Hollywood’s Changing Male Ideal
On screen body objectification is now equal opportunity.
For most of its history, Hollywood has demanded physical perfection from its female stars. Now, it’s the men’s turn.
Men’s Journal (“Building a Bigger Action Hero“):
Brando never did crunches. Al Pacino didn’t slurp protein shakes. Cary Grant had never even heard of burpees, BOSU balls, or human growth hormone. But not one of today’s leading men can afford the luxury of a gym-free life. You simply don’t get your name on a movie poster these days unless you’ve got a superhero’s physique – primed for high-def close-ups and global market appeal. Getting there takes effort, vigilance, and the dedication of the elite athlete: high-intensity training, strict diets, supplements, and hormone replacement. If that fails, there are always drugs. Today’s actors spend more time in the gym than they do rehearsing, more time with their trainers than with their directors.
Acting skill – even paired with leading-man looks and undeniable charisma – is not enough to get you cast in a big-budget spy thriller or a Marvel Comics franchise. “A decade or so ago, Stallone and Van Damme and Schwarzenegger were the action stars,” says Deborah Snyder, who produces husband Zack Snyder’s films: 300, Man of Steel, the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie. “Now we expect actors who aren’t action stars to transform themselves. And we expect them to be big and powerful and commanding.”
Michael B. Jordan, who got his break as The Wire’s sensitive kid Wallace and raised his profile in last year’s Fruitvale Station, knows he needs to be able to bulk up on command if he wants to break into the A-list. “You’ve gotta be ready to take off your shirt,” he says, and he will as the Human Torch in next year’s Fantastic Four movie. “They want to blow you up and put you in a superhero action film. Being fit is so important. . . . The bar has been raised.” Even in the late Nineties, Hollywood’s biggest stars – Nicolas Cage, Keanu Reeves, Harrison Ford, Denzel Washington, Will Smith – were handsome Everymen, athletic but not jacked. Now even Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis, who is pushing 60, are more chiseled than they were in their prime.
For much of Hollywood history, only women’s bodies were objectified to such absurd degrees. Now objectification makes no gender distinctions: Male actors’ bare asses are more likely to be shot in sex scenes; their vacation guts and poolside man boobs are as likely to command a sneering full-page photo in a celebrity weekly’s worst-bodies feature, or go viral as a source of Web ridicule. A sharply defined inguinal crease – the twin ligaments hovering above the hips that point toward a man’s junk – is as coveted as double-D cleavage. Muscle matters more than ever, as comic-book franchises swallow up the box office, in the increasingly critical global market. (Hot bodies and explosions don’t need subtitles.) Thor-like biceps and Captain America pecs are simply a job requirement; even “serious” actors who never aspired to mega-stardom are being told they need a global franchise to prove their bankability and land Oscar-caliber parts.
Nor, interestingly, is the ideal that of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime.
Even the type of muscle has changed. “In the Eighties, it was the bigger, the better,” says director Tim Burton. “Think of that shot from Rambo of Sly holding the machine gun and the veins in his forearms bulging.” Actors rarely bulk up like that anymore; they’re all trying to be Tyler Durden.
Every trainer interviewed for this story cited Brad Pitt’s ripped physique in 1999’s Fight Club as an inspiration. Previously known for his lush, golden hair, the girls’ guy Pitt was reborn as Durden, a sinewy, predatory man’s man. “Brad Pitt in Fight Club is the reference for 300,” says Mark Twight, who trained the cast for 300. “Everyone thought he was huge, but he was, like, 155 pounds. If you strip away fat and get guys to 3, 4 percent body fat, they look huge without necessarily being huge.”
To get that hungry look, trainers stress calorie-conscious diets and exercises that pump up fat-burning metabolism. No actor can gain 10 pounds of muscle in a six-week period, but he can lean down to reveal the muscle underneath. Trainers talk about the “lean out” – the final, preshoot crash period when actors drop their BMI (body-mass index) to its bare minimum and unveil muscle definition.
But maintaining extremely low body fat for the duration of a multimonth shoot is nearly impossible and often dangerous: The stress can make an actor ill, damage internal organs, and make him susceptible to other injuries. Matt Damon, who dropped 40 pounds without supervision for 1996’s Courage Under Fire, got so sick that he was beset by dizzy spells on set, impairing his adrenal gland and nearly doing serious damage to his heart. Even in the best-case scenario, calorie deprivation can exhaust an actor, making him light-headed, distracted, and fatigued.
Since 5 percent body fat is nobody’s natural condition, fitness plans are geared to peak on the days of the sex scenes or shirtless moments. To prep for these days, trainers will dehydrate a client like a boxing manager sweats a fighter down to weight. They often switch him to a low- or no-sodium diet three or four days in advance, fade out the carbohydrates, brew up diuretics like herbal teas, and then push cardio to sweat out water – all to accentuate muscle definition for the key scenes.
