The deserved rise of Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling’s come a long way since the Mickey Mouse Club. Ahead of the release of Drive, Michael charts the actor’s career so far...

It’s very easy to be cynical about Disney, especially when you look at their parade of child stars that fill up their various kids’ media organs. These tween pop sensations – the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, the High School Musical gang – seem to be bred for preening, sell-out stardom, pumping out CDs, merchandise and crowd-pleasing filler for as long as their corporate overlords wish.

Although, while the impulse to scoff is strong, it’s complicated by looking at the precedent set by the last generation of Disney kids. Back in 1993, if you were to spend some time with the Mickey Mouse Club, you’d see in premature form a bunch of pop culture notables, from Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, to Justin Timberlake. The former have very much coloured mainstream music for over a decade now, and the latter, after doing the same, is now making a promising move into the movies.

He’s not the first, as he’s following in the footsteps of one of the quieter successes from the MMC line-up: Ryan Gosling. Alongside the world-conquering pop stars, Gosling may seem unassuming, especially when you look at the false-starts that marred his teenage years (one season as Young Hercules, another in high-concept teens-on-a-cruise series Breaker High), but his career in the last decade has been consistently surprising, daring and damn near unique in the current Hollywood landscape.

Gosling first showed his propensity for scoring difficult, yet nuanced roles in 2001’s The Believer, in which he plays a young, fiercely intelligent and fundamentally confused Jewish neo-Nazi. While it may seem conceptually close to far-right flick American History X, The Believer’s shaven-headed protagonist is more finely-honed than Edward Norton’s curb-stomper.

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Daniel, the protagonist, has over-analysed his religion to the point of being incapable of reconciling the illogical doctrine with his personal faith, resulting in a dredging of his very being with violent, striking results. Gosling, while admittedly intimidating when strutting down the street wearing a red, be-swastika’d t-shirt, gives the character a hint of indecision, evoking the spiritual turmoil behind his hyper-articulate anti-Semitic rants.

The film is a scuzzy, New York indie which takes an oblique look at the city’s Jewish population, practically begging for a double bill with Darren Aronofsky’s Kabbalah-meets-maths psycho-thriller Pi. And even if the plot doesn’t necessarily hold up, especially in the interplay between Daniel’s fascist group’s political ambitions and his fear of being outed as a Jew, Gosling makes his bundle of contradictions into a subtle creation – not a monster, but a deeply conflicted, self-hating young man.

It’s a trick that he’s pulled off a number of times, most clearly when presenting the complicated emotional realities behind morally suspect actions. In 2003’s The United States Of Leland, Gosling plays the title character, Leland P Fitzgerald, a teenage boy who, as the film opens, murders an intellectually disabled boy in cold blood. Once again, Gosling carries what is a deeply flawed flick (too much muddled moping and melodramatic hand-wringing, not enough character development), but it is particularly fascinating to see how completely the actor creates his character.

In a total about-face from the intense stares and extremist rants of The Believer, here Gosling is in sotto voce, muttering in a high whine, with lips pursed in childlike sorrow. Right down to his unkempt, curly mop, he fills out this deeply troubled child, bringing considerable weight to what is often a rather ridiculous film, making even the kid’s confession – that he committed murder “because of the sadness” – into a compelling character dimension.

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However, even a prime performance from Gosling can’t save what is arguably his most notable film yet, the cloying romance flick The Notebook. A real sleeper hit after its release in the summer of 2004, this nostalgic, rose-tinted drama made Gosling into a bona fide heart-throb, netting him a bunch of Teen Choice awards, both on his own and with his co-star, Rachel McAdams, including one for – gag me with a spoon –  Choice Movie Liplock.

After the decidedly Sundance-oriented precedents of The Believer and United States Of Leland, it’s hard to imagine what attracted Gosling to the role of Noah Calhoun, the lumber yard worker who falls for high-class dame Allie Hamilton. The character, a shallow co-opting of the earthy, furrowed-brow intensity of 1950s Dean-Brando archetypes, replaces anti-authoritarian rebellion with a sentimental, salt of the earth quality – where ‘freedom’ means lying down in the middle of the street, and ‘romance’ is steadfast obsession, writing a love letter a day for 365 days, and turning a beat-up mansion into a shrine for the one that got away.

Gosling, like McAdams, is far more convincing than the film deserves. He doesn’t play Noah as a plucky, street smart Romeo; instead, there’s a slowness to his demeanour and a sincerity to his charm, that sometimes ground the film’s tendency towards the saccharine. Bizarrely, he’s almost unrecognisable from Leland and Daniel; with his deep, doting eyes and smooth jawline, he could easily pass for a screen idol.

