Since the beginning, movies have had heroes. Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper — from the start, we’ve been drawn to men who played impossibly brave or lovable characters, guys who stood up to others and did what’s right. (Never mind that some of those men in their private lives, especially Chaplin and Flynn, were far from saints, engaging in relationships with underage women.) But as Hollywood grew more sophisticated, so did the portrayals of male heroism — and soon we entered an era of complicated leading men as different as Jimmy Stewart (impossibly decent but also, in Hitchcock films, projecting a hidden darkness) and Marlon Brando (a rugged man’s man whose masculinity seemed like a prison). Then the notion of the antihero came into vogue: For every ramrod-noble John Wayne, there was a sensitive, insular Jack Nicholson trying to tear down the myth of the flawless good guy ready to save the day.
As a result, any handsome Hollywood actor aspiring to superstardom has to, in some sense, make a choice about the sort of hero he’s going to portray. Will he be a Tom Cruise, largely playing brave, inspirational figures? Or will he be more in the Ryan Reynolds mode, always slightly mocking our need for unimpeachable heroes?
Or is there a third option? Can an actor turn his career into an investigation into the value of heroes? Can he resist the urge to neither scorn nor celebrate heroes but, instead, understand the gradations of flaws and decency that exist in everybody? Can he, in other words, be Bradley Cooper?
The 43-year-old, four-time Oscar-nominee is about to take a major step into the next stage of his career. On Friday, his highly anticipated, glowingly reviewed remake of A Star Is Born hits theaters, with many awards prognosticators believing it has an excellent chance to win Best Picture. This was hard to imagine not that long ago. Fairly recently, Cooper played the bro-y best friend — or the douche-y boyfriend destined to lose his girlfriend to the movie’s likeable leading man. Cooper didn’t seem like he was going to be that leading man himself. Now that it’s happened, though, the transformation feels inevitable: He’s way too good-looking and charming not to be a huge star. But the choices he’s made since that transition have largely been excellent — and also intriguing. There are lots of leading men Cooper could have been. He decided to be one who plays guys who aren’t entirely comfortable (or always deserving) of the spotlight.
Cooper’s first significant film was 2005’s Wedding Crashers — he’d done television before that, like Alias — and he quickly established himself as a presence, even in the role of an asshole rich kid. He was a different variation of entertaining asshole four years later in The Hangover, a whole comedy built around the idea that he and his buddies were drunken jerks getting worthy comeuppance for their what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas behavior.
Because of The Hangover’s success, Cooper became somebody who could open a movie. (He no longer was relegated to being the wingman in romantic comedies such as Failure to Launch and Yes Man.) And not surprisingly, he had his initial stumbles in this new role. I have a certain affection for The A-Team, but it’s not going to be prominently featured on his AFI Life Achievement clip reel. And he did Hangover sequels that are deservedly loathed.
But then he started taking risks, testing the limits of being the good guy. In 2011, he portrayed a dashing but morally corrupt novelist in Limitless. (A year later, he portrayed another dashing but morally corrupt novelist in The Words). Soon after, though, he formally introduced the world to Bradley Cooper, Major Actor with Silver Linings Playbook, in which he played Pat, a bipolar Eagles fan who falls for an equally troubled young woman (Jennifer Lawrence).
Silver Linings Playbook was a bit of good fortune for Cooper — it had looked like director David O. Russell’s frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg was going to take on the role. But once Wahlberg dropped out, Cooper swooped in, earning his first Oscar nomination in the process. He depicted Pat as a screwed-up, possibly hopeless guy, and Cooper didn’t go out of his way to make him lovable. Even at this relatively early stage of his career, Cooper seemed to trust the fact that audiences wouldn’t bail on the character — that if he played Pat honestly and didn’t intentionally antagonize viewers, we would come to understand this tormented man.
That’s a delicate balancing act that Cooper has continued to pursue. Some actors — Nicolas Cage comes to mind — seem to want to push us away, practically punishing us for finding them movie-star appealing. Whatever misgivings Cooper might have about stardom, he doesn’t inflict those complicated feelings on us. Still, he never approaches his potentially heroic characters head-on. We think about their failings as much as their honorable intentions. And if someone considers his character a hero, that character will immediately reject the notion.
