June 24, 2015
While British actors these days tend to get an expensive education and then try the stage, American actors, as Rafferty points out:
…mostly started going before the camera as kids, and got their training on the job: in commercials, then on TV shows, and then, for the lucky and/or unusually talented, in movies.
But this professional route has an additional effect that Rafferty doesn”t quite grasp. Consider two examples he uses of stars who came up via the TV-commercials route: the Los Angeles natives Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They both have the baby faces common among former male child actors.
This is a selection effect: Boys mature more slowly than girls, so casting agents look for boys who appear younger than their actual ages. Both DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt have the rare movie-star charisma that helps them get away with their odd looks. Still, a movie fan visiting from 1939 would be struck by how American leading men today, with the exception of George Clooney, tend to look more like Mickey Rooney than Clark Gable.
The problem with American movie actors these days is less a lack of acting training than it is a shortage of old-fashioned grown-up masculinity.
Golden-age Hollywood studios tended to recruit physically imposing leading men, such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper. In recent years, the public seems to have preferred energetic smaller stars such as Tom Cruise.
The rise of the sizable Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World to king of the box office suggests this trend might be changing. But in terms of personality, Pratt is still part of the long-reigning Cult of Boyishness.
More subversively, the top domestic box office movie of 2014, American Sniper, featured a slow-moving and slow-talking Bradley Cooper in the kind of adult male performance that Hollywood once featured.
But perhaps the biggest reason for the rise of foreign leading men playing American characters is that our male vocal culture has become too feminized and insecure for natives to sound impressive on screen. Although the American press is constantly denouncing privileged white males, in truth young white men today tend to uptalk like Valley Girls in 1982, with high-rising terminal tones that turn declarative sentences into questions. As Rhett Butler would have said if Gone With the Wind were shot in 2015:
Frankly, my dear, I don”t give a damn?
In contrast, slap an American accent over a British-speaking rhythm and you have an actor who sounds like a confident, manly, pre-1980s American. Foreign actors who grew up imitating Robert De Niro’s authoritative diction are under the profitable delusion that American men still sound that decisive.
In truth, America just doesn”t have a very masculine culture anymore? You know?