Ryan Gosling is that rarity: a great, totally serious actor who is also a yummy sex-god movie star

RYAN-GOSLING

Image Credit: Ben Glass

The moment that Ryan Gosling shows up in Crazy, Stupid, Love, playing a ladykiller so practiced and confident that he presents himself as a pickup artist as a way of disarming any woman who thinks that she’s immune to pickup artists, we know just who he is — and also that we want to keep watching him do what he does, because he’s so damn good at it. Actually, what he does is a great many things at once. It’s being totally charming, caustically funny, and sexy as hell: Gosling, tall and sleepy-eyed, in three-piece suits and frosted hair, shows you how impeccably he has all of that down the moment he glances at some leggy designer princess and begins to make his move. In Crazy, Stupid, Love, he’s all nonchalant insinuation, all laidback erotic signals, all vibe.

But he’s also a quick, incisive talker who, playing a master of “the Game,” reveals just enough of himself that we want to see more of him. As the movie illustrates (it’s what he teaches Steve Carell, playing a jilted suburban schlub who needs to get in touch with his inner alpha male), a successful pickup artist today needs to be aggressively sincere about what a liar he is. Gosling makes the audience eager to see the person beneath the lie beneath the I may be a jerk but you know you want me! come-on. And that’s because Gosling knows exactly who this person is. He’s the rare actor who can play a pickup-bar stud and also turn his performance into a pinpoint study of just that sort of dude. In every movie he makes, Ryan Gosling treats acting deadly seriously, as a game that is also an art. And that’s why he’s great at it.

Not bad for someone who could easily coast on the twinkle in his eye. You know the old saw about how you’re either a Beatles person or a Stones person? It’s true, of course. You can worship both at once (many of us do), but in your heart or hearts, at the end of the day, your ultimate temperamental allegiance tilts one way or the other. (Me, I’m a Beatles person.) In an analogous sense, I would say that almost every major Hollywood star today is either an actor first and a movie star second or a movie star first and an actor second. Just give it a try. Brad Pitt? He can, on occasion (as in The Tree of Life), be an astonishing actor, but his DNA is all movie star. Sean Penn? A great actor way before he’s a star. Leonardo DiCaprio? Ever since Titanic, it’s inescapable that his movie-star status trumps his acting mojo (though that, at its best, is considerable). James Franco? Actor first, star second.

the-believer

Image Credit: Everett Collection

Gosling may turn out to be the rare actor, like Jack Nicholson, who is equally both at once. Early on, though, I thought he was almost destined to be an actor first and a star second. He first came to prominence ten years ago, in The Believer (left), playing an anti-Semitic skinhead who was, in fact, a brilliant, searching, self-loathing Jewish screw-up, and Gosling gave a performance — I don’t say this lightly — that was worthy of the young De Niro. He did something that movies about sociopaths, let alone movies about young Talmudic scholars-turned-Judaism bashers, almost never do: He made the character’s belief system intellectually charged and compelling. He showed you that this violent, messed-up kid who despised his heritage was, in the depths of his rage, the only halfway reverent Jewish person in the room. (He hated the contradictions of the religion — the hypocrisy of it, in his view — because his desire to believe was so consuming.) In that single performance, a stunning screen actor was born.

Three years later, in The Notebook, a gooey and effective adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel, Gosling, playing opposite Rachel McAdams, proved that he not only had the right stuff, he had the hunk stuff, too — he could do puppy-eyed longing and hot embraces in the rain, and girls in the audience swooned. But as important as that hit weeper was to his screen image, the movie that, to me, confirmed Gosling’s extraordinary fusion of acting chops and classic Hollywood magnetism was Fracture, the cat-and-mouse thriller he made with Anthony Hopkins in 2007. It was exactly the kind of “Okay, it’s time to do a suspense movie” project that tends to result in an obligatory box-office hit and a boilerplate performance. But Gosling took the role of a junior prosecutor, obsessed with nailing the perpetrator of a “perfect” crime, and made the character so neurotically intense that watching him lock horns with Hopkins was thrilling. ’70s-style volatile-explosive raging-bulhead acting, understated/overwrought Harlequin acting, old-fashioned psychological thriller acting: There was nothing, it seemed, that Ryan Gosling couldn’t do.

What he’s doing now is growing up. Gosling is 30 years old, which is exactly the age Robert De Niro was when Mean Streets was released, and last year, playing the troubled, listless, furious, alcoholic, yet so, so tender and yearning husband in Blue Valentine, Gosling gave a performance that hit what Pauline Kael, describing De Niro’s performance in that Scorsese classic, called “the true note.” It was bravura acting on every level — a technical tour de force, one that made every mood swing convincing, but also, like Gosling’s earlier performance in The Believer, one that showed you the character’s belief system from the inside out (and the more unreasonable it got, the more it came wrapped in the actor’s empathy). Blue Valentine was about the frustration of a certain kind of damaged romantic male narcissist who feels, in this era, that domestic life has robbed him of his power. Gosling made you know what it felt like when that power leaked away.