So it went that, ten years after saluting Mickey Mouse, Gosling found himself playing to a similar audience of cheery, mostly female teens. The urge to capitalise on this success must have been immense, but after Stay – an ultra-stylised, $50 million psycho-thriller directed by Marc Forster, which boasted a brilliant cast (Ewan MacGregor, Naomi Watts, Bob Hoskins and Janeane Garofalo) but collected less than $10 million on release – Gosling went back to low-budget indies.

It proved to be a fruitful decision, as Gosling closed the decade with a hat trick of revelatory, well-regarded roles. In 2006’s Half Nelson, a film beset by its earnest commitment to its “troubled inner city kid develops unlikely friendship with coke-addicted teacher” premise, Gosling shines, in an extroverted, charismatic performance which doesn’t short-change the underlying drama. For his efforts, the actor was nominated for his first Best Actor Academy Award.

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You’d think that an Oscar nomination would result in even more hard-to-refuse offers from major studios, but Gosling followed Half Nelson with what is still his most esoteric career choice, as the title character in Lars & The Real Girl. Plump, and sporting an unflattering moustache, the actor brings great heart to the film’s ludicrous narrative, in which an emotionally wounded man orders a sex doll over the Internet, and pretends that it is his real-life girlfriend.

If doing hard drugs and courting plastic dolls wasn’t enough to put The Notebook behind him, 2010’s Blue Valentine finally blighted its memory, offering up a point-by-point rebuttal of its sentimental, fuzzy idealism. Teaming up with debut filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, and one-time United States Of Leland cohort Michelle Williams, Gosling helped to craft a naturalistic, compelling, and often ugly portrayal of a romance in decline.

Flitting back and forth in time, from bright-eyed fling to irreparable break-up, the film offers up itself to its actors, who are simply astounding as Dean and Cindy, two doomed lovers. By presenting both a nostalgic past of youthful beauty, and a dull present of bloat and boredom, the film is a unique achievement, building a relationship before the audience’s eyes at the same time as it is tearing it down. That we are as convinced of their love, as we are of their irreconcilable issues, is a rare thing indeed.

Blue Valentine, despite receiving widespread acclaim, missed out on the Oscar race. And while it is inconceivable that the duo’s performances be judged independently of each other, Gosling was overlooked by the Academy, with Michelle Williams receiving the film’s only nomination, for Best Actress.

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One wonders, however, if awards even register for Gosling. Earlier this year, when in London to promote Blue Valentine, he was pragmatic about receiving nominations, saying that they raise an awareness for the film “that you can’t afford”. Indeed, his commitment to small yet intriguing projects seems to stem from a genuine desire to see such left-of-centre stories get made. In the same interview, he described his dream to “make a small movie that resonates and becomes successful”, one that would be “bigger than Avatar”, yet instead of CGI and spectacle, the authenticity of the characters and story would be the special effect.

In this, he’s almost unique in Hollywood, seemingly refusing to play the game of using mainstream sops to raise his own profile. When laid alongside similarly talented actors in his age bracket, it becomes even more startling. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Garfield, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Heath Ledger were all quickly vacuumed up by superhero blockbuster franchises, while the likes of Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio seem to prefer to focus on big-budget, spectacular dramas than indie productions.

Will this change in the near future? 2011 sees a three-round burst of films starring Gosling, each very distinct. Crazy, Stupid, Love, the new rom-com from I Love You Philip Morris directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is easily his most commercial gig in years, and political thriller The Ides Of March, which recently premiered in Venice to good-to-great reviews, is likely to attract attention because it is George Clooney’s latest directorial effort.

In between these, however, is the hotly-anticipated Drive, a low-budget, stylish crime flick where Gosling plays a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. Reportedly, the actor used his clout to get Nicolas Winding Refn in the director’s chair, which hints at his growing power behind the scenes. The question is, as his fame grows, will he give in to temptation, and go mainstream? Currently on the production slate is a remake of sci-fi future shock Logan’s Run, with Refn directing and Gosling stepping into Michael York’s snug uniform.

Need we worry? Is Gosling about to fulfill his destiny as a Disney sell-out prodigy? Of course not. In the last decade, he’s enjoyed a run of roles that, when it comes to dodging cliché and challenging expectations, few can match.

Whereas actors such as Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt seem unable to reconcile their nuanced acting talents and their movie star appeal, Gosling has managed to find leading roles which have allowed him to indulge his interests in troubled psychology and emotional authenticity, while steadily rising through the ranks of the industry.

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All this, and he’s only 30. He’s effectively lived through the fruitful, risk-taking phase of his career – which actors usually enjoy much later in their lives – at the very start. It will be fascinating to see where he goes next.

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