Blade Runner 2049 may have sputtered at the weekend box office, but don’t blame Ryan Gosling. The success of the film never hinged on the kind-eyed Canadian with the Marlon Brando drawl in the first place.
The original Blade Runner was released in 1982 and as it turns out, a 35-year gap in between sequels proved too long for today’s ADD-prone audiences. But don’t expect the film’s disappointing numbers to leave a stain on Gosling’s sparkling career in the same way that a big-budget flop hurts Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise. Gosling’s just not that kind of movie star.
The 36-year-old actor is in the midst of a spectacular run of movies that run the gamut from the critically acclaimed (The Ides of March, The Place Beyond The Pines) to the downright iconic (Drive and La La Land). The streak began at the dawn of the decade with Blue Valentine, a searing portrait of a couple’s tragic downfall, in which Gosling flexed his art house muscles while simultaneously showing us how effortless it is for him to switch into heartthrob mode when he wants to.
That was only six years after The Notebook and the rain-soaked kiss that spawned a Kleenex drought nationwide. While most actors would have parlayed that success into their very own franchise, Gosling seemed to rail against the “how to be a leading man” playbook that was later mastered by the Chris Pratts of the world.
Instead of chasing the superstardom that seemed preordained since his days alongside cherubic versions of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in The Mickey Mouse Club, Gosling made a series of sharp left turns that were anchored by his eclectic tastes. By the time he packed on the pounds and went bald for Blue Valentine’s second half, we’d already caught glimpses of Gosling’s oddball sensibilities. He played a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer, a drug-addled teacher in Half-Nelson and a lovable weirdo in Lars and The Real Girl, none of which made any money. But they helped establish Gosling as someone eager to distinguish himself from traditional matinee idols.
Ten years have passed, and Gosling has yet to stray from that blueprint. While the majority of his counterparts have embraced the allure of the studio tentpole—when Green Lantern didn’t work out for Ryan Reynolds, he got a do-over with Deadpool—Gosling decided that if he was going to be a movie star, he would do it on his own terms.
Gosling decided that if he was going to be a movie star, he would do it on his own terms.
But what even makes a movie star in today’s landscape? Google the term with any combination of the words “fall,” “death” or “decline” and you’ll notice that lamenting the disintegration of Hollywood’s star economy has replaced loading up on free brunch at press junkets as the favorite pastime of anyone who writes about the film industry for a living. “When was the last time Will Smith had a hit movie?” they wonder. (Answer: it’s been a while.) “Daniel Radcliffe isn’t the star. Harry Potter is!” Yes, it’s true.
Thanks to a perfect storm of external forces—the growing influence of the global box office chief among them—studios rely less on the power of boldface names and more on character-driven tentpoles to attract audiences. Chris Evans is Captain America, but would those movies generate any less enthusiasm if he were replaced by Chris Pine or Chris Pratt? Probably not.
But just because a film’s financial prospects are not as intertwined with the name at the top of the marquee as they once were, that doesn’t mean we should bury the movie star altogether. It just means there’s a new paradigm.
A real movie star transcends a studio’s bottom line. They’re more than a ranking on a Forbes list. So what if their flops outnumber their hits? World War Z is Brad Pitt’s only bona fide smash, while Clooney’s box office track record is uneven at best. Does that mean they’re any less of a movie star than current box office king Dwayne Johnson? Quite the opposite, actually. Their faces are so recognizable, their personalities so outsize and their auras so rarified that they operate on a separate plane, free from the shackles of the Hollywood corporate machine. They work when they want, with whom they want. They’re actors who have such a grasp on the art of movie stardom that they’ve become impervious to box office flops.
That’s the space where Gosling lives. His work is often serious and high-minded, but his off-screen persona is acutely self-aware. He jumps through the hoops with a knowing smirk, as if the whole culture of celebrity is a joke that he’s in on. He stays off social media and does his best to avoid the tabloids, but his status as the poster boy for early Tumblr and GIF culture means he gets to be ubiquitous without doing any of the legwork. He can do rom-com (Crazy, Stupid, Love), slapstick (The Nice Guys), and psychosexual neo-noir (Only God Forgives) with equal aplomb. Even his misfires—let us never speak of Gangster Squad or his directorial debut, Lost River again—are bold artistic leaps of faith. Yet Goslimg always emerges unscathed, his perfectly tailored clothes, immaculately parted hair and Teflon career still in tact.
For his next effort, Gosling will reteam with his La La Land director Damien Chazelle for the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. Though it’ll be Gosling’s first real foray into space, he left us Earthlings behind years ago.