Timothée Chalamet & Dune: Body Diversity In Action Cinema. By John Battiston.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Skinny guys seldom get the short end of the stick in Hollywood. Really, male actors are generally held to much looser standards than females in the film industry, both in terms of physique and overall youthfulness; the windows of age and body-fat percentage within which women can conventionally hope to find the greatest odds of big-screen success are undeniably, and inexcusably, narrower than those of men attempting to do the same. Nobody’s denying that, and one would be foolish to do so.
That said, one genre in which the preferred body type for top-billed performers tends to be especially particular — for any gender — is action. While we’ve seen the occasional exception or slight paradigm shift to the prerequisite physical presentation of an action star, the genre has steadily continued to prefer actors whose athleticism can be described as anything from chiseled to Olympian to so-big-it’s-a-little-frightening. But even today, one is hard-pressed to find a mainstream shoot-em-up, sci-fi epic or swordplay-infused fantasy tale with a twiggy or plus-sized performer featured as anything more than a joke-a-minute sidekick.
2021 might look a bit different, though. With the release of Denis Villeneuve’s next foray into franchise filmmaking, Dune, having recently been pushed back a year, crowds (or, at least, cinephiles starved for new prestige content after a paltry 2020) will have to wait a good deal longer to see America’s spindliest sweetheart, Timothée Chalamet, wrapped in an inky cloak and armor as beloved protagonist Paul Atreides. But should Dune, in its eventual theatrical run, make the waves Villeneuve and Co. are surely hoping for, it may just provoke a sea change in what moviegoers — and the industry writ large — see as an action star.
One need only revisit the major-studio blockbusters of the last few decades to observe the elevated expectations for a top-billed actor’s physique within the genre. While some may trace the genesis of action cinema to the films of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa or John Sturges, standalone, unadulterated action films — unencumbered by any external trappings of the western, war or samurai genres — really began to come into their own during the New Hollywood movement, earning particular mainstream legitimacy when The French Connection won the Best Picture Oscar in 1972. Gene Hackman, true to self, embodied an average-Joe physicality in that film, but popular action cinema of the following years — particularly from the ’80s onward — saw a sharp turn into extraordinarily muscle-bound machismo that, in several ways, remains.
Buff bodybuilder types like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris were among the most reliable names to (to quote the late William Goldman) “open” a standalone action movie in the ’80s, kicking, chopping and blasting their way through jungles, forests and throngs of barbarians in monolithic fashion. Only in a decade so dominated by sheer brawn would it be considered unusual to cast Bruce Willis — an athletic-looking fellow by most standards — in Die Hard, though his lack of experience in the genre and prominence as a TV comedy star in Moonlighting arguably had just as much to do with that, if not more. Still, it’s telling that Schwarzenegger and Stallone were among the top choices for the lead, though I doubt either of them could pull off Willis’s indelible brand of acidic New-Yawk snark (much less fit into an air duct).
Willis wasn’t the only exception to the you-must-be-this-stacked-to-ride mentality of Reagan-era action, though these anomalies still tended to be physically demanding and rarely fell into the action-and-action-only category — think Sigourney Weaver in the sci-fi classic Aliens (one of few female-fronted blockbusters that decade) or Eddie Murphy (who, judging by his onstage preference for half-zipped leather suits, was no stranger to the gym) in Beverly Hills Cop. But while sturdy stars like Schwarzenneger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal would continue their hot streaks well into the ’90s, that decade would also introduce a wave of cucumber-cool, lean-muscled men like Keanu Reeves, Will Smith and Nicolas Cage to the forefront of the genre with multimillion-dollar hits such as Point Break, Bad Boys and The Rock.
