Sheesh, What’s It Take to Make a Teenage Heartthrob These Days?
Amidst the fever pitch of Eclipse fever, I’ve found myself deep in microfiche archives of 1950s Photoplay. During the post-war period, the gossip industry was attempting to reconcile itself to a rapidly changing Hollywood. The studio system was slowly collapsing; there was a brand-new, brash legion of television personalities; existing stars increasingly refused to play by the rules that governed appropriate behavior (including submission to the fan magazines) during the studio era. Many, including Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Janet Leigh, and Tony Curtis, continued to cooperate fully with the fan magazines, “writing” articles and granting full access to their personal lives. Yet other newly minted stars refused to play the star-making game.
These stars – Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in particular – forced the fan magazines to alter their approach. In classic Hollywood, these stars would have been fodder for cheesecake profiles: “What Marlon Looks for in a Girl,” for example. But Photoplay and other mags had to negotiate the fact that Brando had no taste for “glamour girls,” hated Hollywood, laughed at criticism of his “dungarees” and “moccasins without socks,” and even pleasured in stymieing the best efforts at turning him into a heartthrob. When approached to appear on the cover of Life, he laughed “Now why would I want to do that?” Louella Parsons, Elsa Maxwell, and Hedda Hopper were forced to devote their columns to explaining why, exactly, a young, handsome, talented man wouldn’t want fame, a beautiful young wife, and a Cary Grant wardrobe.
I can’t help but see the same tension at work in efforts to promote this summer’s most viable leading man – Robert Pattinson, star of Twilight: Eclipse and (industry fingers-crossed) a newly bankable star.
Pattinson, like Brando, is allergic to publicity. He may resemble a 19th century romantic poet, but he’s clumsy, has an awkward sense of humor, and goes off on esoteric tangents in interviews. He publicly admitted to rarely washing his hair. He makes fun of his pasty, unchiseled physique. When Seventeen asks him the last thing he bought at the store, he replied, “toilet paper.” When Details put him on its cover this Spring, declaring the British actor the face of the “Remasculation of America,” he explained that he was “allergic to vaginas,” voiced his “delight” in lymphatic filariasis, and, concerning the near-violence that breaks out when he appears in public, declared ”I find it really funny—if I got shot, I would literally be in hysterics. I would be like, ‘Are you serious? Jesus Christ, get Zac Efron! He’s got more social relevance than I do.’ ”
One might argue that Pattinson’s refusal to publicly confirm a relationship with co-star Kristen Stewart in fact ups his heartthrob quality: he keeps his fans just this side of fulfilled, hoping for the fantasy of their romance or the bliss of having Pattinson/Edward Cullen for themselves. But a skilled heartthrob would know how to milk KStew/RPatz, tipping off paparazzi during their romantic beach getaways and “just happening” to get caught walking out of a engagement ring store.
Pattinson’s lack of heartthrob ‘skillz’ are especially obvious when contrasted with his smooth, six-packed co-star, Taylor Lautner. In Twilight, Lautner’s werewolf alter-ego, Jacob, is positioned as Edward Cullen’s polar opposite; in the star universe, Lautner is Pattinson’s inverse as well. Where Pattinson is reticent, awkward, and British, Lautner is confident, cool, and so very American. His every appearance and word is carefully choreographed to elicit maximum girl squee-age; he has a mega-watt and super white smile and takes himself very seriously. He truly is “The Teen Tom Cruise,” which is just another way of saying he’s the latest in a long line of stars, from Rock Hudson to Cruise himself during his heyday, who knew how to let Hollywood do its star-making work.
Pattinson plays the role of teen heartthrob poorly, but that certainly doesn’t mean that he won’t be a star. Rather, the media – whether in the form of fan mags, gossip blogs, glossies, or academic blogs like this one – will be forced to grapple with why, exactly, someone who seems to do such a shoddy job at being handsome, princely, or even normal has nevertheless attracted the unadulterated devotion of millions of fans.
The answer, in part, is that some teen heartthrobs are products of what people think girls and women should like. The Jonas Brothers, Zac Efron, Taylor Lautner. And others, including Pattinson, like Brando and Dean before him, touch on something that we didn’t even realize that we necessarily liked. Something odd and unexpected, something nostalgic or novel, something charismatic or comforting, or, as Hedda Hopper described Brando, “pure man,” whatever that may mean in a particular cultural moment. So instead of thinking of what a weird heartthrob Pattinson seems to be, perhaps we should reconsider what many thought true of the tastes and desires of today’s heartthrob-hungry girls.