 1930s and became known for his transatlantic accent, debonair demeanour, and light-hearted approach to acting and sense of comic timing. Besides his light-hearted films, Grant also worked often with Alfred Hitchcock in movies with emotional depth and complicated plot-twists. This dynamic approach to acting made him a well-respected actor, rather than just a Hollywood celebrity.
Most Iconic Movies: The Philadelphia Story (1940), Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), North by Northwest (1959).
Oscar Wins: 2 | Oscar Nominations: 2
Now: Ryan Gosling
Hey girl, Ryan Gosling makes it to our list! Known for his heartthrob status, Ryan Gosling isn’t one to rest on the laurels of Hollywood fame. His movies are a mix of intense thrillers and light romantic comedies (much like Grant). The similarity between the two comes from their dynamic character and acting style.
Most Iconic Movies: La La Land (2016), The Notebook (2004), Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), Drive (2011), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012).
Oscar Wins: 0 | Oscar Nominations: 2
Then: Laurence Olivier
Laurence Olivier could be the most accomplished in this list, earning himself his very own eponymous acting award, given by the Society of London Theatre annually. Theatre, film, and television – Olivier has dominated it all. Known for his debonair persona, he was very much the respected actor on and off screen. Oh and by the way, his many honours include a knighthood.
Most Iconic Movies: Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca (1940), his Shakespeare trilogy, Long Day's Journey Into Night (1973), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976).
Oscar Wins: 4 | Oscar Nominations: 15
Now: Benedict Cumberbatch
Although, Cumberbatch is still quite early into a promising career, his similarities to Olivier are one to note. A successful performer in theatre, film, and television, Cumberbatch proves to audiences worldwide that his acting chops are one for the books. He is also known for his classy, and old-world charm. A sure icon for what it means to be a gentleman, Cumberbatch is etching his own place in Hollywood. Oh, and he was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award three times, and won once.
Most Iconic Movies: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), The Imitation Game (2014), The Hobbit series, Doctor Strange (2016).
Oscar Wins: 0 | Oscar Nominations: 1
Then: Montgomery Clift
Along with Marlon Brando and James Dean, Clift was one of the original method actors in Hollywood. Known for portraying “moody and sensitive” young men in films, Montly Clift was one of Hollywood’s most talented leading men. He was known for his deep friendship with Elizabeth Taylor, and their role together in A Place in the Sun (1951).
Most Iconic Movies: A Place in the Sun (1951), I Confess (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).
Oscar Wins: 0 | Oscar Nominations: 4
Now: Heath Ledger
Also known for his roles of tormented, and deeply emotional characters, Heath Ledger has a few similarities with Monty Clift. His brooding persona is reminiscent of the former actor. Ledger was also known for method acting, specifically in preparation for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), where he spent months on end locked up in his apartment. He ran on two hours of sleep and isolation in order to recreate the manic and chaotic nature of the character.
Most Iconic Movies: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), The Patriot (2000), A Knight's Tale (2001), Monster's Ball (2001), Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Dark Knight (2008).
Oscar Wins: 1 | Oscar Nominations: 2
Then: Marlon Brando
Known as the king of method acting, Marlon Brando captivated audiences with his impeccable performances and cinematic diversity. He was one of the first Hollywood actors who subscribed to the “Stanislavski Method” – a Russian theatre technique that encouraged “experiencing” rather than “representing”. Known for his role in the action classic The Godfather (1972), Brando’s brand of acting wasn’t one to shy away from emotion and torment.
Most Iconic Movies: The Godfather (1972), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Last Tango in Paris (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979).
Oscar Wins: 2 | Oscar Nominations: 8
Now: Daniel Day-Lewis
Who else comes to mind when we talk about method acting in recent cinema? Daniel Day-Lewis gives the best of them a run for their money. Born from theatre acting, Daniel Day’s intricate style was first noticed in his breakout film My Left Foot (1990). In this movie he plays an Irishman born with cerebral palsy who could only control his left foot.
Most Iconic Movies: My Left Foot (1990), In the Name of the Father (1993), Gangs of New York (2003), There Will Be Blood (2008), Lincoln (2013).
Oscar Wins: 3 | Oscar Nominations: 5
Then: James Dean
James Dean is most remembered as a cultural icon of teenage disillusionment and social estrangement, as expressed in the title of his most celebrated film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which he starred as troubled teenager Jim Stark. His acting style was very complex at a very young age. He was the first actor to every receive a posthumous Oscar nomination. His sudden death catapulted him to worldwide icon status.
Most Iconic Movies: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), East of Eden (1955), Giant (1956).
Oscar Wins: 0 | Oscar Nominations: 2
Now: Leonardo DiCaprio
If we take DiCaprio’s earlier career, we just might find some similarities with the spirit in which James Dean performed his roles. His earlier works like Romeo + Juliet (1996), What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), and The Beach (2000) have the same kind of brooding, emotional appeal. One wonders, if James Dean had more time in Hollywood, could he have forged a successful carrer in the same way DiCaprio has?
Most Iconic Movies: What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Departed (2006), Revolutionary Road (2008), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
Oscar Wins: 1 | Oscar Nominations: 6