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Critic's Notebook

Earning their wings

2011 was the year that these three actors took flight

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 11, 2011
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Are movie stars born or made?

It has always been an open question. Decades have passed since the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, with its literal factories for the seeding, feeding, grooming, and launching of new stars. That functional paradox - the mass production of unique personalities - lives on in the culture but not within the studios themselves. These days movie stars arrive mostly by chance, luck, or sheer ambition.

Yet we still respond to a fresh face or a new twist on the old archetypes. When a shirtless young Brad Pitt seduces Geena Davis with a cowboy hat and a hair dryer in “Thelma and Louise,’’ or Amy Adams steals “Junebug’’ from its nominal leads, we sit up and demand to know more. It’s a little vampiric - ooh, fresh meat for our fantasies - but it’s also an honest response to the charisma that separates good actors from genuine stars.

If the movie year just ending hasn’t given us much in the way of timeless cinema - quick, name the leading best picture contender - 2011 has marked the arrival of three acting talents to the big tent of fame. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve appeared out of nowhere but that their personas have suddenly jelled due to good work and a lot of it. Jessica Chastain, Ryan Gosling, and Michael Fassbender will ring in the new year as full-fledged movie stars where 12 months earlier they were each something very different. What changed and how, and why do they suddenly seem so necessary to the cultural conversation?

With Chastain, surprise is a large part of the impact: She wasn’t there and then she was. Actually, with seven films in play at theaters and in film festivals in 2011, Chastain was simply everywhere. Where she came from - a pair of small films, some TV shows, a lot of stage work - was less important than her striking on-screen presence, superficially fragile but resilient and durable underneath. Her two key roles were as heartland matriarchs: the compassionate earth mother of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,’’ sustaining her sons against the gale force of husband Brad Pitt, and Samantha LaForche in “Take Shelter,’’ in which her stature as family protector grows even as her husband (Michael Shannon) falls prey to paranoia. Both films use Chastain’s fine-boned prettiness and ethereal grace as camouflage for inner strength; both performances deepen as they go.

The actress showed she could do big-budget character parts (the defiant blond bimbo of “The Help’’) and brooding Euro-thrillers (“The Debt,’’ in which she played a younger version of Helen Mirren). She did Shakespeare (Virgilia in Ralph Fiennes’s “Coriolanus,’’ which opened last week in New York and LA) and she did Oscar Wilde (Salome in “Wilde’s Salome,’’ which played the Venice Film Festival and which is directed by Al Pacino, who introduced her to Malick and got the whole Chastain ball rolling). In 2012, she’s signed up for three projects, including another Malick film. In 2013, she’s slated to play Princess Diana. That is how fast things are happening.

Because of her strawberry hair, the Malick connection, and the heartland roles, Chastain superficially seems cut from the cloth of Sissy Spacek and other 1970s homegrown goddesses: Sally Field, Jessica Lange, even Meryl Streep. Where Spacek’s early appeal, though, was her artlessness - she seemed to have wandered in off the street - Chastain conveys an air of craft and wary adventurousness. One senses that she’s just beginning her run. She may become a superstar. She may disappear again. Or she may keep surprising us. First, though, she’ll need a film of her own and a role that doesn’t exist solely in relationship to a male character.

If Chastain is the latest edition of the overnight star, Gosling and Fassbender are variations on the hard-working actor whose ship finally comes in. Both are known quantities who have been in movies for a while: five years in Fassbender’s case and over a decade in Gosling’s. Yet both appeared in enough high-profile movies this year to prompt a broad reappraisal from critics and audiences alike. Fassbender had impressed the former as Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in “Hunger’’ (2006) and a sexually charged older man in “Fish Tank’’; mainstream audiences had seen him as the dapper, doomed Lieutenant Archie Hicox in “Inglourious Basterds.’’ But the actor had also appeared in “300’’ and “Centurion.’’ He could just as easily have become the next Gerard Butler.

Instead, he played Rochester in “Jane Eyre,’’ the young Magneto in “X-Men: First Class,’’ a desperate Manhattan sex addict in the just-released “Shame,’’ and Carl Jung in the upcoming “A Dangerous Method.’’ A broad spread, seemingly, yet in all four films, Fassbender’s mature handsomeness and tempered gravity create characters you’re drawn to even when you shouldn’t be. If the actor has antecedents in movie history, they’re skilled British leading men like Ronald Colman and James Mason, Richard Burton and Daniel Day-Lewis - grown-ups who can play dapper, disturbed, cerebral, or sensual while always seeming in control of their art. In the bargain, he’s the latest edition of the thinking woman’s hunk, as proved by a scene in “Shame’’ in which he almost invisibly seduces a woman in a bar.

Fassbender’s reward for his new stardom is the lead in Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated sci-fi thriller “Prometheus,’’ not to mention a possible best actor Oscar for “Shame.’’ Gosling, by contrast, will just have to content himself with finally becoming an A-list Hollywood star, thanks to the breadth of his work in 2011. His career arc is fascinating. With his 2001 performance as an anti-Semitic Jewish skinhead in “The Believer,’’ Gosling established himself as the next Edward Norton, which is to say the next potential De Niro, which is to say another possible Brando.

The archetype of the mumbling young actor-artiste, torturing his body and apprenticing his soul to his craft, has been an accepted star posture since the 1970s, and nothing Gosling did - not “The United States of Leland,’’ “Half Nelson’’ (which earned him a best actor Oscar nomination in 2007), “Lars and the Real Girl,’’ or “Blue Valentine’’ - appeared to indicate otherwise. Well, except for 2004’s “The Notebook,’’ the intergenerational Nicholas Sparks tearjerker that introduced the actor to millions of snurfling teenage girls. That film primed the pump, so that mainstream US audiences at least knew who he was when his big chance came.

Gosling’s 2011 game-changer wasn’t “The Ides of March,’’ although that thundering D.C. morality play proved to Hollywood that Gosling could handle a lead role alongside heavyweights like actor-director George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Giamatti. And it wasn’t “Drive,’’ a beautifully controlled existential action film that had critics and adventurous filmgoers in awe of the actor’s use of stillness to convey sympathy and threat. (As for those audiences that went in expecting “The Fast and the Furious 6,’’ blame the trailer for lying to you and don’t be fooled so easily next time.)

No, the movie that truly put Gosling over with a broad spectrum of American moviegoers - which is all that matters when it comes to star persona - is “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,’’ the most lovable and least cool movie of the bunch. In it, the actor is richly funny as Jacob, a singles-bar guru with abs that can stun from a distance and an aching hole where his soul once was. The film’s above-the-title star is Steve Carell as the newly separated schmo Gosling’s character advises, and Carell’s just fine. But the scene in which Jacob spends the night with Hannah (Emma Stone) and slowly sheds his shell - watching himself thaw with disbelief and then finally just giving in - is so well played that it represents something almost unheard of in modern Hollywood film: a moment of genuine intimacy.

That sense of surprise is one reason we respond so strongly to a movie star arriving out of nowhere or finally making a mark. The acting choices, the behavioral tics, seem freshly felt and novel. As consumers, we crave novelty to an almost cruel degree - continual new faces to replace the aging icons - but as humans we recognize and appreciate truth of experience when it’s honestly framed. And we want more, like media junkies needing a fix. Movie stardom isn’t a solo act but a collaboration between the watchers and the watched, and the dance is never more seductive than when it’s beginning.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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