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Published: Sunday, 1/8/2006

The case for Jake

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Jake Gyllenhaal leans forward in his cushy seat and, when asked whether he would prefer to have three huge movies in theaters at the same time or have them doled out over a year or so - in short, asked whether he prefers the carpet-bombing approach to celebrity over the slow, steady climb to fame - he leans back.

Lays his hands on the table.

Examines the lines in them.

Sighs. Looks up. Then down.

Look at you. Looks wild-eyed.

Laughs.

And finally, he says, "Man. It's a ..." He stops and thinks, wonders if he should look frustrated or sad or happy or gracious or exhausted. He settles for all of the above, and continues with:

"Man, it's a particular honor. I don't know another way to put it. Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, Proof, next year Zodiac with David Fincher. They are all different. It is frustrating I can't spend a lot of time with any one. That I don't like. But I've started to look at it this way: It's an embarrassment of riches. My birthday is right near Christmas. My mother is Jewish, so we celebrate Hanukkah. My father is Christian, so we also celebrate Christmas. All these things are celebrated at the same time and you get one present for everything, which is lame. On the other hand, it's always nice to get a present at all."

Who is this Jake Gyllenhaal?

Why is he in everything, but has not yet been embraced by movie audiences? Is it those bushy-bushy eyebrows, Ernie and Bert-esque, framing long eyelashes and the kind of googly blue eyeballs that generally only come glued to clam shells in tourist spots? Or is it the consonants in that name? (Most audiences can't even pronounce it at first. For the record, it's Jill-en-hall.) Or is it, you know, him, an actor who audiences don't like, or who have no opinion of at all?

If it's the latter, Gyllenhaal is not alone. He is the personification of the latest breed of male Hollywood royalty, primarily distinguished by their ability to look the part and bring the acting chops without (yet) bringing in either box office or that sparkle that goes with being a superstar.

They raise the question: When is a movie star not a movie star?

When they are sort-of stars.

They are generally male. They can be in their 20s (Orlando Bloom, Heath Ledger) or their 30s (Clive Owen, Jude Law), and they are largely distinguished by their ability to (No. 1) appear as though they are in every other movie in release and (No. 2) appear to be bankable enough to land high-profile pictures, even though (No. 3) they don't have the box office clout or popularity to support their ubiquitousness.

There's a perception gap.

If these guys are so big, in other words, where is Colin Farrell's Top Gun - a film focused squarely on them (and not just special effects) that vaults them into the pantheon of the iconic and justifies all of the attention (not to mention, large salaries)?

Who is the next Tom Cruise? The next Bruce Willis? The next Denzel Washingon? Who is capable of drawing audiences (particularly when movies routinely cost more than $100 million now to make and market)? Is there anybody to replace the previous generation of leading men who rose through the '80s and early '90s to dominate the millennium multiplex?

It's a complicated question, but of the younger guys, Gyllenhaal, 25, stands the best chance of lasting into his 40s. His turning point came a couple of years ago when Tobey Maguire was stalling Columbia over whether he would climb back in those red tights for Spider-Man 2. (He said he had a bad back.) When the studio decided to play hardball, they suited up Gyllenhaal and began a series of screen tests; they did this loudly and rather publicly, and with Hollywood buzzing over how easy it would be replacing Maguire with Gyllenhaal, Maguire returned.

At the moment, however, Gyllenhaal's biggest claim to fame is the elaborately ridiculous disaster picture The Day After Tomorrow. It made $180 million in the United States, though Gyllenhaal has no illusions: You were there to see New York slammed by global warming, not to see a twentysomething actor with an unpronounceable name who may or not may be The Next Big Thing. His next biggest flick, Jarhead, the Gulf War picture that opened in early November, landed mixed reviews but earned a surprisingly strong $28 million in its first two days - and then the film faded away just as quickly.

His first role was at 10, as Billy Crystal's son in City Slickers. His biggest impact, arguably, has been in the title role of Donnie Darko, a 2000 coming-of-age cult sensation that's become one of a next generation of midnight movies. (It co-starred his sister, Maggie, herself a sought-after talent; her boyfriend is Peter Sarsgaard, Jake's co-star in Jarhead. Speaking of family, their father, Stephen Gyllenhaal, is a TV director, and their mother, Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, is a screenwriter whose credits include Running on Empty and the recent Bee Season. A textbook Los Angeles showbiz clan in every sense - Jake's godmother is Jamie Lee Curtis.)

And now comes a movie with Jake Gyllenhaal that's bigger than anything he's done, Brokeback Mountain - indeed, it's bigger than itself, bigger than whatever box office it might earn, and even bigger than whatever career Gyllenhaal might find himself with after Oscar season has come and gone and Brokeback Mountain has made a killing. (And it will.)

