When the Cannes Film Festival announced its official 2014 selection Thursday, journalists and film fans immediately took notice of the most intriguing name on the list: Ryan Gosling.
Gosling—that Oscar nominee, versatile talent, universally known movie star and all-around meme king—has accomplished many things in his years in the entertainment business. But he had never had what is one of the global film world's highest honors—hearing one's name as part of the elite group of directors selected for Cannes. That's changed with the acceptance of his directorial debut, "Lost River," into the prestigious if not top-tier Un Certain Regard section.
Gosling has been one of the film world's most enduring enigmas. Emerging as a gritty antihero in the Jewish neo-Nazi movie "The Believer" in 2001, he quickly became a heartthrob three years later with "The Notebook," a romantic weepie that, as he once put it in an interview, "had too many people believing I could really build a house."
His indie darling status soon morphed into the mainstream kind. For a number of years now, a large group of fans have fawned over nearly everything he's done, many of them perhaps seeing Gosling as a kind of fantasy boyfriend. He broke up a New York City street fight! He built his own car for "Drive"! He read some "Hey Girl" memes aloud! A few more hard-core types actually turned out for a protest outside People magazine's office when he wasn't named Sexiest Man Alive. There aren't many actors who inspire this kind of attention, or affection.
Now Gosling seems bent on another reinvention. "Lost River"—its generic title replaces the earlier, more mysterious-sounding "How to Catch A Monster"—has been the subject of much scrutiny. There aren't a lot of details about the movie (in which Gosling does not appear), though there is this log line. "A single mother enters a dark lifestyle, while her son uncovers a road leading to an underwater utopia." It doesn't exactly radiate accessibility.
We'll see next month if the movie is any good, or if Gosling can establish a credible career as a director. History, alas, isn't entirely with him. For every Clint Eastwood or Ben Affleck, there are a dozen successful actors who never find their footing behind the camera.
But the more important question is this: Will audiences follow? Gosling remains one of the most beloved Hollywood actors around even though in recent years he's actually done very little that's typically thought of as commercial. Like a film-world Radiohead, Gosling seems not to mind frustrating his fan base to explore his artistic impulses, going left when they want him to go right, turning to the indie when they want the commercial, embracing the dark and weird when they want the light and charming ("Only God Forgives," anyone?)
Doing what he wants has become a mantra in a Hollywood that demands you do what they want at least some of the time. Outside of the studio romantic dramedy "Crazy Stupid Love" in 2011--in which he memorably sent up his own cad image--Gosling hasn't starred as anyone conventionally likable in 10 years. Instead he has been the brooding loner ("Drive," "The Place Beyond The Pines") or the complicated mentor ("Half Nelson"). And even when he's in something romantic, it's with a prickly edge ("Blue Valentine") or an outsized eccentricity ("Lars and the Real Girl").
Such expectation-confounding behavior hasn't just been Gosling's norm with his fans. He's also done it in Hollywood, which has courted him for a number of franchise-sized parts – he has said no every time—while vexing some of the big-time directors he has chosen to work with. Peter Jackson infamously fired the actor after Gosling showed up on the set of "The Lovely Bones" 60 pounds overweight – an artistic choice the director said he never signed off on.
Some personalities are able to maintain a fan base despite their strange digressions by consistently interacting with fans and giving them a peek behind the curtain (see: James Franco). Gosling? Well, since he joined Twitter in 2011, he's only sent out 11 tweets – most of which were promoting his macabre two man-band Dead Man's Bone (another strange digression). If anything, despite his Millennial popularity, he's a throwback star, seeking to live his life largely out of the public eye and making choices that seem to pay as little mind as possible to the social-media clamor.
Some of this, of course, probably enhances his popularity even further; there are few things more appealing than someone who wants to go his own way. Still, in an era when most top-level Hollywood figures make themselves accessible either on-screen or off-screen, the question remains how much longer Gosling can remain hugely popular by doing little of either.
Maybe even more to the point, the question is how long he wants to keep doing it. Many of these memes have grown up without his involvement, and this move to directing suggests someone who, at least at the moment, wants to use his cachet to do something that doesn't require being literally visible.
Will it work? Certainly Gosling is in good company at Cannes, a place where the least visible, like Terrence Malick, are often the most decorated. Then again, Terrence Malick has made a whole bunch of Terrence Malick films, and Ryan Gosling has made one movie that no one's seen. This approach puts an awful lot of stress on something like "Lost River" to be good. It could easily not work out and leave him with nothing, especially if he continues to prefer the more oddball roles. It is, in other words, a big gamble. But then, Gosling has always seemed to enjoy those.
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