21 Sex Symbols for the 21st Century
It's a new millennium and never has the cinematic sex icon been more vulnerable. Being worshiped just ain't for the fainthearted anymore. Call it progress, or chalk it up to an epidemic of attention deficit disorder, but moviegoers are more jaded and more informed than ever before.
They're a jury of bought-off hormones, hardened by the arteries of cable, engorged by the media's need to serve up one hot dish after another Sure, there will always be actors and actresses blessed with the magic chemistry to glow while others just shine, possessed of DNA sequences that produce Raphael-ian surprises in bone structure. But, children of the silver screen, beware, It's a cough, tough audience out there--she with a hag of Sour Patch Kids between her thighs, he with a cell phone under his bun. Who will survive and who will end up in the cubicle beneath Whoopi Goldberg on 'Hollywood Squares" is anyone's guess. Here, then, is a shamelessly biased inauguration of sex symbols for the 21st century--stars who just might have the staying power to still be in our collective unconscious when Julia Roberts finally gets to play Georgia O'Keeffe using her own wrinkles.
To the unadventurous eye, he's about as glamorous as an army tent. Sorry-haired Kevin Spacey--eyes of a 12-stepper, the bearing of a vulture waiting for the living to wander away from a carcass. But none of that matters, because he's a magnet. If good acting is sexy, great acting is irresistible, and Kevin Spacey is a great actor. The guy's a lion, the best off-center leading man to come around since Bogart, only he's more expressive than two Bogies, and more inclined to less-decent applications of sexual power than all Bogies combined. In Spacey we have the anti-establishment sex hero for our time.
Life with Charlize Theron looks scary. A fortune spent on nylons with seams, vanity mirrors with bulbs, analysts with huge bills--_your_ analysts. She did a gorilla movie, am I right? There is a cold, cold hunger beneath that pale, translucent skin, a hunger you and a truckload of Snickers Bars will never be able to satisfy--a shiver you will never be able to still. Sex symbol? If she lived in a land where sex never existed, she'd find it. Truth is, you might be on edge every single day of your life spent with her. Then again, isn't that what it's all about, really?
Child star, cherub of hubris, angel of the co-dependent, reveler in recovery. And through everything, she didn't really change at all. Anger was always the other gal's problem. Drew had that accessible, worship-the-rising-sun-like- it-was-your-last-boy friend Vass-to-spank aura. She stayed beautiful and uproarious and delighted with the delight she knew she conjured in others. Question: Is showing your tits to Letterman on his birthday the millennial equivalent to singing "Happy Birth-day" to JFK?
Stella! Stelllllaaaaa! OK, so he isn't Brando. But Affleck is the Godfather of buds; he strikes you as the kind of friend a girl would want around when she got bad news or good pot. A working-class party Boy, all T-shirt and jangly forbearance, Affleck's tall enough to reach the stash on top of the liquor cabinet, and he seems like the kind of guy who'd keep that secret and all the others--a confidence man. Blessed with an inclination to the kind of indifferent charm that screen doors open for, he's got a soft spot, too, one that probably gets him laid without getting him in trou-ble. Some guys are irresistible because they make a girl feel safe when I there's no danger around anyway; others are irresistible because they're dangerous themselves. Affleck's the kind makes a girl feel safe while she's doing something a little dangerous with him.
Every year the Great Western University of Hotties admits a new class of "It" girls. The campus goes rump-to-rump with a size-five sorority of way cooler ingenues with way fatter SAT (Sex And Titillation) scores than the last batch. Most of them flunk out, marry and divorce John Cougar Mellencamp, or die a slow death in really bad sitcoms. A lucky few capture the public imagination. The seriously confident Rose McGowan did it by spinning wickedness into gold and giving sin a sense of humor. Case in point: her enlistment of fiancé Marilyn Manson for a sex scene with her in Jawbreaker, a strategy she eloquently defended: "It's better than having to do a sex scene with someone you don't know--"This is Bob, he's the one who's going to be pretending to have doggy-style sex wit you.'" Righteous, Rose. Just righteous.