Brokeback, which opened in Toledo on Friday, will change audience perceptions of what a gay character can be, look like, and behave like. It is a watershed moment in how mainstream media regards homosexuality, whether you like it or not (and so far, early box office suggests you really like it). Directed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Ang Lee, it tells the story of a profoundly emotional (and physical) relationship between two Wyoming cowboys herding sheep, all alone in the wilderness; Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist is the least ashamed; Ledger's reserved, gruff Ennis Del Mar shocks himself. He's uncertain of what the attraction can mean; his only certainty is that no one in 1960s Wyoming can find out.

Gyllenhaal - who I spoke with last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival - said he first read the script (adopted by Larry McMurty from a short story by Annie Proulx) when he was 16. That's how long it's taken to get this thing right, to find a studio that would back it, and a cast comfortable enough to play it without qualms. And even then, he said, "it was introduced to everyone who read it as 'the gay cowboy movie,' the exact same way everyone has heard about it. And when I heard that, I didn't want to do it. I mean, it was summarized just like that. And at 16, it's probably not the best time to explore something like that - as an actor. Just in terms of maturity, I wasn't ready.

"But even then, I didn't see the need to be in a movie that was intentionally trying to upend the western. The way people described it then, and the way people describe it now, it sounds like it's this conscious upending. When I came to it again when I was older, and when I knew Ang Lee was attached, I knew it would be different. I knew he would bring a universality to it. I hate that word, but it's true. He would make sure it all comes down to the idea of love between two people. There would be no political tension behind it. No political subtext made obvious. No metaphors. Just a story and two people and no distinction made on what love is like between two men - the details might fluctuate but love is love.

"To me it's about intimacy, and not that thing you see in movies, where two people are clearly meant for each other and there's an ideal of what love is."

Yet stardom is unequal.

Both Gyllenhaal and Ledger went through the task of shooting what Gyllenhaal calls nerve-rackingly uncomfortable love scenes. ("You dive in the water and it's freezing and you want to get out and then someone off camera asks you to do it again.") Both, best known for smaller independent films, are landing the most mainstream notice of their careers for Brokeback Mountain.

And though both Gyllenhaal and Ledger (by accident or design) have secondary films in release that reaffirm their hetero-masculinity (it's shrewd marketing: Gyllenhaal plays a Marine in Jarhead, while Ledger one-ups him as the very definition of promiscuous heterosexuality in Casanova) it's Ledger who is primarily drawing the Oscar talk for Brokeback. Indeed, Focus Features, the specialty branch of Universal Pictures, has gone as far as push Ledger for a Best Actor nomination and Gyllenhaal for a Best Supporting Actor nod.

Indeed, in that decision you can almost see their careers and packaging as the Next Big Thing turning a corner: If Ledger lacks something, it's the affability of a broadly loved superstar. He's the next Brando, complete with opaque mumble (so goes award-season logic). If Gyllenhaal lacks something (so far), it's the ability to lend weight to a role by sheer presence. That's why he is the Man Who Could Be Tom Cruise:

He's a perceived lightweight, always better than he's expected to be, hampered by good looks.

It's ironic because Gyllenhaal wears his heart on his sleeve. In person he is disarmingly earnest, boyish but eager to be taken seriously. At one point, talking about Brokeback and its story that spans three decades, he sets off on a story about his parent's 25-year marriage. His father, he says, liked the film because it reminded him of how hard it is to love someone for a long stretch.

"At their anniversary party, a guy asked him what it was like being with the same woman for decades, and my dad replied, 'She is not the same woman.' "

Cruise, on the other hand, would never offer a story so personal. (Not as his old, guarded self, anyway.) Cruise would also probably not mention something like how, during the California desert shoot of Jarhead, Gyllenhaal chipped a tooth in a scene with a fellow actor and got so mad he proceeded to smack the guy. (Or how neither actor talked for a month afterward.)

And ask him for an influence and you don't get Tom Cruise, but an actor far more intriguing:

"Oh, John Cleese is important to me. Seriously. My inspiration comes from odd places, I guess, different than the roles I play."

In that answer is a clue why Gyllenhaal might be different than every Tobey, Orlando, and Colin - he strives for gravitas.

Contrary to popular belief, gravitas is not a requirement of stardom. (It's currently employed to great affect by George Clooney, the semi-new star who is most like old stars). But a recognition that stardom is about more than a few photo shoots and a red-carpet walk does go a long way. Matt Damon has this, as well, a desire to prove he's substantial.

It's all we can ask anymore.

"I was at a photo shoot the other day," Gyllenhaal said, "and the guy told me, 'Oh, you should be in more mainstream work.' I was thinking, wait a minute: I don't want to float. I want to dive off the boat. I want to get in the water. I want the ability to swim deep or go shallow. The water is the mainstream but there are different depths. And definitely I don't want to float above it all."

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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