Adam Driver becoming a leading man is kind of like your 3 a.m. bar pickup becoming your fiancé: unexpected, but it happens. Or in Driver’s case, it happened. I struggle with my feelings about the show Girls, Lena Dunham’s fever dream that put a whole cast of trust fund kids on the map. But Driver was different. He wasn’t a nepotism hire or stumbling into acting by way of narcissism when he got the role. And despite his character being an existential, toxic amalgam of every guy who’s ever fucked up a girl’s life so hard she has PTSD, Driver brought a magnetic charisma to his role of Adam.
In its sixth and final season, I will admit that Girls has become the show it always set out to be. The poignancy is no longer forced. The characters are no longer cartoons. It’s debatable whether that was always the intention, but that’s a story for another day. But before its series-ending renaissance, Driver was one of the few members of the original cast who made you feel like you were watching an HBO production, as opposed to the girls, whom for many seasons projected less panache and more college undergrads turning their anxiety diaries into a play. And from that dissonance, a star was surprisingly born. Now that Girls is over, we’re left with an Adam Driver who might just be our first glimpse of the millennial iteration of the leading man.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the concept—and even aesthetic—of a leading man has evolved. And I will take a moment to point out in this hot take that the same is not true for women, and that’s fucked up. Female actors have been so pigeonholed into damaged and dependent roles that we’re still handing out Oscars to actresses just for yelling on screen. See: Silver Linings Playbook. Outside of finally letting women of color have a seat at the table, there has been little to no transformation of what we expect a leading lady to be, from Greta Garbo to Emma Stone.
Let’s get back to the boys though. You can pretty much trace the evolution in on-screen masculinity over the eras of film. You had the exaggerated goofiness of black-and-white film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, which then mutated into the hapless charm of golden age stars Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. From there we dipped into the rugged individualism of Western heart throbs like John Wayne and Henry Fonda and the reckless cool of James Dean and Paul Newman as cinema filled with rebellion.
The 1980s and 1990s bred more chiseled, pretty boy lead actors. Think confident metrosexuals like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Pierce Brosnan and Hugh Grant. Even though the past few decades of star boys was as woke as we’ve come, there was always an inevitable breaking point. These men were the white, male saviors who rescued the women who just couldn’t keep their shit together. Or the men who tamed the wild woman who almost thought she was too good for him. They were the panty droppers. The men consumed with work, never bothered with the messy love stuff until pussy was right in their faces. They were hunks.
Hunkiness isn’t a bad thing, but millennials are quickly becoming the target demographic that production houses want to get to the theaters and the 1990s heartthrob doesn’t really mesh with how today’s younger men see themselves, or the men that younger women want to be with. If their rallying around Bernie Sanders are any indicators, there’s a bit of a cultural revolution at the heart of Gen Y. They are shaking off traditional marriage and traditional gender roles. They’re embracing feminism and queerness. They are less likely to be traditionally religious and more likely to be college educated. For lack of a better word, the generation is woke, awakening, waking up and shaking off the repression they’ve seen stifle their parents and grandparents. And within that is room for a new masculine: Adam Driver.
Driver isn’t classically handsome in the way we’ve been trained to conjure that image. He’s the culmination of Johnny Depp’s weirdness, Zach Braff’s emo-ness and Jim Carrey’s quirkiness. He has big ears, an awkward nose, kind of dopey hair. And somehow he’s still sexy as fuck (if you don’t believe me, watch This Is Where I Leave You.) He’s tall and muscular without the overdone sheen and ridges. He has an entrancing gaze. But the real kicker is his mystique. He seems dangerous and sensitive at the same time. He can do Star Wars and Inside Llewyn Davis. He’s reminds millennial women of the guy they had a passionate but fleeting fling with in college who still texts them intellectual angst and sometimes, a dick pic. He reminds men of themselves in college and that they can still be that.
We have to face facts: Adam Driver is the new sexy.