It would be hard to imagine Frank Sinatra or Jack Nicholson or even Warren Beatty — easily the most politically active of his generation of actors — following up an Oscar win by making a beeline to the TED talks.
But that is where Ben Affleck could be found, just four days after emotionally accepting his little gold man. Joking that attending the TED conference, a California lecture series about technology, entertainment and design, was like arriving at “the Academy Awards for smart people”, he made a plea for the conflict-ravaged Congo. “I’ve seen and met people doing incredible things, mending the fabric of their lives,” he said at the conference. “Brick by brick, stitch by stitch.”
THE COOL PACK
With his best picture win for Argo at the Oscars last month, a moment that completed a stunning turnaround from tabloid punch line to cinematic artiste, moviedom’s leading man of the moment is most definitely Affleck. More than just pulling off a rarely achieved career U-turn — it’s a long way from Gigli (2003) to Argo — at 40 he has also come to embody a new Hollywood paradigm for masculinity.
These are his current attributes: maker of important films, happily married (to Jennifer Garner), father of three, eastern Congo philanthropist. Add to the list rumoured Senate candidate (though he has said he has no plans to run for office).
Apparently the way to be cool now — the way to be James Dean in 2013 — has nothing to do with his-and-hers Rolls-Royces, which is how the tabloids had Affleck rolling with Jennifer Lopez back in the Bennifer days.
A-list celebrities have exhibited a serious side for years, of course. Angelina Jolie started trekking to Darfur more than a decade ago. But Affleck’s evolution has made him the face of this cluster of actor-director-producers.
It’s a group whose collective identity has started to compete with its members’ individual fame — people like Matt Damon, George Clooney, Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Cheadle and Brad Pitt, who are making politically-savvy movies (Promised Land, J. Edgar), doing serious charity work (World Wildlife Fund, Water.org) and keeping the night-crawling to a minimum.
The guys also appear capable of growing a beard overnight. But that’s gravy.
Adjunct members include Mark Wahlberg, who has a white-hot career — Ted 2, the next Transformers — and an extremely staid private life. (His entourage is now pretty much limited to his wife and four kids.) You don’t see Channing Tatum passed out in the Chateau Marmont driveway; People magazine’s reigning “sexiest man alive” is married, produces his own movies and does quiet work for animal and environmental charities.
The new Hollywood man, intellectually faux or not — the Thunk Hunk — is a significant departure from the old industry version of cool. The Rat Pack’s leaders varied, from Bogart in the 1950s to Sinatra in the ’60s, but its signature habits did not: cocktails, carousing, casinos. The angsty, hard-partying Brat Pack (Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez and pals) symbolised Hollywood heat in the ’80s. Eventually another mostly male swarm emerged: the Frat Pack, sophomoric comic actors like Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson.
“If you look back, multiple generations of actors had a romance with the image of a movie star — the women and the drugs and all of that,” said Jess Cagle, the managing editor of Entertainment Weekly. “This one seems to have grown out of it.”
“And the big thing, of course,” Cagle added, “is that the influence of Clooney on all of these guys is really palpable.”
Yes, Clooney, 51, is Chairman of the Board of today’s loose group of non-profit leading men, which started to form in 2001 when the core cluster starred in Ocean’s Eleven, a remake of a Rat Pack movie. Clooney, who has been nominated for eight Academy Awards and has won two (for co-producing Argo and for his acting in the 2005 film Syriana, about the oil industry), has led by example, becoming a passionate advocate for Darfur and other causes while continuing his movie career.
This seriousness is more than just window dressing, but some cynics still have a hard time buying it. Isn’t it possible that these actors just figured out what public relations game to play? After all, several now have publicists as well known for their political and non-profit work as their star wrangling. For instance, DiCaprio and Affleck use Sunshine Sachs, a publicity firm run by men with government backgrounds.
“Just like they used to put gauze over the lens, these people put causes over the lens,” said James Ulmer, a marketing consultant who compiles the report “The Ulmer Scale,” which rates the global bankability of actors and is relied on by film financiers. “Who was it again who hiked up Kilimanjaro before the snows melt forever and all our water disappears? I forget. Probably all of them.”
It’s true that these actors and their handlers saw something changing in show business. TMZ started to hold stars accountable for their behaviour, with help from Twitter and bloggers. Simultaneously, a tabloid culture started to eat them alive. Ulmer said his research showed that people became more interested in seeing Pitt in the pages of USmagazine than a movie. Hollywood’s star-handling apparatus jumped in, realising their clients needed to retreat to higher ground if they were going to remain stars — mysterious, aspirational — and not reality TV personalities.
The changing nature of films may have also played a role. Today the concept or underlying comic-book property is what matters, and you can be replaced. Mark Harris, writing in last month’s GQ, called it the “‘post-movie-star movie star’ — competent, handsome, and untroublesome to the corporation bankrolling your franchise.”
Don’t count out age, of course. Affleck was in his late 20s when he started dating Lopez, became an overnight metrosexual and appeared in a music video massaging her famously hefty hind quarters. Botox injections may keep stars from aging, but they do mature. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger grew up (kind of). As Affleck told Details magazine in October 2012: “In 2003, Barack Obama was a state senator in Illinois! Okay? ... A lot can happen. And a lot has for me.”
So what is this star pack’s singsong nickname? I posed that question to a few witty/snarky observers of celebrity and the presidents of marketing at three movie studios. They all pointed out the obvious: These guys aren’t really a pack. Affleck and Damon are close, but DiCaprio —despite helping to produce Affleck’s next film, the crime drama Runner, Runner — has his own social circle. Ditto, Pitt.
“Part of the reason these guys are doing more sensible things is that they don’t have a posse of bros,” said Jessica Morgan, a celebrity-fashion blogger. “A bro is a guy who thinks TED is a movie by Seth MacFarlane and sits around bemoaning the bankruptcy of Girls Gone Wild. That’s not these guys.”
The PAC Pack? The Give Back Pack? The Hack Pack? (Oh, wait. ...)
One marketing chief suggested the Strat Pack, reasoning that these men are putting strategy into their celebrity, in terms of the films they make (and how they make them), while alternating between the frivolous and meaningful sides of power and fame.
In the end, the most jarring label, at least in Hollywood, may be this one: grown-ups.