The term “leading man” has evolved much over the eras of Hollywood. The concept of a leading man isn’t taking itself as seriously as the song and dance men of the black and white age of cinema, and with good reason. Audiences’ tastes have changed over that span of time and acting has changed to follow suit. Modern audiences would be quick to categorize a leading man today as the squared jaw beefcakes of celluloid; these are your Channing Tatums, Jason Stathams, and Tom Cruises. Yet if we look back to when the term was first used we see that it was an actor who plays the accompanying love interest to an actress. Carey Grant, Spencer Tracey, and Humphrey Bogart are the embodiments of the true definition of a leading man. New age or old timey, there a few traits all leading men share that allow them to resolve the conflict and get the gal, time after time.
It’s usually the things we can’t quite put our fingers on that produce a magnetic performance. Its the sly smile, the quick wink, or the cooly lit cigarette that does the talking for an actor. Consider Steve McQueen, the stoical “King of Cool”, as your paradigm of charisma. He did his own stunts during a time when other actors shied away from such things. A leading man without charisma might as well just be another extra in the scene. After all, a leading lady doesn’t fall for someone who can’t make her weak in the knees does she?
A detached performance can lead to an uninterested and apathetic audience. A solid leading man is able to establish a rapport not only with the object of his affection, but also the viewers. He entreats us to suspend our disbelief for a while and join him in his shoes as the relationship unfolds in front of him. Matthew McConaughey is a good example of an actor who appeals to the everyman in all of us. Sure he’s handsome and makes women swoon but more importantly he has a *relatable* charm. Even the rough and tumble bad boy and the international man of mystery types undergo character development from previous experience to make them relatable to the audience – be it loss, corruption, or personal failures. This trait keeps filmgoers coming back for more.
There is always conflict to be had, either internal or external. Maybe there is another paramour that a lead’s lover is taken by or he finds it within himself to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the character’s motivation fizzled out halfway through. Daniel Craig and Matt Damon have both played the spy game in film and shine as committed heroes that never slip. Drive is for when the going gets tough and to renew the audience’s sense of hope. Drive is for powering through heartbreak or physical pain, showcasing physical prowess and mental fortitude, to achieve an end result.
It may be that the most important aspect of a leading man is presence. Being a leading man is about taking up space as well as taking charge. One doesn’t have to be domineering to establish a presence but commanding authority and respect is a surefire way to earn acting stripes from a supporting cast. Leading ladies seem to admire a figure that stands out in a group. John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger were imposing men and embraced their larger than life persona. The Duke and Governator certainly never asked for attention in their movies but their sheer presence made it clear that they were a force to be reckoned with. All the other traits may be lacking or underdeveloped but you can be sure an actor with presence gets to what he wants by the time the credits roll.
Cooper Powers “It’s better to be seen than viewed”