The decline of the American actor

The ranks of interesting under-40 American actors have begun to look dangerously thin, now that DiCaprio and Joaquin Phoenix have crossed the boundary. (It’s important to keep in mind here that Ryan Gosling is Canadian.) Maybe because movies have gotten so expensive to make, and it’s men who bear the burden of carrying the many action franchises, the guys look a little tense, uncertain of what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s always a pleasure to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt, even in big dumb pictures like Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Looper, but as an actor he’s been spinning his wheels for a while; he seemed a lot happier when he was playing more-challenging roles in smaller-scale films like The Lookout and Uncertainty in the middle and late 2000s. Being movie-star charming is too easy for an actor as smart as Gordon-Levitt; boredom looms.

It’s not just him, of course. What’s becoming difficult to ignore in current American leading men is a general absence of joy in their vocation. When James Franco tries to get serious, as he does with some frequency, he’s kind of alarming to watch; his recent modus operandi has been to adapt a great American novel for the screen, miscast himself, and doggedly muddle through. Jesse Eisenberg seems to take only roles that require him to look bummed all the time. They appear to have forgotten that acting is play, a game of let’s-pretend. It starts with a child imagining himself as somebody else, trying on different roles, making faces in the mirror. When one or more other kids are present, impromptu scenarios are cooked up and parts are assigned, with the goal, always, of bringing into being something that would not otherwise have existed in the ordinary run of life—something more colorful, more vivid, something thrilling.