Sometimes it’s only in hindsight we can see how problematic something really is – like Sixteen Candles’ only Asian character, Long Duk Dong, or every single makeover montage in 90s romcoms. For a long time, male leads have been particularly troublesome – whether it’s Andrew Lincoln’s card-holding creep in Love, Actually or Michael Vartan’s high school teacher, ready to fall for his teen student in Never Been Kissed, many of our favourite romcom guys actually demonstrate some pretty dark tendencies.
But recently it feels as though there’s been a shift. Whilst still not perfect, the leading man is slowly beginning to morph into something that seems to fit in with our 2018 view of how a decent man should act and what a healthy romance should look and feel like. There are many men who’ve helped to create this new leading man (we’re looking at you, Heath and Jake), but no one else has been able to shape this landscape quite like 22-year-old Timothée Chalamet.
Ever since we saw him crying into the camera for four solid minutes at the end of 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, as he laments the loss of his first love, Chalamet has been the subject of young desire across the gender spectrum. This was a moment of change: gone were the thick-necked, Neanderthalic leads of yesteryear, replaced by waif-like gents who feel what they feel when they’re feeling it.
Chalamet’s androgynous beauty – rosebud lips, thick eyebrows, a jawline that could cut glass and a swoop of dark brown hair – is a characteristic that has buoyed him in a sea of more traditional Hollywood hunks, and has even allowed him to be immortalised in famous works of art, thanks to Insta account @ChalametInArt. “His looks seem to fit in any painting from any time perfectly,” said the creator of the account, “and his outstanding acting, multilingualism, and musical skills make him a true Renaissance man.”
Chalamet has what Vulture called a ‘sensitive-guy gravitas”, and it has garnered him fond comparisons to a young, pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio (who, coincidentally, also played a gay character, the poet Arthur Rimbaud, in the film Total Eclipse when he was just 21). Chalamet’s turn as the young, love-stricken Elio, in love with an older graduate student under his father’s tutelage, earned him a legion of loyal followers, who have since hounded him so much at public events he was forced to ramp up his security.
After the birth of Lena Dunham’s Girls, it was often thought that Adam Driver was the new embodiment the masculine ideal. GQ writer Jessica Pressler said of the 34-year-old: “It’s hard to say what was most compelling about him: perhaps his face, with all of its different planes, like a carving from Easter Island. Or maybe his incongruously muscular body, which seemed to contain equal amounts of twitchy intensity and feral grace. Or it could be the way he spoke, forcefully but always with a tremulous undercurrent of feeling that somehow made him endearing, even as he barked out fantasies to Dunham’s character while having sex…” Driver had the stature of someone from a superhero film, but was playing a character with a mind that was far darker and more complicated. His iteration of the leading male was odd, both physically and mentally.
Driver’s Girls character presented a masculinity to millennial women that they could easily see in the men around them – an eye-rolling, ‘I know that guy’ kind of recognition. But after #MeToo, this kind of leading man just won’t fly, particularly after one Girls episode showed a disturbing sexual encounter between Driver’s character and his girlfriend, which sparked an endless debate over whether it was rape. Chalamet’s more genteel, non-threatening cinematic persona puts forward a more positive lead, and it’s one that essentially mirrors his own attitudes. It doesn’t necessarily follow that elements of a character can be found in the person playing them, but Driver does, in real life, demonstrate a certain intensity found and a nonchalant demeanour that has occasional smatterings of contempt (“I have no insights on modern masculinity. I don’t think much about it,” he said recently. “I see value in being emotionally available sometimes. I see value in getting angry sometimes.”) that can be found in Adam Sackler, just as Chalamet has a genuine amiability like Elio.
According to industry insiders, the young actor is as nice as they come – always polite, always remembers names, shakes hands with everyone, and maintains strong eye contact with whomever he’s speaking with. And he has this glorious nervous charm – something that made itself very apparent when he got carried away telling a French TV host (oh yes, this lead is fluent in French) that Armie Hammer had to have his testicles CGI-d out of a scene in Call Me by Your Name, much to the mortification of Hammer.
Another actor adding to the ‘nice bro’ canon is the star of Netflix’s two most popular romcoms of 2018, Noah Centineo. Playing the sensitive jock in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and the even more sensitive jock in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, the 22-year-old has made sure to practice what he preaches. In a recent interview, he spoke of his one true love – and spoiler alert: it’s love itself: “I’m fucking so romantic. Like, such a romantic — it’s not even funny. I can’t help it. I swear to God, like, every day, the majority of my day is sentimental. You know, I’m thinking about past relationships I’ve been in, how I miss them so much or what I would do different, or why I wanna be with them again, or just moments I’d like to go back to or I know why I shouldn’t go back, and then you know, it’s just constantly love, love, love… I’m ruled by love.”
He slots perfectly like a Tetris piece into a gap between the leading men that have come before him: he’s not the dumb hottie like Zac Efron, nor is he the mean jock a la She’s All That’s Freddie Prinze Jr. He’s not brooding like Ryan Gosling’s character in The Notebook, or mysterious like Robert Pattinson in Twilight. He even supersedes the likes of Chalamet’s too-cool intellectual allure in Lady Bird and Driver’s misunderstood-boyfriend-with-anger-issues vibe. He takes tiny elements from them all to create the new kind of leading man; a Frankenstein’s monster of hotness.
And it’s a leading man that is perhaps more universal than Chalamet’s version (which, like red wine or olives, seems like it might, for now, remain a slightly more acquired taste). In To All the Boys, he’s the responsible, respectful lacrosse player who swigs kombucha at parties and falls for the shy Korean-American girl. In Sierra Burgess, he’s the ASL-signing football player who thinks the head cheerleader is hot – but the band geek is much hotter. In real life, he just loves love. It’s simple – as The Cut writer Allison P. Davis puts it: “He’s just fully nice and hot at a time that feels like “nice and hot” is a rare resource.” He’s something that women want, and something that men should aspire to be.
But who shall prevail between Chalamet’s sensitive schtick and Centineo’s all-American charm? Well, there’s room for both – the main thing going forward that they are fundamentally good guys. In a post #MeToo era, Hollywood needs leading men who women aren’t afraid of; the ultimate good guy who forgoes the alpha persona and respects everyone. And what could be hotter than that?