And now, six months later, here he is Crazy, Stupid, Love, playing a man who is all smooth power, helping Steve Carell get his power back. I don’t love every single Ryan Gosling performance. To me, even he couldn’t make the dolt-meets-sex-mannequin love story Lars and the Real Girl bearable, and his overly celebrated turn as an inner-city-teacher-turned-drug-addict in Half Nelson was the one time, in my opinion, that he got a little Method-showy. Yet his consistency, by and large, is extraordinary, as is his range, as is his taste in roles. He knows how to layer showmanship and art until you can’t tell the difference. Which leads me to ask, once again: Is there anything that Ryan Gosling can’t do?

So do you think that Ryan Gosling is more actor or movie star? Or do you agree with me that he’s the rare performer who’s equally both? And what’s your favorite Gosling performance?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman


Comments (145 total) Add your comment
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  • v

    i’d say actor first, but just barely. he has a bright future ahead.

    • Jenn

      A “yummy sex-god”? Glieberman is a sick sick old man.

      • chuck

        lol

      • jason

        …such a strange title from a man

      • Wickeddoll

        It’s possible Glieberman is gay. Not a big deal, IMO. If not, it’s cool that a straight man isn’t afraid to appreciate the beauty of another man. We women talk about other women all the time, and nobody seems to jump to any conclusions.

      • KLH

        Love Gosling. Great actor. Yummy only bcause he is such a good actor. Not your typical “movie star” handome. He had me at Murder by Numbers (why didn’t you mention it?!).

      • emmasmile

        I will argue that I really liked Lars and the Real Girl. And now that I’ve typed a bunch of sensible crap, wow, is he freakin’ hot.

      • Jeremy DC

        I just hate when people use the word “yummy” when describing a person.

      • Arizona

        You know, a very straight male friend of mine once described Edward Norton as “a hot piece of man-a**”, and another straight male friend once unabashedly declared himself to be “queer for Brad Pitt” (both these man-crushes, funnily enough, resulting mostly from “Fight Club”). I agree there’s a good shot that Owen’s gay (in which case, SO TF WHAT?) but if he’s not, what’s wrong with a man acknowledging that another man is a total sex god? It USED to be called “admiration.”

      • Ainul

        Yeah! I guess so. lol!

    • flounder

      Owen’s got a crush.

    • Ghost of Pia

      He came off as a bit of a douche with his shaved dog on Fallon a few nights back. Seemed aloof.

      • sfday

        Does that matter?

      • alan of montreal

        I think one would call that “a dry sense of humour”

  • stuart bonkers

    mmmm, gosling…. a tent is pitched in pantsville! sa da tay, blee-otch.

  • dinola

    He was great in half nelson and lars and the real girl.

    • no cars go

      agree, i think it’s funny that my two favorite ryan gosling role’s are the two that owen gleiberman dislikes most.

      • no cars go

        i just wanted to add to my comment that though i do think ryan is great in half nelson, i actually think that shareeka epps overshadowed him and was the better actor in that movie.

      • Dr. Chim Richalds

        Lars and the Real Girl is my favorite Ryan Gosling role. By more than a smidge. Go figure.

      • minneminne

        I agree, my favorite Gosling movies were Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl. They were both excellent and made up for that stupid romantic schlocky Notebook movie.

  • Marshall1

    hehe….tent is pitched….
    I still remember him being the funniest thing on a Canadian (??) tv show called Breaker High!!!!
    Who knew he would turn out to be a stud AND a talented man at the same time!

    • Simon

      I loved him as Sean on Breaker High! Ryan is very talented and I think there is little he cannot do. My favourite Ryan movies are Blue Valentine and the Notebook.

      • Ainul

        Indeed!

    • Catherine

      Loved Breaker High!!!

    • Ellipsian

      And let’s not forget his turn as a “Mickey Mouse Club”-ber alongside Justin, Christina, Britney…

      • alan of montreal

        And Young Hercules

  • Rebecca

    I cannot believe you didnt mention Lars in Real Life. He plays the socially handicapped guy with the same believability and ease that he uses in Crazy, stupid, love. And I really hope those abs were not photoshopped.

    • Mo

      That was Lars and the Real Girl. Dan in Real Life is a Steve Carell movie.

  • anderson

    I jumped up and licked the screen everytime he appeared.

