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Bradley Cooper: Beefcake Thespian

How the "Silver Linings Playbook" star became a serious actor

Tiziani Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a real shame that the planned big-screen production of Paradise Lostwhich was to feature Bradley Cooper as Lucifer, will never see the light of day. It might have been the perfect role for the 38-year-old actor, who’s nominated for Best Actor at this Sunday’s Oscars for his work as in Silver Linings Playbook. Cooper surely would have played the role of the devil—the ultimate antihero—with all the handsome menace properly required of such a part. After all, Cooper has been working that hot-horrible angle for years.

Of course, pretty faces are even more common than gluten allergies in Hollywood. But Cooper’s all-American good looks, which led People to crown him the sexiest man of 2011, are aggressively by the book. The flowing blond hair, the piercing blue irises, the tan skin, perfect nose, and chiseled jawline, tempered a bit by the slightly louche, red-rimmed sockets just a bit too close together—they scan not as an enticement, but rather as a cruel mockery of the generic qualities we find attractive, a reminder that the alpha male should never be mistaken for a gentle soul.

Cooper happens to look not just like a grown-up frat boy, but more specifically like the pledgemaster who steered the freshman hazing to dangerous, mentally scarring places. It is this darkness (one that inspired the writer Molly Young to argue that “there is … something of the psychopath about him”) that has allowed Cooper to distinguish himself as the latest in a string of recent Hollywood Himbo Success Stories. Cooper and his ilk, who became household-name famous for being extremely attractive before they established themselves as serious actors, have managed a reverse Lucifer, pulling themselves out from the hell of generic beefcakedom and onto the cloud of A-list leading man roles.

The most reformed of the Reformed Himbos is Mark Wahlberg, without whom the category might not exist. Wahlberg was originally famous as an underwear model and white boy rapper and Southie juvenile delinquent whom no one took very seriously. And yet he has managed to emerge as not only a serious actor, but a respected Hollywood player, the producer of such fare as The Fighter, “Entourage” (based loosely on his life), “How To Make It in America,” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Wahlberg’s true breakout role, the one where critics began to wonder if there was more to him than his abs, came in Boogie Nights, where he played a porn star.

That’s the key vault move of the Reformed Himbo: to find a role that exploits what has previously made him famous (his looks), but also complicates it and digs beneath the surface to find all the ugly things that come from being exploited for those pretty looks. See, for instance, Channing Tatum, an actor poised to make the jump, who, though he’d played a few lighter roles in which he exhibited more personality than your average thick-necked charmer, didn’t start to get real acclaim until Magic Mike, in which he—an actual former male stripper—portrayed a male stripper in a grim, Stephen Soderbergh-directed post-recession-scape inspired by his own life story. Now he’s got another Soderbergh film in the can and a future that’s looking a bit more highbrow.

Cooper, much further along in his rehabilitation than Tatum, has had a far less dramatic arc than Wahlberg. Even in his first big comedic roles, he was doing a bit of a meta sendup of his looks, playing the maniacally preppy villain in Wedding Crashers. His bachelor-partying character in The Hangover is what cemented him in the American consciousness as our foremost embodiment of handsome assholes. (It really says something about American women, or maybe our popular press, that this image is what made People think we’d find him our country’s most sexually attractive man.) Cooper’s first large-impact leading man role, in Limitless, featured him taking a pill to transform him from schlubby, low-achieving writer to a world-beating … handsome asshole.

The role in Silver Linings Playbook for which he’s garnered the Oscar nomination is farther out of Cooper’s sweet spot. But his portrayal of Pat, a bipolar teacher struggling to get his life back on track after time in a mental institution, harnesses the same manic, edgy intensity that propels his previous characters. Cooper has made a specialty, in short, of reminding us that there is a fine line between success and going over board, but it wasn’t until Silver Linings Playbook that he was able to make his alpha maleness so winningly vulnerable—as Wahlberg and Tatum each did in Boogie Nights and Magic Mike. (It is an odd side effect of Cooper’s career that filmmakers seem so hellbent on casting him as writers and teachers, neither of which seems his natural mode.)

Cooper’s own success, in escaping the Himbo trap, has been as much about canny career management as it has been the elocution of that particular strain of douchey darkness. Cooper was never a dummy. He went to Georgetown, where he picked up a French fluency that has picked up its own Internet following and wrote a thesis on Lolita. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about his daring graduate school performance of the very difficult play “The Elephant Man,” which he’s reprising on Broadway, or about how he was raised on classic films. “When I look back, I think of Apocalypse NowThe Deer HunterThe Elephant Man, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, Bicycle Thieves, Hiroshima Mon Amour—these are the reasons why I wanted to become an actor,” he told British GQ. He’s also framed his looks as a problem in his life. “I was pretty as a child,” he said in the same interview, “and I felt that I wasn't very manly and that plagued me for years.” More recently, on "Fresh Air," he went out of his way to make sure that Terri Gross—and listeners—knew he was the kind of guy who has NPR on in the background while he’s doing his bicycle crunches.

COOPER: First of all, it's an honor to be here on this show.

GROSS: Oh, thank you. Honor to have you.

COOPER: Yeah, a massive honor. It's almost surreal that I'm actually hearing your voice and talking with you.


GROSS: Oh, really?

COOPER: Well, normally I'm just listening to you talk with somebody else.

Later, when Gross asks him about the “sexy” photoshoots he’s been a part of, Cooper is embarrassed. “You know, starting out, I would do anything they said, you know, jump up and down and do whatever—whatever they—you know, grab a mandolin, whatever you're going to do. … But yeah. I am—that kind of stuff makes me feel sick to my stomach.”

He has also done his best to make sure that everyone knows he is a serious actor, one whom an anonymous Hollywood producer recently called the next Paul Newman. “Don’t Take This Hunk at Face Value,” read the headline of a flattering New York Times profile. He is, he reminds us again, capital-A acting. In short, when promoting his own acting career, Cooper can come across as a bit of a handsome asshole—but not an unshallow one, and that’s the most important ingredient. For every Wahlberg or Matthew McCouhngey (who also got a career-seriousness boost from Magic Mike and the previous year’s Killer Joe), there’s a Ryan Phillipe, who—even while following the tried and true path of sending up the havoc that good looks can wreak, in films like 54 and Cruel Intentions,and scoring parts in films like Crash—didn’t quite manage to jump pay grades. 

There are, of course, plenty of beautiful women in Hollywood who are taken seriously as fine actors. But it’s far more rare for a woman to make the leap from first being famous largely for her looks to having that be a mere component of her bankability. Megan Fox, for instance, exhibited more comedic chops as a high-class call girl/ salesgirl in This Is Forty than the majority of that film’s cast, but it’s somehow more difficult to imagine her getting cast in many movies that might earn her an Oscar nomination or being approached by art-house filmmakers or premium cable providers to create a project based around her life story. Perhaps this is simply evidence that Hollywood remains largely unconvinced that being a beautiful woman can be all that psychologically complicated (although Young Adult, featuring Charlize Theron, offered one recent, fascinating counterexample). Or maybe it is a purer version of sexism still. Despite the occasional exceptions (hello there, Ryan Lochte!), intelligence tends to be a larger piece of the pie when straight women tick off qualities they find attractive in men than when straight men are assessing women. And so maybe it’s not so difficult to make the leap from Himbo to thespian after all: The audience and studios are eager, searching, for those glimmers of depth in these men we’ve declared sex symbols. It’s an easy bargain to accept. Show us your abs, and we’ll show you your brain.

Correction: A previous version of this story implied that Young Adult starred Diablo Cody, who wrote the film. The film starred Charlize Theron.