Those self-doubts permeate his performance in 2013’s The Place Beyond the Pines, in which he plays an agonized cop, and 2014’s American Sniper, for which he received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Beat Picture as one of the movie’s producers. In The Place Beyond the Pines, he’s a young policeman whose split-second decision takes the life of a criminal. He’s paraded around town, toasted for his valor, but his decision eats at him, and he longs to make some sort of amends. Since the film wasn’t widely seen, I don’t want to reveal the surprise of what happens, but let’s just say that the character’s decision and eventual transformation speak volumes about the ways that reluctant heroes eventually become cynical, curdled ones. Good intentions mean nothing in a Bradley Cooper film.
As for American Sniper, on its surface it’s a flag-waving, support-the-troops drama about real-life sniper Chris Kyle, who served several tours in Iraq, suffering PTSD and, later, being killed tragically by a fellow soldier. But while Cooper doesn’t undercut Kyle’s heroism, he’s far more interested in the man’s ordeal than he is in his pinpoint accuracy on the battlefield. The film was directed by Clint Eastwood, who has spent most of his life examining, deconstructing, celebrating and wrestling with heroism, so it was fitting that American Sniper was a massive commercial success that struck a chord with audiences. (It was the highest-grossing film of 2014, beating out such surefire blockbusters as Cooper’s own Guardians of the Galaxy.)
Eastwood and Cooper were saluting an American hero, but there’s melancholy and apprehension in American Sniper. Cooper plays him as just a regular dude trying to defend his country — he’s not introspective enough to truly ponder the implications of his actions or consider why he and his fellow soldiers have been shipped to the desert in response to 9/11. Kyle acts heroically because it’s within him, but it’s not something he’s that interested in exuding.
Tellingly, when Cooper plays a guy who does fancy himself a hero, the character is a total schmuck. How else to explain Richie DiMaso, the weasel FBI agent in 2013’s American Hustle? Utterly proud of his own cunning, wrestling with lethal amounts of insecurity and convinced he can woo Amy Adams’ unscrupulous con artist, Richie thinks he has some kind of moral high ground over the criminals he’s blackmailing into working for him. In American Hustle, watching him be disabused of his beliefs is deeply satisfying. Cooper makes the character pathetic, in both senses of the word: Richie is a woeful human being, but there’s also something incredibly sad about a character who so badly wants to be a big man. It’s as if Cooper is warning us what self-proclaimed heroes look like to everyone else: laughingstocks.
This isn’t how we’ve been raised to view heroes — especially at the movies, which are nowadays filled with a very specific kind of good guy. I’m talking, of course, of the glut of superheroes dominating multiplexes. From Robert Downey Jr.’s sarcastic Iron Man to Tom Holland’s earnest Spider-Man to Chris Evans’ square-jawed Captain America, different variations of guys who do the right thing populate the big screen. So it’s sorta perfect that when Cooper signed on for a Marvel movie, he did it as a grouchy raccoon.
In the Guardians of the Galaxy films, he’s Rocket, who’s a hell of a pilot and sharpshooter but not much of a people person. He’s always feuding with Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and isn’t particularly interested in guarding the galaxy — he’s a mercenary just out to make a quick buck. Naturally, that rough exterior belies a soft heart — he’s a sucker for Baby Groot — but Rocket is such a prickly varmint that the idea of being an inspirational figure isn’t in his realm of comprehension. There are plenty of other heroes walking around, Cooper seems to be saying. Go hang out with one of them if that’s what you’re looking for.
That attitude continues with A Star Is Born, in which he plays an alcoholic, fading country star who falls in love with a rising talent (Lady Gaga). Cooper has been doing press for the film, but even in the role of profile subject, he has reservations. This was acutely on display during a recent New York Times piece, in which he chafed at revealing too much of himself to writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner. At one point, he tells her about A Star Is Born, “The stories that exist in this story, it comes from a very deep personal place and that’s the only way that I know how to communicate with many people.” Cooper doesn’t even want to be the protagonist of his own glowing profile piece — he mistrusts the whole apparatus of heroes even in this regard.
Maybe he has reason to be distrusting. For more than a century, Hollywood has foisted straight white men on us as models of what it means to be heroic. The industry has paid lip service regarding greater diversity, but the film business is still very much a world of white stars carrying a majority of motion pictures. No wonder that inspires aggravation from audiences who would like to see a broader range of experiences depicted. Singer-songwriter Neko Case expressed that viewpoint succinctly after watching the Star Is Born trailer:
In such a shifting culture, the myth of the white male hero deserves to be readdressed. Whether or not Cooper’s reticence reflects an acknowledgement of that need, his attitude toward his onscreen roles is most welcome. It’s time for straight white guys to cede the spotlight — and the glory that comes with being a hero — to others. In A Star Is Born, his character does that literally.