Shia LaBeouf is the next Tom Hanks. Or so it hath been officially decreed by the frothing, groaning, don’t-stop-us-now-we’re-on-a-roll Hollywood hype machine that’s been building buzz for the 21-year-old actor over the past few months. The surprise box office topper Disturbia, the Saturday Night Live hosting gig, the big-ass Michael Bay blockbuster, the Steven Spielberg seal of approval—it all culminated this month with a glossy Vanity Fair cover featuring Mr. LaBeouf in a space suit and the inevitable headline: “Landing In Hollywood.”
The LaBoeuf as Hanks-come-lately doesn’t quite work, however, once you look beyond the (ho-hum) comparison of both actors’ “quirky charms.” Mr. Hanks, remember, spent the majority of his 20’s on the hustle for work. The early 1980s are littered with small TV appearances on such highbrow fare as The Love Boat, Taxi, Happy Days, Family Ties and the short-lived (but brilliant, actually) sitcom Bosom Buddies before making, um, a splash in a little movie about the love between man and mermaid at the tender age of 27. It would be almost another decade—including years of fun clunkers like Joe Versus the Volcano, Turner and Hooch, and Bonfire of the Vanities—before Mr. Hanks would turn in his Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia. Mr. LaBeouf, meanwhile, started acting at age 12 (his stand-up act began when he was 10), landed a Disney Channel show at 13, and was costarring with Will Smith in I, Robot by 2004.
But all this matters not one whit. Though Mr. LaBeouf himself told Vanity Fair that he’s compared to “any dark-haired actor who wasn’t an Adonis, basically: Tom Hanks, John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman. It has nothing to do with performance,” the mag couldn’t resist publishing a two-page photo reenactment of Splash featuring Mr. LaBeouf with a disturbingly breasty lady of the sea.
It’s not that Mr. LaBeouf isn’t a talent or deserving of a bright future. His face is fresh. He’s quick with a quip on the late-night chat show circuit. He had a charmingly kooky childhood (Mom smoked a lot of weed; Dad was a professional clown; hot dogs were for dinner!). But if young Shia is what makes a leading man these days, we’re in trouble. He’s barely legal, and the star of his biggest film wasn’t even him; it was a robot disguised as a car.
Yet, after Transformers raked in almost $70 million its opening weekend, an almost audible sigh of relief rolled down the Hollywood Hills and reverberated across the land: A star! A star! Thank God almighty, at last a star! Of course, the anointment of Mr. LaBeouf is only the latest attempt of the Hollywood hype machine to name its new leading man (alternating in its search for the next Julia Roberts). And, really, he might want to take cover once he checks out how the other recent almost-Clooneys have fared. Look at poor Orlando Bloom, who seems doomed to stay swashbuckling for life, one way or another. His brightest moment came not when he was handed the reins to Cameron Crowe’s lackluster Elizabethtown, or brandishing a sword in Kingdom of Heaven; it was when he got to make fun of himself on Ricky Gervais’s hilarious HBO hit Extras (“With this face? I wouldn’t get ignored. I’ll tell you who does get ignored—Johnny Depp. On the set of Pirates of Caribbean the birds just walked straight past him.”). And what about Irish charmer Colin Farrell (where is that guy, anyway?), more famous for his drunken make-out sessions at various Miami hotels than his occasionally fine acting performances. (We’ll forgive the well-intentioned A Home at the End of the World.) Jude Law seemed like a good bet … till people heard his attempt at a southern accent in All the Kings Men. “You want Tom Cruise and all you can get is Jude Law,” Chris Rock joked at the 2005 Academy Awards. “You want Russell Crowe and all you can get is Colin Farrell? Wait. Alexander is not Gladiator.”
Meanwhile, as entertainment reporting descends into round-the-clock celebrity nose-picking updates, the men who coulda been honest-to-god contenders are choosing to opt out. Johnny Depp lives abroad, appearing briefly to fulfill publicity obligations before disappearing—poof!—in a cloud of smoke. The onetime wonder boys Matt Damon and Ben Affleck seem far more interested in babies than staying in the spotlight. Ditto Spider-Man Tobey McGuire and man’s man Russell Crowe. The only way Leonardo DiCaprio makes the paparazzi spreads is while bicycling around the West Village in a baseball cap and shades, or by trying to save the environment. Sure, we’ve got Owen Wilson to bat around every once in a while, but generally speaking, even the comedy mafia (Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Paul Rudd) generally seems to fly low.
