Where did Ryan Gosling come from? I mean, I know he was a Mouseketeer and that he turned a couple heads in The United States of Leland and The Notebook. Even still, he seemed to come out of nowhere with Half Nelson, having undergone a foggy transformation from burgeoning boy-wonder to serious thespian. He has since been cultivating a persona built upon a precious (pretentious?) commitment to avant-garde idealism, a dryly humorous willingness to mock Hollywood, and an outrageous-yet-dapper personal style. Also, abs. His counterparts are James Franco and the late Heath Ledger. Yet while Franco’s antics seem more and more annoying (and Ledger’s death more and more tragic) Gosling’s star continues to rise and rise and rise. So, again, where did Ryan Gosling come from? Wherefore lies his particular allure?
Gosling has been slowly perfecting a unique filmic masculinity that hearkens back to Clint Eastwood and John Wayne while feeling entirely fresh and new at the same time. His characters are usually reticent, incapable of or unwilling to be expressive, to share their inner souls. He specializes in blank, enigmatic looks that make you want to swoon-scream: “What are you thinking?” Even his extraordinarily verbose husband in Blue Valentine seemed to speak only because he desperately wanted to know what his wife was feeling and yet equally desperately could not hear what she said. He seems untouchable, un-get-at-able. He’s the opposite of the tortured, emo, vampire boys, the Louises and Edwards and Bills and Stefans, with their obsession with endlessly reporting their tortured, eternal angst. Yet like them he also seems out of time, specializing in films that look set in an earlier time but aren’t (Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine, Drive). Gosling’s filmic masculinity hits its apex in Drive, with a character so mysterious he does not even have a name; he’s only know as Driver.
Perhaps we are entering an age of movies-about-movies or, better, movies that self-consciously exist in a cinematic universe. People made that argument about Pulp Fiction and I believe that it also applies to The Artist. It certainly applies to Drive, which looks and sounds, stylistically, like it’s set in the early 1980s, yet the cars give it an aura of that late 1990s world of Ronin, Fast and Furious, etc. while the cell phones make it clear that it’s actually set now. The cast, too, seems mixed in time with a resurgent performance from Albert Brooks, the 1960s-affiliated Christina Hendricks, the elfin delicacy of Carrie Mulligan, and the hulking menace of Ron Perlman. These components all evoke that “out of timeness” that Gosling personifies and signal a movie universe that bears only a passing resemblance to the real world. (Gosling’s out of timeness seems also to come from his penchant for playing working class characters, an interesting aspect outside the purview of this post.) Such movies run the risk of seeming like all style and no substance yet when they exhibit the masterful craftsmanship of Drive it’s probably best to just enjoy the ride.
Similarly, Gosling’s Driver is not human. He comes from nowhere, possessing an inherent understanding of cars–how to fix them, how to drive them. He says almost nothing. He will kill if need be, brutally, but takes no pleasure in doing so. He loves selectively, forever, and without fanfare. If Driver were a real person his detachment and brutality would mark him as a a sociopath while his preternatural automotive abilities fit the stereotype for an autistic. He almost seems like Michael Meyer’s good guy cousin. Yet we root for this bizarre figure mostly because a. he’s freaking cool and b. because his protection of Irene (Mulligan) and her son seems pure. Gosling has perfected a rather intriguing equation: freaking cool + damaged + enigmatic + unwaveringly devoted = crazy, stupid hotness.
So why now? Why Gosling, whose name evokes adorable baby birds rather than sex appeal? Earlier I contrasted the kinds of characters Gosling seems to prefer with the tortured vampire types. That type has had a long run, since the 1990s at least when we were treated not only to Brad Pitt’s Louis but also the grunge-era angst of Ethan Hawke, Johnny Depp, and Kurt Cobain. (The fact that Cobain and Pitt have been superseded by Robert Pattinson makes me weep but that’s a subject for another post.) Of course, every soulful emo man has a bad-boy counterpart, our other option: Bill has Eric; Louis has Lestat; Stefan has Damon. Really, it’s romance novel 101. Gosling’s guys fit neither of these personae but then again they seem to fit both. (Jacob from Crazy, Stupid, Love most overtly caricatures this balance.) They’re not smouldering bad boys, they’re not good guys in need of salvation. Yet they concurrently seem good and bad, and profoundly unattainable. Driver loves Irene; Jacob loves Emily (Emma Stone); Dan loves his drugs; Lars loves his blow-up doll; but no Gosling character will ever love you. His love always seems unwaveringly specific.
So as a feminist how do I account for the appeal of Gosling since “desiring the unattainable” seems like such a cliché? Moreover, I would not actually want to be with any of Gosling’s characters, perhaps the inhuman Driver most of all. Heck, I wouldn’t want to be with Ryan Gosling. Yet if a movie poster says “Ryan Gosling” on it, I will see that film. I think it stems from intensity, an intensity that I see in Gosling’s characters (that “unwavering devotion”) and in Gosling’s star text. There is something attractive about deep commitment; it’s part of why we admire virtuosos of any stripe. Gosling’s brand of masculinity pursues what it wants with single-minded focus and that willingness to commit, that passion, works for me.