The last-minute pump comes right before the cameras roll. Philip Winchester, the hero of Cinemax’s action series Strike Back, recalls seeing the technique for the first time on the set of Snatch: “Hundreds of extras were standing around,” he recalls, “and Brad Pitt would drop down and do 25 push-ups before each scene. I thought, ‘Why is he showing off?’ ” Then Winchester figured it out. “I realized he was just jacking himself up: getting blood flowing to the muscles. I’d always wondered, ‘How do actors look so jacked all the time?’ Well, they don’t. Now we ask: Is it a push-up scene? When I shot that Strike Back poster, I was doing push-ups like a madman, saying, ‘Take the picture now! Take it now!’ ”
A fat Superman would never fly. A pudgy Spiderman can’t swing. And an actor who can’t get jacked on deadline doesn’t have a shot at being a leading man in today’s Hollywood. Given the choice between acting chops and physique, producers and directors will often choose the better body. Today studios make bigger bets on fewer movies, aiming for blockbusters that are more expensive and complex than ever to make and whose trailers and posters rely on a ripped leading man. An out-of-shape actor can force a director to recast roles, reshoot scenes, or use CGI effects, often at great expense. Once he is signed on for a role and a production schedule is set, the actor is expected to do whatever he has to to get in the shape required of his character. Fitness budgets are baked into most contracts; studios typically pay for trainers, nutritionists, and even home-delivered meals. Some studios make a point to hire their own trainers so they can control the outcome.
Shoot days have gotten longer in film and television, so an actor’s endurance is key. A single injury can shut down a shoot and drive production over budget, so there’s increasing pressure for stars to stay fit, or perform injured if they don’t. “There are greater demands physically than 10 years ago,” says veteran action-film producer Randall Emmett (Rambo, Broken City, Righteous Kill). “You’re shooting 120 days for some of these movies now – 12 or 14 hours a day.”
If an actor is shooting on location, most trainers will find a local gym or devise stripped-down training plans around body-weight exercises, dumbbells, and bands. Big stars are a different matter. Studios will stop at nothing to keep them happy – and ripped. Bruce Willis’s weight trailer, which Teamsters drive to the set every day, is rumored to have cost $200,000. Downtime is the one constant on any shoot, so many actors improvise ways to keep fit on set. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau likes “body-weight exercises, no machines” while working on Game of Thrones so he can train on location. Russell Crowe likes to bike, if he does anything at all. Jonny Lee Miller runs to and from the set of Elementary. Jake Gyllenhaal prefers cardio, mostly biking and barefoot running. Since 2003, Robert Downey Jr. has practiced Wing Chun kung fu. Matthew McConaughey used to drop down and do push-ups in the middle of meetings, or whenever the Washington Redskins (his favorite team) scored – just so he could hit his daily goals. Jamie Foxx does push-ups in between brushing his teeth and shaving, as part of his morning ritual.
“For actors, it has to be a lifestyle,” says Peterson. “Train it, eat it, supplement it, sleep. That’s what you do. That’s just part of who you are.”
There is an easier way to go from flabby wimp to sinewy screen predator. Sometimes a superhero’s journey begins with the needle prick of a syringe full of human growth hormone (HGH), testosterone, or steroids.
“In Hollywood, the drug of choice is the drug that makes you look good,” says Strike Back’s Winchester. “It’s like the drug scene at a boarding school – it’s all available.” When actors ask about steroids, trainer Steve Zim tells them about the hair loss and zits, and “that usually ends the conversation in one second.” Steroids also produce rounder, water-retaining muscles instead of the lean, mean bodies currently in vogue. Testosterone and HGH are far more common, particularly for older actors, since lower levels of testosterone can make it impossible to retain muscle mass. “Over 40? I encourage getting tested,” says trainer Bobby Strom, “but there are some trainers who just go right to the testosterone, like they’re putting you on a multivitamin.”
Zim has seen the benefits of hormone therapy firsthand. “These people who look younger and fitter – a lot of them are using growth hormone and testosterone; the size comes from the testosterone, the virility and the youth come from the growth hormone.”
On set, actors swap tricks of the fitness trade – and the phone numbers of trainers and doctors who will prescribe testosterone or HGH, no questions asked. There are dozens of hormone-replacement clinics in and around Hollywood, and their business is booming. But there are significant risks: Hormone therapy accelerates all cell growth, whether healthy or malignant, and can encourage existing cancers, especially prostate cancers, to metastasize at terrifying rates. Testosterone supplements can lower sperm counts. For many, the risk is worth it.
So who on a movie set would be most likely to take a risk on something unproven that could cause bodily harm? The stuntmen, of course. Several actors we spoke to say the stunt guys introduced them to performance-enhancing drugs. It makes some sense: If you’re asked to body-double for Ryan Gosling without the benefit of his trainer and his personal chef, you’ll be tempted to take a shortcut, too. And if you’re jumping off buildings, battling ninjas, or swinging a battle-ax at ogres all day (or, worse, playing the ogre who gets bashed in 20 consecutive takes), you’ll see an upside to HGH’s accelerated recovery time.
For 300, the idea was to get the cast looking “like a gang” that had been training together since childhood. [Trainer Mark] Twight set up the gym as a gauntlet and played on actors’ insecurities by forcing them all to train on the same soundstage with their shirts off, watching each other.