It Angelina Jolie ever gets something realty worthwhile to stretch her legs in--holy crap, somebody impose a curfew. Even in dreck the girl is riveting. You watch her and your teeth start to grind, your crotch gets a tingle of vertigo. Her physical beauty is a given--ripe, reckless, a little nasty. And that month, man, that month has firepower. A few clicks to the right means you're a fool and should be left for dead; a few clicks to the left means you're in for a night of fun and a morning limp. Either way, she's got measures and counter measures. If passion is a doomsday machine, the 21st century just might go down in flames if it ever gets its arms around her.
Two great 21st century mysteries await to be solved: how will the Chinese look in Mustang convertibles, and when will Keanu Reeves face the camera and smile? Of course, if Reeves ever does, half of his sexual allure will go out the window. Harder to read than a doctor's prescription, Reeves has bounced all that physical allure around for years like a heavy metal electron looking for a nucleus party to crash. It's good to see an actor who cares more about taking chances than doing Vanity Fair covers. Even when he became a mute action hero in Speed (there were more sparks coming from the sideswiped cars than between him and Sandra Bullock), it didn't slow down his grand evasion. Then came The Matrix, and all the qualities in Reeves's arsenal of inscrutability came together. And why not? The guy is a frigging load, a great big building of sexual empathy who could probably keep a woman out of the rain with just his big of Fender bass-hugging hands--and still get her wet.
Edward Burns is one of those clean-faced boys who could go to college for eight years and still seem idiosyncratically self-educated, because he's too good with his hands. Judging from his acting style, he's a bit reactionary when it comes to romance, not that playing defense ever hurt Gary Grant, who also let his women come to him. How Bums would defend himself against any of the Death Star Aggressor actresses in the business--say Ashley Judd--might be too gruesome to envision. In movies openly dealing with love, he's boyish and irascible. Oddly, it was in Saving Private Ryan, when he was upright, loyal and also the voice of dissent, that Burns seemed manly, sure-footed, comfortable--read: at ease with his own sensuality.
Two things we'll be seeing a lot more or in the 21st century: old people and Leo. The average American now has more parents than children, and the culture Continues to lurch through time so disconcertingly that even the young long for the vicarious experience of youth. And so, no matter how many indelible characters he manages to create in the Future, Leonardo DiCaprio will always be lack from steerage in an airy chamber of our collective memory. The ship might've gone down, but the triumvirate of youth, beauty and heroism put DiCaprio in an exalted place. Titanic's erotic inventions--painting your girlfriend in the nude, sex in the backseat of a car--tap into a universal nostalgia like a dessert fork going into fudge cake. Yeah, he's 25 now and vexed with adult headaches. A billion fans and a whole industry want him stuck in amber. He's gonna make mistakes-he has to. And he's gonna grow old doing it. No matter, Twenty years from now, with thinning hair, dewlaps, and a few Oscars in his nightstand, DiCaprio will still be forever young.
Every once in a while, it comes along, whether its Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, Cybill Shepherd in The Last Picture Show or Kelly LeBrock in The Woman in Red--a female character whose sole function is to physically illustrate the idyllic conception of pure male lust. No doubt years from now, in precinct stations, frat houses and major league dugouts, Mena Suvari's entire existence will be deconstructed to "she was the blonde in American Beauty," and in the communal shorthand that spans the worlds of the beat cop, the art dealer, the inmate and the cabbie, a comprehending nod will follow. What distances Suvari from the rest of her perfect 10 crowd is how her truer side comes through. This is the side that's not a cartoon tart, but a young girl capable of receiving affection without turning it into seduction. It's a long way from Bo Derek.
In the sweet, short career of an actor who is, according to one critic, "flatly impossible not to root for," comparisons have been made to Paul Newman, and not without justification. There's the cool-hand insouciance, the facile shift between blue blood and beer crowd, and above all, what's going on behind the eyes--Matt Damon's got a wicked case of the smarts. On top of all that, Damon has the orphan-boy-next-door business working, plus the Boston homie laced with the Norman Rockwell subtleties--don't you just want to wrap him up and put him under the tree for your little sister? Americana is sexy, by God, as lone as you're not waving the flag.
