The series Killer Heartthrob: A Ryan Gosling Double Bill starts on MUBI on March 1, 2021 in many countries.
If it had to be pinpointed, I might say that 2011 was the year of total Gosling ascendancy. By then, he had been in six movies in two years, and his star had risen to the extent that he was among the most popular and widely-memed Hollywood actors of his moment. It was the year he graced the cover of GQ, was the subject of dozens of celebrity profiles, and his fans would stage a mock-protest of People Magazine for not naming him Sexiest Man Alive. It was also the year that he carved out a role for himself that would land squarely in the public memory; one that required him to wear a shiny, champagne-gold bomber jacket with a scorpion embroidered on its back. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive featured Gosling in a pared-down performance as a monosyllabic getaway driver, and the stylish crime throwback that Refn orchestrated with such panache received a fifteen-minute standing ovation at Cannes Film Festival.
The Canadian had been on a long road to super-stardom, beginning as a youngster on the Mickey Mouse Club and in the years after, mostly tooling around the realm of American indie dramas with the occasional big-budget punctuation. If he had earned a place in the public consciousness prior to Drive, it was undoubtedly through The Notebook (2004), a nostalgic weepie, cultish hit in which his beleaguered young WWII vet builds an entire house for his lost love. His character’s humble measure of manly devotion earned him serious appreciation from a female audience—appreciation that would clearly only increase over the years.
For all the fuss, Gosling was good-looking in an approachable kind of way; he had a sensitivity to his features, a certain softness around the mouth, a sardonic tilt to his smile, a strong jawline, a faintly mocking raised brow. He was a cute guy in a dimly lit Portland dive bar, wearing a mustache and a flannel shirt, promising wry jokes and maybe some self-awareness about politics. His American indie credentials were strengthened by several strong performances, including Half-Nelson (2006), as a nice-guy school teacher with a major drug addiction. It’s a role that requires him to plumb deeper emotional depths than many of his more star-making turns. A millennial pin-up boy if ever there was one, Gosling proudly displays his dry sense of humor in interviews, and even now his roles that lean into a bit of self-deprecating jokiness are among his best. (The Nice Guys, his 2016 buddy cop comedy opposite Russell Crowe, does this fantastically.)
From 2010 onward, Gosling and his handlers cleverly straddled the line between box-office clout and indie darling, with his smaller films still seeming well-calculated to appeal to a ‘hipster’ audience. The word ‘hipster’ was, in fact, used repeatedly in reference to him around this time in the press, though photos of him in striped vests and round glasses couldn’t exactly disguise his not-inconsiderable biceps. In 2011, his other major film on release was mainstream romcom Crazy, Stupid, Love—his first pairing with Emma Stone—and he plays a slick womanizer who is finally tamed, not by a Megan Fox-type but by an approachably cute Stone. Audiences unsurprisingly lapped it up, and it quietly went on to make $142 million dollars at the box office. Stone spoke for many of us at the time when, gawping at a shirtless and absurdly musclebound Gosling, she squeaked: ‘It’s like you’re photoshopped!’
After all the love for his indies Blue Valentine and Drive, it probably made sense for Gosling to return to their directors, but his follow-up work with Derek Cianfrance and Refn would make for the law of diminishing returns: neither The Place Beyond the Pines nor Only God Forgives would receive the plaudits or attention of their predecessors, and most charitably might be called "interesting failures." Ten years later, Gosling’s acting work for Refn has the tendency to look a tad inert. Drive gets away with it on the strength of his charisma, of its love story, and of the tiny flickers of tenderness in Gosling’s large, liquid eyes. Only God Forgives, on the other hand, attempts to make his character utterly stoical—a forbidding and vengeful type in the manner of Alain Delon. Gosling can’t pull it off—Refn only succeeds in making him look slightly vacant.
By contrast, he turns in a worthwhile performance in Blue Valentine, a film that painfully captures the intimacy and brokenness of a marriage in freefall. The use of a flashback structure enables Gosling to offer two versions of his character: the young, flaky, and charming love interest, who memorably plays the ukulele in the street for Michelle Williams, and the hard-drinking, balding, once-I-was-creative husband, making for a surprisingly solid critique of a particular brand of cool-guy early 00’s masculinity. The result is crushing.