“Male vanity,” he says. “Fuck – nothing more powerful. Thirty guys in a room, all vying to be alphas. Everyone had on leather underpants and a cape. Nobody wanted to be remembered as the Spartan with the muffin top.”
When Tom Cruise seemingly compared acting to fighting in Afghanistan (it turns out he did just the opposite) this is one of the things that occurred to me. While, obviously—as Cruise himself actually acknowledged—actors are just playing make-believe and getting well compensated for it, the schedule and physical preparation for these roles can indeed be quite grueling. More so, in many ways, than endured by the average soldier. The soldier more than makes up for that by putting his life on the line, enduring much longer separations from their loved ones, and doing it all for modest pay and little recognition.
It is, indeed, amazing how rapidly the male physical ideal as depicted on screen has changed. Sean Connery, who is widely regarded as the definitive movie James Bond, was certainly in great shape in the early 1960s. But no more so than, say, an ordinary construction worker or ranch hand. Leap ahead to Daniel Craig, today’s Bond, and you’ve got the body of a world class athlete. (Then again, that standard has evolved just as rapidly if not more so. Compare the great NFL or NBA stars of even the 1980s to those of today and the difference is day and night. Training techniques and nutritional science have just transformed the realm of possibility.)
Aside from the cultural impact and the risks we ask actors and stuntmen to take to achieve this new ideal, some wonder about the impact on the craft:
Ever since De Niro remade his body for his Oscar-winning role as boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, physical transformation has been macho shorthand for an actor’s commitment – from Tom Hanks in Philadelphia to Christian Bale and Tom Hardy in, well, everything. Matthew McConaughey agreed to lose more than 35 pounds in his Oscar-winning role as an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club, a show of faith that convinced co-star Jared Leto (who also won an Oscar for his role in the movie) to take a role in the film. “I knew Matthew had made the commitment to lose all that weight,” says Leto, who lost more than 30 himself. “It’s not just about how it looks. When that guy walks on set, people see him and say: ‘That guy’s not fucking around.’ That commitment compels you to deliver.”
Science is only making these body transformations easier and more common. For Spike Lee’s Oldboy, Josh Brolin had to embody a 20-year transformation from bloated alcoholic to killing machine; he gained 28 pounds in 10 days, and then lost 22 pounds in three days. “He took saline pills so the weight he gained was water and he could lose it faster,” says Lee. “De Niro talks about how hard it was to lose all that weight for Raging Bull, and how it took months. Josh lost his weight in, like, a weekend.”
Extreme weight loss or gain has become such a gimmick that lately, it seems many actors and fans are confusing body manipulation with talent. Actor Mark Strong, the star of AMC’s Low Winter Sun, says he is skeptical of this generational shift toward ripped bodies and extreme transformations. “I think a lot of young male actors are trying to prove how good they are by showing you how hard they’re working on their bodies,” he says. “It’s become almost synonymous with being a good actor. People want to quantify acting so that the acting looks awards-worthy.”
Sometimes that impulse to get fit can disrupt a film. Six-packs and bulky chests can look freakishly anachronistic in a prestige period picture: It’s not just that Tudor princes and Victorian lotharios didn’t have waxed chests and 12-packs – it’s that almost nobody had bodies like these until the last decades of supplements and fitness science.
“Can’t we just go back to when you didn’t have to do all this stuff?” James Franco gripes. “I look to Benicio del Toro. He’s not in the best shape but he still looks cool, man. He’s awesome.”
And true awesomeness is too ephemeral, too rare, to be achieved by effort alone.
“Either you have it or you don’t,” says Fast and the Furious star Rick Yune, “It’s not about Sean Connery’s fitness, or Liam Neeson’s muscles. You see Clint Eastwood point a gun – and you believe it. It’s not the physical. It’s what you put behind it.”
What Yune is really complaining about is this sense that studios see actors as bodies now – interchangeable in a global movie business that’s built more on brands than stars. More than ever, studios are building franchises around fresh, inexpensive faces with bodies that can fill a superhero costume.
“One of the reasons there are so few real movie stars is that there are very few who are distinguishable from one another,” says Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed Ryan Gosling in Drive and Only God Forgives. “Everybody can get a six-pack, so it has no value. Everybody starts to look alike. It’s the soul that makes you a movie star. Not your body.”
I’m not sure I buy it, really. Aside from the fact that Hollywood is more dominated than ever by action flicks and superhero movies, the notion that looks are substituting for talent more than they used to doesn’t hold up. If anything, we’ve raised the bar on both.
Frankly, while he lacks some of Connery’s charisma, Craig is a much more believable Bond than any of his predecessors. Why wouldn’t the elite of the elite superspies have the physique of a man who trains obsessively? Similarly, the Christian Bale Batman is much more like the character envisioned by Bob Kane—a boy obsessed by the killing of his parents who spent years honing his mind and body to fight crime—than the versions portrayed by Michael Keaton or, goodness knows, Adam West.
It is true that applying modern athletic ideals to actors portraying Tudor princes or ancient Spartan warriors is a bit absurd. Then again, no more so than having every single woman in the cast be fashion model gorgeous. These portrayals are in the realm of fantasy and escape, not reality. Nobody watching “300” thinks they’re viewing a documentary.