Without the Nabokovian reveries-- "Luc had cast me as the perfect woman. That felt wonderful in itself, but when I saw how he had filmed me in the movie, I knew he loved me as much as I loved him"--Milla Jovovich could just as easily be a onetime Bond bad-girl instead of starring in big-budget films like The Fifth Element and The Messenger. But there's a certain flipped-out charisma to Jovovich that the puny exploits of T & A could never do justice to. Ablaze with inspirational fire, she's made rock albums (including one called The Divine Comedy), married her Fifth Element director Luc Besson, starred in his next movie as Joan of Arc and split from him. And who can forget her in The Fifth Element? That supple, feline figure rippling under the surgical tape outfit, the tangerine-colored haircut like a choirboy's--she kind of reminds you of the fragile forest nymph Mia Farrow was before she turned into a toad stool. "Before I can be a complete actress, I must become a complete woman," Jovovich recently declared. An excellent Method for the next millennium.
The breath-stealing depth of Nicole Kidman's sexuality had been fogging our collective horn-rims long before tweedy journalists rhapsodized over her pushin' cushion minus its slipcover in The Blue Room. Fine-boned, tall and blessed with enough leg to give a room-ful of tuxedos neck problems, Kidman does to a pair of silk panties what Brando did for the T-shin. A gourmand of coy, she uses that little nose like a passkey. And just who else can ooze exactly two drops of perspiration at her temples and have them shimmer like baby oil? The idea that lighting left over from A Clockwork Orange and some poorly written An Officer and a Gentleman fantasies should have gained her entree into Middle American wet dreams is a slight to her career. Phillip Noyce's 1989 thriller Dead Calm had more eroticism in the tip of one of its spearguns than there is in all of Eyes Wide Shut. Not to mention the impromptu headlight dance Kidman did for Joaquin Phoenix in Gus Van Sant's To Die For. So is everybody up to speed now?
By the look of it, Kate Winslet is on a path or tease, sophistication, sexual tension and bloody-good pathological narcissism, and she could become the best crazy-assed sex goddess of her generation. Need proof? Watch Heavenly Creatures, Sense and Sensibility and Hideous Kinky back-to-back-to-back. That'll tell you something else about Winslet, too--she's as predictable as a pharmaceutically enhanced jazz solo. Just as Titanic had made her an international star, she decided to play a street cleaner in a friend's ultra-cheap movie and shot her scenes the morning after partying all night for her 22nd birthday. Then she did the low-budget hippie throwback Hideous Kinky and married the assistant director. Then she starred in what's turned out to be Jane Campion's weirdest film of all Holy Smoke! The girl's sexy because she can't be led--you just try to keep up with her. And another thing: actresses who show up at the dinner table--Winslet served sausages and mashed potatoes at her wedding--get special points. Isn't this the kind of sex symbol we want for the future? A little impetuous, a lot of décolletage, well-bred and well fed.
Cocky and defiant--check. Guy's guy--check ladies man--check. Five o'clock shadow--check-check Sexy leading man--well, yeah, but not in a hit. Orso they say. But anyone who dismissed Clooney for being all hat and no cattle just got his ass trampled in Iraqi desert. After years on trail of the real George, doing everything from sharing a cab with Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day to sharing the Batmobile with Chris O'Donnell in Batman & Robin to sharing a car trunk with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, Clooney had to climb into a Humvee and go out in the desert for people to finally notice him. Maybe the desert is a perfect backdrop for the jutting jaw the bright-eyed defiance and the salty dog masculinity, or maybe it just proved a chance to see the gears turning in his handsome noggin, hut in Three Kings Clooney gets more hearts pumping than the did in four seasons as a touchy-feely doctor with a chip on his shoulder in "ER."
If you like your vixens with a little less, rather than more or the Sean Young index, get acquainted with Denise Richards, Sure, she's a Little-Miss-know-it-all when it comes to mutters of the hard-on, a smarty-pants who gets her ya-yas off manipulating granite-headed males. But you can almost make a case for, gulp, vulnerability, at least the over-the-top, put-on kind. She just might he the girl Lichtenstein had in mind for all those great, teary-eyed comic strip women he painted.