So what do we get instead? A bunch of faux-lebrity men—the guys whose names occupy precious space in our brains thanks to the brilliant work of the World Wide Interweb. They’re everywhere. There’s a whole subgenre of MTV reality stars. For starters, Nick Lachey, who weathered the humiliation of watching his then-wife Jessica Simpson’s career skyrocket past his own whilst filming the popular Newlyweds and survived the eventual schadenfreude of their inevitable divorce, only to become famous for … let’s see … moving on in love to also-inexplicably-famous Vanessa Minnillo. When sexy hot tub pictures start circulating online, you know you’ve arrived! Then there’s superdog Jason Wahler of Laguna Beach and The Hills. His pouty lips and spiky hair are ever-present on red carpets and buzzy parties. He was a spectacle when he sat front row last year at Olympus Fashion Week, where a scrum of photographers stomped past a hard-working (and unrecognized) Law & Order actor to watch him make out with Lauren “L.C.” Conrad (also famous for the above-mentioned shows). He even got the ultimate in star treatment: discussing his struggle with sobriety with People magazine. Meanwhile, the news last May of the engagement of Mr. Wahler’s castmates Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag was heralded by Us Weekly as an exclusive.
MTV is also (partly) responsible for giving us Pete Wentz and Joel Madden, seemingly interchangeable in an eyeliner/tattoo/emo-boy haze considering we’ve never heard their music (being that we’re over the age of 14). There was a time when we liked Brit addict Pete Doherty’s music, but who can remember the Libertines now when the ubiquitous image of Mr. Doherty with on-again/off-again girlfriend Kate Moss involves him wearing a dirty hat and big enough bags under his eyes to go to the moon and back. Zach Braff—he’s kinda funny on Scrubs (and some of us really liked Garden State!) but he also kinda seems (thanks in part to the hype—bad hype) like a self-involved creep. Is he the best we can come up with for our modern-day womanizer? Warren Beatty, can’t you do something?
Meanwhile, when Bruce Jenner was Decathlon-ing his way to Olympic gold in 1976, do you think his greatest wish was for his son, Brody, to grow up and star on a show called The Princes of Malibu, and get press coverage for being linked with Kristin Cavallari, Nicole Richie, Lauren Conrad (again!) and Haylie Duff? D.J. AM … really? We don’t understand why we know he’s a sneaker-head, enough to get a cameo as himself on Entourage. It’s enough to make us nostalgic for the days of Kid Rock.
Still, there is one refreshing twist in this crazy fame game: the reversal of the role of Hollywoodish ingénue. In the earlier days of cinema it was the big, hunky, male stars that got the names of those pretty starlets clinging to their arms into gossip columns. These days it seems the opposite. Would we really care about this Joel Madden fellow—he’s in a band called Good Charlotte, by the way—if he didn’t date tween-kitten Hilary Duff before reportedly impregnating Nicole Richie (whose origins of fame are almost as mystifying)? We know that Mr. Wentz belongs to some band called Fall Out Boy (quick, name what instrument he plays), and that Gavin Rossdale was the frontman for 90’s one-or-two-hit-wonder Bush, and that the terrifyingly good-looking Josh Duhamel decorates the screen nicely when he works. But it’s doubtful they’d be household names if they didn’t have famous chicks to cling to (Ashlee Simpson, Gwen Stefani, and Fergie). Who the f*%k is Cisco Adler anyway, besides the make-out buddy of Mischa Barton? Are we doomed to a world where Brandon Davis, famous for, as far as we can tell, his family money and branding Lindsay Lohan “firecrotch,” makes headlines? And quite frankly, isn’t Brad Pitt—the golden standard for blazing movie star—beginning to be thought of (a little) as Angelina’s bitch?
WE'VE ALL BEEN TOLD AD NAUSEUM about the perils of aging for leading ladies. But look what’s happening, too, with the men: Jack Nicholson didn’t get his break in Easy Rider until he was 32. Paul Newman was 36 when The Hustler premiered. Clint Eastwood, a man whose 70’s have been his most creative decade, was 28-years-old when he first got a chance to appear in the 1958 TV show Rawhide. These actors had a chance to learn their craft and get beaten up a bit in life before landing in the spotlight. But, as Johnny Drama pointed out on Sunday night’s Entourage, the insatiable need to stay young is no longer just a woman’s issue. There’s no time to let an actor develop his craft—his talent!—before slapping him on a magazine cover and declaring him the next big thing.
Poor Shia LaBeouf (his last name translates, quite literally, as ‘the meat’). The feeding frenzy won’t die down anytime soon; he’s got Indiana Jones Four still to work on. But where is there to go but down from there? “I want to do something really dark after Indy,” he told Vanity Fair. “Like a Raging Bull of hip-hop”.
Maybe Orlando can costar?