Oct. 13, 2008— -- With Paul Newman's death last month, audiences were reminded just how much he embodied the iconic American leading man, appealing to women and men alike.
Newman's chiseled face and steely blue eyes were characteristic of the Hollywood heartthrob of yesteryear: strong, silent, masculine. Today's generation of leading men is more likely to resemble Leonardo DiCaprio's boyish looks.
"Because of the overwhelming success of 'Titanic,' a lot of men had a hard time relating to DiCaprio," said Wes Gehring, a film professor at Ball State University in Indiana. "He not only had to fight the youthful thing, but he had to fight that he was too pretty. James Dean had that same kind of scenario going on. Women wanted to comfort him; men wanted to slap him around and say grow up."
DiCaprio has grown up. It has been more than 10 years since he became a superstar playing the romantic lead opposite Kate Winslet in "Titanic." He's more likely now to take a more character-driven role, like his latest as a Middle East-based CIA operative in the film "Body of Lies," that plays against his good looks.
In that way, he's like Newman, who also tried to subvert his classic good looks by playing flawed heroes, cads and has-beens.
"DiCaprio has very consciously sought out interesting roles," said Hollywood Reporter film editor Gregg Kilday. "With the success of 'Titanic,' the easy conventional thing for him would have been to do what Matthew McConaughey does -- romantic comedies. Instead, he's adopted different accents ['Blood Diamond,' 'The Departed']. He's interested in taking on more challenging things. For the most part, he's not interested in trading on his heartthrob status."
For those hoping to see a return to romance when he teams up again with Winslet for the film "Revolutionary Road" in December, his fans are bound to be disappointed. The film is about a disintegration of a relationship.
Are we seeing the disintegration of the Hollywood leading man?
"At this point, we are witnessing a kind of shift from that pure grown-in-America country boy," said New York City casting director Patrick Goodwin. "It's really hard to find that."
That may be why the sort of man's man that Newman, Steve McQueen and John Wayne once represented is more likely these days to be imported from Australia (Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman), England (Daniel Craig, Jason Statham) or Scotland (Gerard Butler).
"I don't think the strong-jawed leading man has gone away," Kilday said. "There's just not a lot of American stars in that role. Gerard Butler, Jason Statham, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig are all fitting into that slot. On the other side, the group of American actors, Leo DiCaprio, Tobey McGuire, Shia LaBeouf and Matt Damon, are all very boyish looking.
"At the same time, if the studios found a younger Steve McQueen, they would be happy to draft that guy," Kilday added. "For the moment, they have been reaching abroad."
With Hollywood always looking for the next big thing, the traditionally home-grown masculine star has become hard to find. After the muscle-bound action stars of the '80s -- Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- aged out of their roles, George Clooney, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were there to take their place. Now, in their 40s, Clooney, Cruise and Pitt are all interested in mixing up the kinds of roles they take.
Among the latest crop of male stars, many, like DiCaprio and LaBeouf, established themselves at a young age, which is part of the reason they have a hard time leaving their boyish personas behind.
Goodwin said these younger men are also more marketable, since they can appeal to both audiences in their 20s and teens.
Hollywood has also been more willing to cast a nontraditional leading man since putting Keanu Reeves in the "Matrix" franchise. "Keanu was kind of a transitional figure," Kilday said.
Goodwin agrees that studios are more open to other options if they can't find that traditional man's man. "It's opened up the doors for actors who haven't seen themselves as castable for a role because they didn't necessarily fit the physical type."
Gehring adds that it's also a lot easier for leading men such as Clooney, Pitt and DiCaprio to play against type than it was during Hollywood's golden age. Actors from an earlier era, like Robert Redford and Harrison Ford, generally stick close to the leading man type. Otherwise, if they divert from it, like Ford did in "What Lies Beneath," where he played a murdering cheating spouse, they draw flak.
But someone like Josh Brolin can play the nasty cop in "American Gangster," the sympathetic everyman in "No Country for Old Men" and a satire of President Bush in the upcoming "W."
"The difference I see," said Gehring, "is the tendency for the more contemporary leading man to play a variety of parts."