There are good rich people and bad rich people. The same holds true for extremely beautiful women, Cameron Diaz doesn't have a bad side. You could look at her through shattered glass and she'd come out whole, radiant, blond, laughing, composed. And the thing is, you get the idea that her own beauty is a non-issue for her. There are college boys who would sell their plasma to buy tickers to a Cameron Diaz film; there are sexually confident men who'd trade Super Bowl tickers on the 50-yard line in exchange for her toenail clippings in a shot glass. Why? Because Cameron Diaz is way too sexy for her shirt and she's nice. I mean that, She's, like, really pretty, and she gets most of your jokes, and she isn't stuck-up, OK? She's nice. Really, really nice. You know what? Maybe more women should be like that. Maybe if there were a Cameron Diaz for every broken hearted person living in the world ... sorry, sorry... I'm better now
Unless you're part of a government sting to catch albino dwarfs trafficking heroin, being tall, dark and handsome can't be too much of a handicap. Only Ben Chaplin's not just another pretty face. He gave The Thin Red Line its haunted Ulysses against whose shoulders the Odyssey of bullets, wildlife and bittersweet memories leaned. Someone who knows about these things told me Chaplin is the guy you spend that weekend with even though you know he'll leave afterward no matter what happens--deep, dark and intoxicating as a pint of Guinness He works the sensitive loner cloak like a bull fighter's cape. Mysterious, edge as a jackknife, he butters all that with an ineffable tenderness, especially in the eyes. And if the eyes, indeed, are the windows to the soul, Chaplin's got some serious Windex sheeting action going.
Nobody has defied, dissed, taught, scolded, stood call, fought our wars, questioned our motives, held us till we died, loved us till we hollered, saved our asses, called us out and flat out brang it more than Mister Washington. Sensuality? He's shown some of that stuff openly on-screen on occasion. But he's sexiest when he doesn't. It's the rumor, the allegation of sex sloshing around in Washington's tank that heats things up. Slow-dancing with Annette Bening in The Siege, or wheeling Angelina Jolie around on his lap in The Bone Collector the man burns up fuel. And there are moments when not even that is going on, and you look at Washington and see a smile that would unnerve Lucifer gnawing on the inside of his mouth.
If the greater part of sex is ritual, what better allegory for the power of foreplay than the skintight, skimpy career of Elizabeth Hurley? Just where did she come from? Oh, that's right--she was in Passenger 57. Of course, she's better known for discovering a brood of puppies in a soft-focus English garden as the Estee Lander girl than for being the shag interest in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. And yet, with chat rock-candy glitter in her stare and a day trip of slippery curves from head to toe, she can hold her own on the big screen. Oh, that's right--she was in My Favorite Martian. Sure, it's tempting to speculate that without the West End accent and beau, Hugh Grant, she could just as easily be roaming the beaches in "Baywatch" red--another hominoid with hooters to the fescue in slow motion. But why would you want to overlook her greatest asset--class? And then consider the fun she's willing to have despite the class. The lady is game. Oh, yeah, wasn't she in Permanent Midnight?
His spit-the-bit portrayal of conflicted detective Bud White helped make L.A. Confidential one the best films of the decade, and his small-town hockey captain kept Mystery, Alaska from being one of the worst. Soldiering from niche to niche, Crowe manages to have it both ways; he's a sensitive male who doesn't have to surrender his membership in the fight club for quality time with the fairer sex. Maybe it has to do with his ancestry. This is what happens when you cross a Maori with a Norwegian: the masculinity comes tempered with an overarching remorse. Crowe wears the sins or mankind like a harness, and yet he'll shake them off to fight for maleness and all its faults. A virtual platoon or his contemporaries fell over themselves to put on fatigues for Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, but Crowe went to war against the tobacco companies as whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider. How many thirtysomething actors are willing to play a balding, bloated 53-year-old in glasses? The fearlessness itself is sexy. Then he backs it up.
Michael Angeli wrote about the Sunset Strip for the October issue of Movieline.