When Paramount Pictures decided to remake Footloose, the 1984 teen romance that made a young, lanky actor named Kevin Bacon famous, the studio looked to Zac Efron of the High School Musical trilogy. He could sing. He could dance. And most importantly, he could summon the teenage girls to theaters with one strategic toss of his swoopy hair.
But then Mr. Efron abruptly ditched the picture. He didn’t want to be typecast as the guy who does musicals, he said. The suits at Paramount barely flinched. There were no threats of delaying the filming, set for next spring. They simply found a quick but suitable replacement—another swoopy-haired, pretty-faced actor, named Chace Crawford.
Mr. Crawford, 23, bears a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Efron, 21. In fact, these men are perhaps the youngest incarnation of something eerie that’s been happening in Hollywood. Male actors have become increasingly indistinguishable. And not only are they all starting to look alike; but they also sort of act alike, too.
Here’s a fun experiment. Turn on the TV, flip through the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, take a trip to the Union Square Cinema and try telling the young men apart. Having trouble? Don’t feel bad. Even that typically pop-culture-savvy friend of yours has been referring to them as “that guy” from Twilight or Gossip Girl or Star Trek for months. Not only do Mr. Efron and Mr. Crawford resemble each another, but they both look a lot like Ian Somerhalder (Lost), who sort of looks like Chris Pine (Star Trek), who sort of looks like James Marsden (Hairspray, 27 Dresses), who sort of looks like Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal and the guy who married Scarlett Johansson), who sort of looks like Chris Evans (Fantastic Four), who sort of looks like Robert Buckley (Lipstick Jungle), who is a downright doppelgänger for Scott Speedman (Felicity). (Slideshow here–it might help.)
Let’s call it the New Male Beauty: those wide-set eyes, the narrow nose that flares up at the tip just so, the childish puffy cheeks and the not-too-rugged jaw lines, topped with carefully placed strands of layered hair. It’s a face that used to be found in Tiger Beat, fold-out pages to be tacked onto a petal-pink wall. Now it dominates the weekend box office.
“We talk about this all the time!” said Randi Hiller of the Randi Hiller casting agency in Los Angeles. “If you go back to these iconic movies, everybody wasn’t super-beautiful, but a lot of them were sexy. But there’s also something about young women today being more comfortable with a boy-man; they’re less threatening sexually than a man-man.”
Ms. Hiller, who has worked on films like Iron Man, Pride & Glory and Fast & Furious and has auditioned a lot of these actors, said that a few years ago, audiences were complaining about not being able to distinguish between Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana and Hugh Dancy, who all shared the tall, swarthy look in the ensemble piece Black Hawk Down. But the New Male Beauty is different. In fact, it has a precise science.
“They all have a nose with a slight hump and then a minor depression and then a prominent tip—not big, but just a gentle S-curve, and the tips are slightly broad,” said Dr. Steven Pearlman, former president of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. “If we had this conversation a couple of years ago, we’d be talking about Orlando Bloom, Justin Timberlake and Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Indeed there seems to have been a slow but steady evolution of the New Male Beauty. In 2001, the cover of People magazine’s Hottest Bachelors issue featured Matthew McConaughey; in ’03, it was Ashton Kutcher, arguably the forefather of the look; in 2005, it was Orlando Bloom; in ’07, Adrian Grenier and Justin Timberlake topped the list. But even Messrs. Grenier and Timberlake had a certain distinctive, grizzled appeal. The same can’t be said of the purported Hottest Bachelors of ’09: the bland, smooth Mr. Crawford, Mr. Pine and Shia Lebouf.
“Everyone has a little bit of facial asymmetry, but these faces barely have any, which is very unusual,” said Dr. Minas Constantinides, the director of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at N.Y.U. Medical Center, Google Image–searching while on the phone with The Observer. “They don’t have features that can be distracting, like a strong jaw line, so we spend a lot more time around their eyes and mouths when we’re looking at them.
