It happens every time a movie starring an A-list actor or actress bombs at the box office: What Happened to the Movie Star? Probably the most famous recent example of this is Bill Simmons’ “The Movie Star” feature for Grantland, where he wrote, “When Green Lantern badly underperformed last weekend, it shouldn’t have been surprising, because [Ryan] Reynolds isn’t a movie star (despite Hollywood’s best efforts to convince us otherwise).” In case you couldn’t tell by the Green Lantern reference, that article was written before Deadpool made nearly $800 million on a $58 million budget. So, now Reynolds is a movie star? That’s the thing about this argument — it can be proven just as quickly as it can be picked apart. But Ryan Reynolds isn’t the answer. He’s a cog in the current Hollywood machine, which prioritizes the franchise over the actor. Chris Evans isn’t the movie star; Captain America is.
Ryan Gosling rarely comes up in this debate, because since bouncing around from The All-New Mickey Mouse Club to Are You Afraid of the Dark? to Young Hercules, he’s never pretended to be a Movie Star — he’s perfectly happy being a guy who stars in movies. Gosling could have been a flash-in-the-pan heartthrob, and he nearly was after Remember the Titans and especially the snotty-tissue classic The Notebook. The latter’s probably still his most famous role, but he quickly pivoted to more challenging parts, like an inner-city teacher in Half Nelson and the proud owner of an anatomically correct sex doll in Lars and the Real Girl.
From there, he moved on to 2010’s relationship-damaging Blue Valentine, and a year later, Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive (the less said about The Ides of March, his political “thriller” with George Clooney, the better). Gosling was already popular before Drive, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s casually violent neo-noir made him (and his outfit) iconic, as did the scene in Crazy, Stupid, Love where he takes his shirt off for Emma Stone. The FX mainstay — Crazy, Stupid, Love and The Avengers are to FX as Goodfellas is to AMC — was the first time Gosling dabbled in big-screen comedy. There are comedic elements in Remember the Titans, especially the dance sequence, and Lars and the Real Girl, but they’re dramas more than anything. But in Crazy, Stupid, Love, a sassy Gosling — whose character, it’s worth noting, calls his penis his “schwantz” — holds his own against Steve Carell and his sharp rom-com banter with Stone is a delight. The film was a hit, but Gosling quickly returned to the dark moodiness of Drive with The Place Beyond the Pines, Gangster Squad, Only God Forgives, and his directorial debut Lost River, which are as wacky as they sound.
After taking some time off — possibly to recover from Lost River‘s criticial drubbing — Gosling reappeared in the Best Picture nominee The Big Short, where he played a black-haired Deutsche Bank bond salesman who made millions during the financial crisis. It’s a true ensemble film, with winning performances from Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, and Melissa Leo, but Gosling stands out — he’s all I-know-more-than-you bravado, and gets one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. Again, it’s not an overtly comedic performance, but Gosling plays Jared Vennett with an oily conviction that’s so overwhelming you can’t but help chuckle. Or as a member of the film’s test audience put it, “That’s the crappiest I have ever felt while laughing a lot.”
It’s similarly impossible to feel crappy watching Gosling’s next film, The Nice Guys, which is one of 2016’s best and most overlooked movies. In other words, it’s a Shane Black joint. Gosling plays Holland March (what a name), an over-his-head, oft-drunk private investigator who reluctantly teams up with the goon-like Jackson Healy. The pudgy gumshoe is played by Russell Crowe, who described Gosling as a “little bastard.” And that’s what Gosling is in the movie: the Laurel to Crowe’s Hardy. Take a look at the bathroom stall scene.
Ryan Gosling is one of the most attractive people on the planet and a damn fine Academy Award-nominated actor, but in The Nice Guys, he’s caught with his pants down, literally, and tries to hold a cigarette in his mouth, a gun in his hand, and a magazine over his schwantz, while simultaneously keeping a bathroom stall door from closing on him, as an amused Russell Crowe looks on. It’s gung-ho slapstick, and it’s not even Gosling’s best physical performance in the movie. That would be the scene where a fumbling Holland discovers a dead body while having a smoke during a party. He’s rendered speechless, relying on a series of exaggerated gestures and Lou Costello-by-way-of-Looney Tunes wheezes to field Jackson’s attention. It’s silly, it’s over the top, it’s beautiful.
Of course, it’s not beautiful in the conventional sense — he is sitting next to a bloody corpse, after all — unlike La La Land, which will swoon the impeccably tailored pants or vintage dress off you. Damien Chazelle’s starry-eyed follow-up to Whiplash is as good as the critics would have you believe, if not better, and much of that credit goes to its stars. Emma Stone and Gosling are radiant, with the kind of chemistry that makes you feel inexplicably angry when their characters get angry at each other. La La Land has some downer moments, especially in the second half, but it’s an often uplifting film about artistic integrity, and doing what you love, and, in the case of Gosling’s character Sebastian Wilder, complaining to anyone who will listen that jazz is the only good music genre. Okay, he’s kind of pretentious, but Gosling uses that to his advantage — it’s a welcome surprise when he breaks out of his snobbish cocoon to dance like he’s Charlie Chaplin crossed with Gene Kelly. There aren’t many jokes in La La Land, but Gosling picks his places to show off his impeccably timed smirk, or crack a smart-ass quip, to cut the earnest tension. Just try not to giggle during the a-Ha “Take on Me” sequence. You read that right.
After years of playing socially inept and/or brooding loners, as seen in Place Beyond the Pines, Drive and Lars and the Real Girl, a dark-to-light switch flipped, at least for the moment, and Gosling realized he brings out the best in his co-stars, like Russell Crowe and Emma Stone, and they do the same thing for him. He’s also recently proven himself to be one of the more dependably amusing late-night guests, whether he’s selling knives, reading mean tweets, or dropping Lord of the Rings trivia. And who could forget the time he lost it on SNL?
Ryan Gosling is one of our best movie stars (and Movie Stars), because he can do a little bit of everything. He can sing, he can dance, he can write and direct, he can star in potential blockbusters (Blade Runner 2049) and tiny indies (Blue Valentine, which cost $1 million to make), and best of all, he’s just as good in dramas as he is in comedies. And if the preceding years made the former easy to remember, 2016 served up two stunning reminders of the latter. If that sort of versatility isn’t what makes a Movie Star, what is?