  • Dave

    I thought Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl were both excellent movies and Golsing was fantastic in both. Half Nelson is when I first really started to take notice of his talent. He has become one of my very favorite young actors. I’d say he’s more actor than movie star.

  • Radzinsky

    Wait wait wait… his performance in “Half-Nelson” is ‘showy?’ Seriously?! He’s brilliantly subtle and nuanced in that film, also what I feel is his best performance. Forest Whitaker was also sensational that year, but I would have given the Oscar to Gosling.

    • ILHP

      Owen meant that his methods were apparent, that his method acting seemed more forced rather than natural.

    • Pat

      I thought Gosling gave the two best performances of his career so far in Lars and the Real Girl and Half Nelson. Both fantastic, films… it’s too bad alot of his fans have never heard of them. Such a talent and comes across as a genuinely nice person. I saw that interview with Jimmy Fallon too. I don’t think he was being aloof, I think the dude was just nervous – he admitted as much.

  • rachel

    I think he is definitely both and my fave performances have to be crazy stupid love and the notebook. He’s an astonishing actor who doesn’t shy away from the odd roles. He’s smart he’s sexy and he’s straight now we just have to figure out how to clone him because he is every girls dream.

  • Nic

    Owen–You skipped over one of my favorite, early Ryan Gosling performances–which also foretold the type of actor he would become a decade later–in the 2002 film, “Murder by Numbers”. Gosling, and the equally talented Michael Pitt, were the only compelling elements in that film. I’m still amazed and impressed by the brilliant ease at which Gosling controlled the cat ‘n mouse game his character played with Sandra Bullock’s character. Gosling possessed an emotional and psychological finesse that was years ahead of any other actor his age. Bullock is 17-years his senior and he not only acting circles around her, but was in FULL control of his performance…at AGE 20! In that pivotal end scene, Gosling instinctively takes a risk and proceeds to LICK BULLOCK’S FACE while he’s simulating choking her over a balcony. Damn. Gosling is most definitely an ACTOR before he is a movie star. The MOVIE STAR status just comes as a result of his skill, confidence and straight-up matinee-idol sexiness.

    • dee

      To be fair Sandy was saddled with the woeful Ben Chaplin & Gosling had Pitt & Agnes Bruckner to play with.

    • Dr. Chim Richalds

      AH yes. Gosling and Michael Pitt (who, by the way, was robbed of a supporting actor Emmy nod for Boardwalk Empire) and glimpses of future greatness. And hottness.

  • Angie

    @Rebecca – cute, you merged the Carrell Movie “Dan in Real Life” with “Lars and the Real Girl”, which was mentioned by the author. Yep, he is a Movie Star with chops. An really great Actor disappears into a role, whereas the personality of a Movie star is so unique it shines through the role. So he’s both. In other words, I went to see “Crazy, Stupid Love” to see what he’d do with this role because most of the time the characters he plays have such an inner integrity, and cometely sincere. I won’t give anything away. His reactions are so natural. His expressions are a delight (see scene where Carrell opens his velcro wallet). His playful, mischevious personality shines in every other role, including Blue Valentine. I’ve seen every film mentioned, but The Believer, so I’ll rent it.

  • tracy bluth

    I agree, there’s something about Ryan Gosling that reminds me of a young De Niro. My favorite Gosling performance is actually Half Nelson…which I wouldn’t call overly celebrated, especially since so few people seem to have even heard of the film.

    • Svetlana

      I completely agree Tracy. I’ve seen Half Nelson countless times because he was so amazing in it(and because I am obsessed with him) but most people have never even heard of it. Critics like to think they are the only ones who know anything, so when something is universally praised, the only other way for them to feel special is to knock it. So pathetic.

  • bajatadancer

    I will always remember the first movie I saw Ryan in was “Remember The Titans”. I have been following him ever since!

    • D

      Same here!

      • Kelly

        I didn’t realize how H-O-T this guy is! What a great movie. Very funny.

    • tnsmoke

      He was just one of many players in the locker room and had only a few lines but you couldn’t take your eyes off him, he had that screen presence even back then.

    • chrissyz

      That’s when i first noticed him too! You could really see his humor in that role.

  • Theresa

    Just lovely to read a post like this. Maybe it’s just me but it’s rare to read a critic’s praise of an actor (yes, an actor then a star) and it feel believable. Sounds like Owen is crushing on Ryan like the rest of us. Gosling is irresistible. And not just due to his physical presence but truly his talent and humor, apparently. Interviews with him are hilarious…and his muppet dog. I will argue that I really liked Lars and the Real Girl. And now that I’ve typed a bunch of sensible crap, wow, is he freakin’ hot.

    P.S. Though I love both, in my heart of hearts I am a Beatles person, too.

  • lyrica

    i totally agree!!! he’s outstanding in everything he does!

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