“There is a trend towards a softer look with younger guys,” Dr. Constantinides continued. “Chace Crawford, Shane West, Ryan Reynolds and Zac Efron all share an interesting set of features: heavy upper eyelash and eyebrows, not super-strong cheekbones and very soft jaw lines, which is what really distinguishes them from someone like Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Scott Speedman and Chris Pine have stronger jaw lines, but neither have particularly strong cheekbones.”
Historically, male sex appeal used to be about just the opposite.
“High testosterone is about prominent chins, deep-set eyes, heavy brows, full head of hair and strong features,” Dr. Pearlman said. “That’s the caveman that could inseminate you and procreate.”
But according to Leonard Lee, a Columbia University professor who has written about physical attractiveness, recent research has indicated that women are now finding common features of the New Male Face—like big smiles, smaller chins and a wider distance between the two eyes—more compelling.
“Large eyes, for example, are a ‘neotenous’ cue, one people associate with babies and that elicits female nurturance,” Dr. Lee said.
In other words, perhaps in parallel to their own filler frenzy (see Jonathan Van Meter’s 2008 cover story on the New New Face in New York magazine), women have literally become attracted to men who look like babies. Is this what feminism has wrought?
“Maybe the guys in their 20s are now the first children of children of divorce, and so maybe that is when fathers started getting more involved, and does that make them softer and more thoughtful?” theorized Ms. Hiller, the casting director. “Or maybe the lines of men and women are getting very blurred. Guys have just started becoming increasingly more approachable.”
According to Ms. Oliveri, it’s not evolutionary biology but the Hollywood factory that’s responsible for cranking out, Stepford-like New Male Beauties. The projects engender these stars, not the other way around. “High School Musical was successful not because Zac Efron was in it, but Zac became famous as a result of the huge phenomenon that is High School Musical,” she said. “I mean you didn’t know who Rob Pattinson was a year ago—you never even heard his name! And now he’s this phenomenon as a result of Twilight.”
What if the studios, growing tired of the whopping salaries, conflicting schedules and odd caprices of actors with “character,” decided to resurrect the trusty old system of interchangeable parts: an army of look-alike, antiseptically handsome boys to be inserted into this action flick or that romantic comedy? (One wonders, also, if this is a look with legs; will we be left with a troupe of out-of-work baby-faced actors in their 40s?)
“The Brad Pitts and the Clive Owens aren’t necessarily the ones bringing people into theaters,” Ms. Oliveri said. “You look at the Star Treks and the Twilights, and I think Hollywood has realized that it’s the formula that works, not necessarily the individual in it.”
A prime example is The Hangover, which doesn’t have a single star actor, and at press time had grossed nearly $153 million. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures’ adaptation of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, with Mr. Pitt set to star and Steven Soderbergh to direct, was scrapped this week due to an unsatisfactory script.
Ms. Oliveri traced the whole thing back to Spider-Man, when Tobey Maguire threatened to pull out of the franchise and the studio cavalierly prepared to replace him with Jake Gyllenhaal. Mr. Maguire eventually came to his senses, but …
“I think people realized that at the end of the day, if it’s written well, and directed well, and marketed right, then it’s going to work,” Ms. Oliveri said.
Dr. Lee, the Columbia professor, further suggested that the rise of (what else) the Internet, which allows big studios to better track the audiences’ likes and dislikes, may be in part responsible for this army of light-eyed, interchangeable drones.
“New media helps measure how successful a company’s marketing actions are, so the studios might say, ‘Who are the most popular people now?’” said Dr. Lee. “‘And let’s try to replicate it versus building up the new Robert De Niro.’”
And the New Male Beauty is spreading, inevitably, beyond Hollywood. Dr. Pearlman’s nonfamous patients have begun to refer to Mr. Efron’s face as their ideal; Dr. Constantinides’ clients have begun requesting noses and chins that make them look less manly.
“Fifteen years ago, when men came in, they absolutely wanted to maintain that rugged look, which meant that higher bridge and stronger features, but now they want a softer look,” he said. “Our culture is leaning towards a more empathetic man who can understand a woman’s feelings, and that comes out in new facial features.”