It’s the most wonderful time of the year — when People Magazine declares just who is the Sexiest Man Alive. This year’s choice is Chris Hemsworth, also known to anyone who loves Marvel properties and superheroes as the impossibly huge Thor, headlining his own movies and also smashing through The Avengers series. Noted gossip Elaine Lui of LaineyGossip has been running the odds all week, and her money had been on the man who fronted the breakout Marvel surprise of the summer, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Chris Pratt.
We all know that People‘s Sexiest Man Alive is, in short: what A-list actor (depressingly white) has led a big movie, has a big movie coming out, and is wonderfully representative of some corporate choices coming together? What’s funny about the choice of Hemsworth, however, is that it says something things about male movie stars in the 25-35 range. For a start, it says there aren’t many to choose from: who amongst that group, especially those born in the ’80s, could actually be representative of sexy masculinity that’s soft enough for People‘s audience?
Hemsworth, 31, is only the second Sexiest Man Alive to be born in the 1980s (Channing Tatum, who’s likely to repeat if he keeps this streak of charm and talent up, was the first). He is also hunky and Australian, with few peers at his level. Only Chris Evans and Chris Pratt have a career to match Hemsworth’s, at least regarding having a superhero tentpole film serve as the jumping-off point to a career. (Tatum is only now about to take on a superhero role, as X-Man Gambit.) Hemsworth is well placed to be the sexiest man of November, which is fine publicity for next year’s slew of films: January’s Blackhat, a Michael Mann-scripted film, along with the IRL Moby Dick story In the Heart of the Sea in March and May’s Avengers II.
Some of this speaks to the impossible expectations on an actor today — in order to be able to take the small roles, you also need to be able to win and wear the shackles of the superhero movies that are driving the industry today. But additionally, it also speaks to the small cohort of actors emerging in their twenties and thirties, that can handle both the bulking-up you need to be a believable, larger-than-life superhero, and enough talent and charisma to lead an ensemble in other films. I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for one, but do you ever look at him and think, action hero? No way. And hasn’t some of Tatum’s early success in action dreck been a result of “dat neck“?
Hemsworth is unproven so far, but he has one distinct advantage over the swaths of ambitious young men in Hollywood today: he’s physically imposing — something that also applies to his brother, Liam, who towers over his costar Josh Hutcherson in The Hunger Games series. The Hemsworth brothers are part of a wave of Australian actors who seem to have something — height and gruffness —over their American counterparts. After all, look at the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, so uncomfortable bulked up for The Prince of Persia, switching back to something natural for his fatuous creep in Nightcrawler.
But what’s funny is that Australian actors — who are ubiquitous enough in America these days that Deadline has devoted whole posts to the “Australian” wave taking over television (my favorite stealth Australian performance would be Aden Young in Sundance TV’s southern-fried Rectify, who never, ever slips) — may tend to fill manly man roles when they’re in America; however, their work from their homeland is far more sensitive.
Before Sam Worthington was anchoring Avatar as the representative of all masculinity, he was in the excellent indie Somersault as a complicated, real young man who doesn’t know how to express himself, or what his sexual orientation may be. And 2010’s excellent Animal Kingdom showed the complications of growing up as a young man in an Melbourne crime family; the expectations of being cold and hard, a real man versus the central character’s choice to live a morally righteous life. That film’s director, David Michod, made 2014’s The Rover, otherwise known as the film where Robert Pattinson is sweaty and dirty in the desert, doing something other than sparkling.
Hemsworth essentially went through the standard young Australian actor’s woodshedding (a role on Home and Away) before he was cast as Thor. He’s never really had a chance to show many layers in movies; only to show off his wonderful physicality and nearly unmatched hunkiness. In the Heart of the Sea has potential — Hemsworth is essentially playing Starbuck — but then he’s back to the superhero role. It’s funny that Hollywood has decided to fill the superhero ranks, the manliest man ranks, by encouraging the average actor (5’5″, wee, and in my cohort of American males, generally soft and beta) to bulk up, and importing in hunky foreigners who seem like they can actually ride a horse (Ryan Gosling, bless him, does not seem like he could ride a horse) — yet, on the other hand, Australian actors reaching for the big brass ring of Hollywood stardom mostly get the opportunity to be a physical presence and not much else. Kudos to Hemsworth for wearing People‘s crown gracefully, both sexy and appearing in a number of upcoming films and talking about how he’s a family man through and through, but when are we going to see him really, truly act? Will Hollywood or Australia, even, ever know what to do with the guy, beyond the hammer?