Fiona Pleasance assesses the cinematic oeuvre of Ryan Gosling.
As so often, I was a little late to this particular party. I only saw my first Ryan Gosling movie (The Ides of March) in 2015, at least ten years after most other people discovered him, and a good while after Gosling memes took over the internet so comprehensively that even I couldn’t help but notice.
If The Ides of March didn’t do it for me in Gosling terms (perhaps unsurprisingly, because Clooney), seeing The Nice Guys when it came out earlier this year did. I enjoyed the film immensely, and Gosling’s excellent performance is so funny and assured that it gave me an inkling of what all the fuss was about. So I decided to catch up on some Gosling-watching to get a sense for the man’s career. In the space of a few weeks I saw The Notebook; Lars And The Real Girl; Blue Valentine; Crazy, Stupid, Love; Drive; The Place Beyond The Pines and The Big Short. This is what I learned.
My first tip, if you’re going to do a little Gosfest of your own, is: don’t do what I did and watch Blue Valentine before The Notebook. For its first half, Blue Valentine is virtually a modern-day remake of The Notebook, until it takes the happy ending which is given to Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams’s characters in the earlier film and stamps all over it. (Blue Valentine even manages to make Gosling balding, chubby and unattractive for its recent bits, which is no mean feat.)
The Notebook is a pretty terrible movie, including a score so syrupy you could pour it on your breakfast pancakes, and with most of its shots and scenes looking as though they have been constructed as per Romantic Cinema for Dummies, but it is the key text in the Gosling Myth. In fact, I have rarely seen a film in which convicted performances so thoroughly override filmmaking deficiencies. Both sets of actors – Gosling and McAdams, James Garner and Gena Rowlands – are so good that the movie manages a level of emotional engagement which is actually quite rare. Never mind the clichés, or that Gosling’s character is a victim of the Baby Effect (where the protagonist in a period drama is the only character not styled for that period). When the two leads kiss in the pouring rain, it hits the emotional and romantic sweet spot in a way other films can only dream of. The fact that the two of them then started dating in real life is just icing on the meta-cake. (Gosling has been guilty of some blurring of the boundaries between his life and his roles, which has undoubtedly contributed to his internet notoriety. After he and McAdams broke up, he started dating another of his co-stars, Eva Mendes. They now have two daughters.)
Academic writing on film stardom has explored the ways in which it is constructed by actors, producers and audiences within the wider cultural context. As summarised by Susan Hayward in ‘Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts’: “The… audience likes to come and see its stars. This implies that the audience has certain expectations of the star…. She or he stands for roles she or he has played before. The [audience], then, has come to see what the star is capable of and, depending on the star, expects either a degree of sameness (acting to type or personification) or unsameness (always changing or impersonation).”
It’s instructive to look at Gosling’s career in this context, because – despite a key component of his star image being that of an authentic, serious actor, and a perceived rejection of the trappings of stardom, hence “unsameness” – a degree of repetition in roles and performance is clearly visible. Here are the Ryan Gosling Role Rules.
Rule No. 1: when Ryan Gosling’s character falls for a woman, it’s Love At First Sight.
Seriously, this happens so often, you start to wonder if it’s written into his contract. See The Notebook; Lars And The Real Girl (sort of); Blue Valentine; Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive.
Rule No. 2: Ryan Gosling’s character never leaves a woman willingly. She leaves him, sometimes by dying. And, if she’s still alive, she comes back to him, because HOW COULD SHE NOT? (His two films with Derek Cianfrance are the exceptions. In The Place Beyond The Pines, he’s the one who dies, and in Blue Valentine, the leads have just split up when the movie ends, and even I have to admit that the odds of reconciliation are not good.) Rule No. 2 even applies to The Nice Guys, which does away with love interests but makes Gosling’s character a widower, and Lars And The Real Girl, where the love interest of Gosling’s mentally ill Lars must “die” before he can fully engage with the world.
Rule No. 3: Ryan Gosling’s character is from the Wrong Side Of The Tracks. Either blue collar and honourable (even if it’s an atypical honour code, as in Drive and The Place Beyond The Pines, it’s still an honour code), or white collar and devious (Crazy, Stupid, Love; The Ides Of March; The Big Short). Whatevs. All he really needs is the Love of a Good Woman. Or, um, lots of money and power.
Rule No. 4: If he is blue collar, Ryan Gosling’s character is good – no, make that brilliant – at some manual skill. Carpentry, moving, painting and building houses, or driving and repairing cars and/or motorcycles. If he is white collar and devious, it isn’t always clear what he actually does for a living, but apparently it does leave him lots of time to hit the gym.
Bearing these Rules in mind, go and watch the trailer for Gosling’s next release, La La Land, which reunites him with his Crazy, Stupid, Love co-star Emma Stone. Plot information is scarce at this point, but I’m guessing that at least three of the four Rules will apply, and manual skills – piano-playing and whistling – are already clearly in evidence. (OK, whistling isn’t really a manual skill, but you know what I mean.)
Of course, the Gosling Rules don’t apply to every one of his films. Full disclosure: I have seen but omitted a couple of genre pieces (like Fracture) which didn’t fit them. But it’s interesting that the movies generally considered the most important in his career – with the exception of Half Nelson, for which he received an Oscar nomination – are the ones listed above, which encompass the same narrative elements time and time again.
And now we have a new medium, the Internet, which affects star personas in novel and interesting ways. “The star’s image may be rooted in specific roles, but it extends beyond them, establishing itself in subsidiary forms, in secondary representations of the actor’s persona such as those found in fan magazines or supermarket tabloids. The star’s persona recirculates in these other media, where it acquires new meanings more or less on its own, beyond the control of the individual actor or actress.” (‘American Cinema / American Culture’, by John Belton) Gosling has frequently expressed bafflement at the internet memes which he has inspired, but really, they are the ultimate compliment, an acknowledgement that his star persona is working beautifully.
Actors who profess to be uninterested in stardom for its own sake, who stress their desire to act above all else, who keep their private lives largely private yet are not above supplying titbits to keep the tabloids (and MTV) happy now and again have been around for a long while. But Gosling’s career is a good example of the balancing act required in developing a consistent star persona while pretending not to do so, and thus maintaining perceived authenticity in the internet age. Somehow, so far, he has managed to swing it brilliantly.
I have to admit, though, that I’m a bit Goslinged out. While it has been fun and instructive to follow one actor’s career for a while, repetition is setting in, and I need a break. So I’m definitely not, like, obsessed, or anything.
Until La La Land is released, at least.
All images from filmstudiesryangosling.tumblr.com.