What we’ve seen since the turn of the millenium has been more or less an amalgam of the archetypes that preceded it. Outright bulk has been reintroduced into the zeitgeist with the imposing proportions of Vin Diesel, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, while likes of Chris Pine, Brad Pitt and Guy Pearce have opted to stay svelte. The latter body type, of course, tends to be the standard for female stars in the genre, and while action films with women at the forefront have seen a significant uptick in the last 20 years, the expectations for a balance between strength and slenderness are still quite rigid; the entertainment world at large is still shamefully loath to embrace a bulky female lead, as evidenced by the discourse surrounding the “Abby” character from The Last of Us: Part II. (Apparently, her strapping build led some to posit that she was transgender. Like…really?)
All that to say, action cinema has rarely afforded headlining opportunities to performers one would be surprised to spot prowling the weight room at the local Gold’s Gym, a trend that’s begun to carry into the next generation of big-screen idols. Even teen and young-adult stars best known for their dorky demeanors, like Ansel Elgort and Tom Holland, often have abs and pecs with enough contour to keep them from being labeled “scrawny,” and to elicit an impressed “Ooh” when my girlfriend and I watched Spider-Man: Homecoming. (Whether it came from her or me is none of your business.)
But Chalamet, objectively lanky as he may be, has an irrefutable pull with the 24-and-under crowd, and will likely be the main incentive for young audiences to see a movie that not only falls beneath the action umbrella, but also aims to reinvigorate a 55-year-old piece of intellectual property. Adapting such an aged — and, in recent decades, unappreciated — tale as Dune is a gamble with anyone at the forefront, but should it pay off, Chalamet’s casting could potentially trigger an influx of similar opportunities for performers deemed even less conventionally built or appealing as he.
None of this is to suggest Chalamet is ill-suited for the lead in Dune, or was cast exclusively to draw viewers outside the film’s likely main demographic of men approaching, or reluctantly surpassing, middle age. As the third-youngest nominee for the Best Actor Oscar, Chalamet has more than proven his weight (no pun intended) in salt with emotionally hefty roles, including those in Call Me by Your Name and Beautiful Boy. With a director so interested in the twistedness of human emotion and identity as Villeneuve helming the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, Chalamet, whose physical and vocal expressiveness eclipses that of many of his contemporaries, is an apt casting choice. Not to mention, his appearance matches the character’s physical description as “a stringy whipcord of a youth … with ribs there to count,” per the Dune Wiki on Fandom.com. (No, I haven’t read the book; if you were expecting intelligible commentary on the story itself, you’re reading the wrong article.)
This is also not meant to imply that the outward beauty of its top-billed stars is what reliably puts butts in the seats for a tentpole action film. Those who would argue that an attractive cast is paramount for a movie’s success need only look to Villeneuve’s last action-packed venture into an esteemed sci-fi franchise, Blade Runner 2049, which by all accounts underperformed. With a beefy marketing campaign touting the dazzling, robust visages of Ryan Gosling, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis and Harrison Ford (about as stately a septuagenarian as you’re bound to find), that film was anything but lacking in eye candy. Rather, 2049‘s problem, one could reasonably assume, was the unfortunate lack of relevance the words Blade Runner bore for contemporary moviegoers — the unfortunate disadvantage a film bears when it isn’t within the consumer-friendly jurisdiction of Disney, Star Wars, Marvel or D.C.
All I’m getting at is that performers falling outside a narrow set of physical criteria aren’t nearly as represented in combat-heavy, explosion-riddled cinema as those within it. But if such a film with someone as alluring, talented yet unconventional-looking as Chalamet were to bring in the revenue 2049 failed to accrue, Hollywood executives (out-of-touch as they can be) might — just might — see it as an indicator that ticket-buyers are more open to seeing action films not necessarily starring someone you’d expect to see on the cover of Men’s Health or Maxim. Imagine a movie landscape wherein actors’ sheer talent, not their relative heft or lack thereof, was the primary factor in whether they could be the next Snake Plissken, John Rambo or Mystique.
One would be grossly hyperbolic to deem Timothée Chalamet’s casting in Dune revolutionary, or even progressive for that matter. But one can only hope it is the first microscopic step toward a much-needed increase in body diversity in action cinema. We’ll just have to wait until next October (if not later) to find out.
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