It’s interesting to compare Gosling’s embodiment of this type of man with the critically divisive but Oscar-garlanded 2016 film La La Land. The cultural landscape had begun to shift by then, and the escapist fantasy of Damien Chazelle’s Technicolor-drenched, heavily retro musical was clearly appealing to audiences. It was also a film where the engine of the plot at least partly relied on Gosling leaning into his easy-going good humor. But his character—a down-at-heel white man jazz musician who is too much of an artiste to sell out—played a bit differently than it might have even five years before. Chazelle’s story seems to cleave to the male lead’s perspective, with Emma Stone’s ambition proving to be the sticking point in their romance. La La Land’s quiet reassertion of old masculine tropes about artistic integrity—and about what art was worth taking seriously—were increasingly going out of fashion.
But back in 2012, an important Gosling-related cultural artifact would emerge: the blog that would turn into a literary classic known as Feminist Ryan Gosling. The book was comprised of a series of the popular "Hey Girl" meme, featuring brief references to feminist theory against images of Gosling’s face. Gosling himself was unaffiliated with the endeavor, but putting words into his mouth had an interesting effect; fans liked to believe he would say these things, or maybe that his politics aligned with theirs. It also seemed fair to assume from Gosling’s professed closeness with the women in his family that he might hold these sorts of views. In some ways, it feels like an internet watershed moment: one of the early celebrity memes, and a sign that younger pop culture fans would want their celebrity crushes to have good politics.
These days, during the latest set of Gen Z vs. Millennial wars, one of the accusations is that millennials, with their hashtags, first-wave memes and girlboss politics, used the internet in a mannered and wildly embarrassing fashion. There’s probably considerable heft to that argument, but I digress: the ‘Hey Girl’ Gosling meme seems like a perfect encapsulation of the online pop feminism of a decade ago. With the rise of modern social media culture came the rise of Gosling, and it’s hard not to associate him with a very particular moment in millennial culture and internet use. His films bear that out to a certain extent, letting him off the hook again and again, generally refusing to question his point of view.
Take Gosling’s deeply charming turn as the sweet weirdo of Lars and the Real Girl (2007), a story that manages to elevate the premise of a lonely man falling deeply in love with a blow-up doll into something much more endearing than it should be. The film exemplifies something about Gosling’s ability to play the sensitive man-child, and to ingratiate himself to the audience in a way that gently prioritized his perspective over any of the women around him. The pattern appears repeatedly, and it’s not Gosling’s fault or his burden, but it is a subtle thread which only cements his status as the ultimate white male hipster guy of a certain generation.
In recent years, Gosling seems to have graduated to a different kind of big-budget cinema. It’s the kind which is generally good at pleasing everyone—at least on paper. His starring roles in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and First Man (2018), both respectable and thoughtful science fiction films, give a more definitively macho edge to him, a maturity that feels a little bit searching in light of his earlier, kookier roles. In First Man in particular, he embodies a type he hadn’t yet played: stiff, old-fashioned, and deeply unemotional. Unlike his earlier attempts at stoicism, he actually manages to nail it. Maybe, hovering around 40 years old, he had felt an impetus to play a different type of man.
Times have changed: Timothee Chalamet, a much more sexually ambiguous and elfin presence, has taken up residence as the Gen Z internet boyfriend, and like Gosling, has inspired countless memes and Instagram pages. There’s much to be said about the difference between these stars, aesthetically and otherwise; but both have shared a place in the sun, adored and obsessed over. That sun is so bright that it can’t help but to illuminate the preoccupations and biases of their respective generations; for Gosling, who has not starred in a film since 2018, it will be fascinating to see where he goes now that millennials are all grown up.
Act Like a Man is a column examining male screen performers past and present, across nationality and genre. If movie stars reflect the needs and desires of their audience in any particular era, examining their personas, popularity, fandom, and specific appeals has plenty to tell us about the way cinema has constructed—and occasionally deconstructed—manhood on our screens.