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Safety Pinups

Squeaky-cleanliness is next to godliness for a new generation of heartthrobs. What ever happened to bad-boy chic?

May 23, 1999|MICHELE WILLENS | Michele Willens writes about entertainment from New York and is an occasional contributor to Calendar

They emerge every so often, a cluster of young actors who seem to perfectly epitomize their times. The Dean-Brando-Newman-Clift generation of the '50s tapped into a postwar, restless, rebellious sexuality. The De Niro-Pacino-Hoffman clan represented the antiwar antihero of the '60s. The so-called Brat Pack--which could have used a good or bad war to show some mettle--momentarily captured the vain and sexually careless '80s.

Now, yet another New Generation of actors springs forth, the product of changing demographics--we're talking 70 million American teenagers--and an industry desperate to cater to all that hormonal hunger. Not as contentious as their '50s and '60s predecessors or as self-involved as their '80s counterparts, the late '90s model male heartthrobs are thoughtful, sensitive and, dare we say it, kinda nice.

"There seems to be something palatably nonthreatening about these guys," says casting director Ellen Chenoweth. "Their sex appeal doesn't feel violent or disturbing. An actor like Edward Norton is not that much older, but he is more in the Sean Penn mold, much more complicated than this young group, at least where they are now."

For the uninitiated--say, anyone over 25--they tend to blend into one another. Close your eyes and try to imagine who they are, or, more accurately, which is which: Ryan Phillippe, James Van Der Beek, Paul Walker, Matthew Lillard, Freddie Prinze Jr., Joshua Jackson, Chris Klein, Breckin Meyer, James Marsden, Seth Green, Josh Hartnett, Heath Ledger, Scott Speedman and more. Put together they represent a vital new force in Hollywood.

"There's been a pretty long gap since the Brat Pack days," notes former Touchstone Pictures President Donald DeLine. "This is a real resurgence, and I can't think of a time when so many young actors have had a spotlight on them all at once."

A good many have come from, or are crossing back and forth between, television--shows like "Dawson's Creek," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Party of Five," "Felicity"--and the feature world. For example, Speedman of "Felicity" just filmed "Duet" opposite Gwyneth Paltrow; Van Der Beek of "Dawson's Creek" starred as a troubled high school football player in the hit teen film "Varsity Blues." And the list goes on and on.

"In the past, there was a more traditional division between the large and small screen," DeLine says. "But those barriers seem to have totally broken down with this group and their audience."

That loyal audience, especially females, from preteens to post-college, has bestowed heartthrob status on these young men for their shared characteristics: sensitive but not wimpy, smart but not nerdy, athletic but not dumb jock. They constitute one of the truly Safe Sects.

Even those who play slightly menacing versions remain pretty harmless. Australian Heath Ledger, 19, dazzles as the mysterious and possibly bad boy of the high school in this spring's "10 Things I Hate About You." But in fact, there proves a heart of gold under that tough guy exterior. "We really saw him as a young leading man as opposed to a boy," says DeLine, who was at Touchstone when the film was developed. "He has a more mature presence, like a young Mel Gibson, but still basically a nonthreatening one."

Unlike Dean, De Niro and many of their predecessors, this new generation of young actors shares a kind of non-attitude attitude--a trait likely to be valued even more in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, as role models of a less violent nature are particularly welcome.

"I'm not interested in roles where they're carelessly mean and unlikable," says James Marsden of "Disturbing Behavior." "I play a cocky, manipulative guy in 'Gossip' [coming later this year], but he's also intelligent and charming."

All of these Safe Studs elicit shrieks and squeaks at malls. Even Seth Green, 25 and not your traditional leading man type, has captured young hearts with his roles in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and last year's teen film "Can't Hardly Wait," along with his breakout performance as Dr. Evil's son in "Austin Powers," a huge hit with young audiences. (He returns in the sequel, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," this summer.)

"Obviously, I don't see myself that way at all," Green says. "I like to think of myself as the thinking-girl's thinking guy."

Chris Klein, at 20, is in that only-in-Hollywood place right now between anonymity and possible overnight heartthrob heaven. His upcoming summer movie, "American Pie," has huge buzz surrounding it already, months before its release. He also played the quarterback-turned-candidate in the recently released high school comedy "Election," a critical fave.

"I'm told this is the quiet before the storm," says Klein, who is trying to sneak in yet another college semester at Texas Christian University in the meantime.


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