How does one define cinematic “coolness?” It’s not just being a bad-ass and beating up a bunch of dudes; otherwise Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone would pretty much be the epitome of “cool,” and I think we can all agree that’s not quite right. It’s not just charisma; Clark Gable and Cary Grant had charm out the wazoo, but again, neither of them feels right when it comes to “cool.” And it’s not just looks; hell, every actor in Hollywood outside of John C. Reilly and Steve Buscemi’s got those.
Being “cool” is some kind of intangible combination of all these elements, some kind of ethereal presence that carries a star’s on-screen and celebrity persona into a realm of dreams and desires. Perhaps, when ranking actors in based on “coolness,” we are truly just talking about the people we would most like to be ourselves, answering the question, “if you could have a portal like the one in “Being John Malkovich,” only you could choose whose mind you inhabit, who would it be?” If that’s true, feel free to go crazy psycho-analyzing my lists here. Especially the women, once I get to them in Part 2.
I have no idea what got me going on this topic. All I know is that I’ve spent weeks mulling over this list, and it’s time to put my choices out there for contention. Who are the “coolest” actors around to you? What does “coolness” mean when it comes to actors, anyway? For now, debate Part 1, “the dudes.”
10. Samuel L. Jackson
Jackson is perhaps the most debatable inclusion on this list, because his particular brand of “cool” definitely edges more towards the blatantly bad-ass side of things. But even when he’s not cracking skulls (reptilian or otherwise), Jackson carries himself with an unparalleled level of self-confidence. That distinctive cadence always makes it sound like he knows exactly what to say, whether it’s debating foreign fast food or midi-chlorians.
9. Warren Beatty
It takes something special to make a romantically insecure impotent cool, which is exactly what Beatty did in “Bonnie and Clyde.” But perhaps even more than his considerably suave on-screen accomplishments, Beatty’s career as a driven, uncompromising director/producer has contributed to his unflappable persona. Standing up against the Hollywood establishment is pretty damn cool.
8. James Dean
Though there are probably a number of early 2000’s indie bands that would object to this statement, being emo isn’t cool. Unless you’re James Dean, and can elevate preoccupied brooding to an art form. The only uncool thing about Dean is that we lost such an incredible talent so early.
7. Marcello Mastroianni
It pretty much goes without saying that if you rock the shades like Mastroianni did, you deserve a spot on this list. After famed Italian director Federico Fellini moved out of his neo-realist phase, he needed an actor to carry his more stylish, surrealist pieces like “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2.” Mastroianni was the perfect fit, projecting taste and elegance even when as Fellini frequently surrounded him with scenes of debauchery and decadence.
6. Paul Newman
Newman’s rebellious screen persona made him extremely successful in the tumultuous transitionary Hollywood years of the 1960’s and 70’s. He and that Luke smile gave us such immortally cool characters like Butch Cassidy, Fast Eddie Felson and Hud Bannon. He publicly denounced the war in Vietnam and made #19 on President Nixon’s enemies list. He flew as a turret gunner in a torpedo bomber during WWII. And he even made being a faithful family man cool, once quipping regarding infidelity, “Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?” What more do you want?
5. Sean Connery
If you define the single coolest movie character in history, you get an automatic spot in the top 5 coolest actors. I’m pretty sure that rule is written down somewhere.
4. Humphrey Bogart
Look up the word “hard-boiled” in the dictionary, and you’ll probably find a picture of Bogart. Noir detectives, pitiless prospectors, roughneck sailors; Bogart pretty much made a career out of making coarseness seem alluring. The attraction to Bogey wasn’t found in his peculiar looks or moral strength; it was somewhere in his perpetually aloof stare, the complete inability to ever really read what he was thinking. He kept his shields up at all times, so you were never really sure whether he would end up doing the right thing or not. Enigmas have never again been so cool.
3. Clint Eastwood
Like Bogart, Eastwood in his prime as a cinematic hero was a man of few words. All he needed to strike fear in his enemies and jealousy in his admirers was that trademark squint and a couple curt growls. Nothing seemed to faze Eastwood, even as he was staring down certain death. A complete lack of fear, for anything, like he was a god among mortals; that’s pretty damn cool.
2. Harrison Ford
Ford’ heroes are charming in their impudence, defiant in their courage, quick with their one-liners. He’s the ultimate nerd hero, cool enough to perform incredible stunts and foil evil plots, but with an element of self-consciousness often lacking in other film heroes, enough to lend some credibility (all right, not much, but a smidgen) when he plays, say, an archaeology professor. Probably no other actor in history can quite match Ford’s peak stretch of coolness, from 1980 to 1984, when he made “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Blade Runner,” “Return of the Jedi” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-” back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. That’s an impressive run, but still not quite enough to make him my #1 pick…
1. Steve McQueen
They didn’t call him the “King of Cool” for nothing. Everything about McQueen, even his name, just screamed “cool.” His on-screen anti-hero persona is not the result of Hollywood magic; that’s pretty much just what McQueen was like. He performed most of his own stunts, including most of the legendary car chase sequence in “Bullitt,” and the epic motorcycle jump in “The Great Escape.” McQueen was an avid dirt biker and dune buggy racer, learned martial arts from a ninth-degree black belt, and could run five miles a day, seven days a week. He’s the only man to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and get inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. And I’ll repeat, he did THIS himself:
Stay tuned for Part 2, “the Dames,” coming up later this week.