Peter Bart: Contrasting The Leading-Man Life From Keanu, Cruise & Harrison Ford To Sean Connery & Seminal Swashbuckler Errol Flynn

“I never set out to play the hero, but since I’m usually cast as one I want to be the best paid hero.”

That’s what Sean Connery said at a moment when he was re-negotiating his James Bond deal. As a serious actor, Connery admitted he never understood what traits audiences wanted from their movie heroes and his confusion would be shared by studio mavens today.

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Even long-in-the-tooth leading men can find a second wind.

Keanu Reeves is drawing record box office in John Wick: Chapter 4, cast as a laconic virtuoso of death who emerges from retirement because his dog got killed. Tom Cruise doesn’t kill anyone on screen in Top Gun: Maverick, but his actions in keeping that movie from a streaming bow helped put the theatrical business back on track. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford cemented his status at 80 as the dean of geriatric heroism: He’s got the James Mangold-directed Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny headed to Cannes, and up next is Thunderbolt Ross in Captain America: New World Order. He has also been busy in TV, starring in the streaming series 1923 and Shrinking.

The proprietors of the Bond franchise confront these questions today as they debate future 007 casting, in terms of both ethnicity and sexual orientation. Would filmgoers be receptive to Idris Elba or Lashana Lynch – who managed to live through No Time to Die — assuming the leading role?

 “As a young actor I was bashful about playing a hero, but then you come to understand that heroism has a certain pictorial beauty,” Laurence Olivier once remarked. George Clooney for years deprecated himself for agreeing to play Batman. And Arnold Schwarzenegger apologized to his fans for attempting parody in The Last Action Hero.

A new take on High Noon has been written for Broadway by Eric Roth, but a successor to Gary Cooper has not been selected. Paula Wagner, the producer, believes heroism deserves a more thoughtful perspective, but John Wayne once told me that he accepted the lead in Rio Bravo because he didn’t like the sociopolitical “take” on heroism in the 1952 High Noon movie (Carl Foreman, once blacklisted, wrote the stirring screenplay).

Controversies about cinematic heroism are being re-revisited by the Museum of Modern Art, which has mounted a 14-film retrospective of Errol Flynn. Starring in such classic swashbucklers as Captain Blood and They Died with Their Boots On, Flynn was the definition of cinematic macho – the sort of audacious alpha male who likely would not survive in today’s Hollywood.

A rough kid from Tasmania, Flynn in real life set sail for New Guinea to work as a hunter and “recruiter of indentured labor,” as he put it. “Flynn gave melting-pot moviegoers some high-style heroes to admire – raffish, self-made men like James J. Corbett in Gentleman Jim, notes critic Michael Sragow.

Flynn was accused and acquitted of several scandals during his years of stardom. Although clobbered by gossip columnists, he still managed to win on-screen most of the time. In his later years, Flynn parodied his own various addictions in his autobiography titled My Wicked, Wicked Ways (he died at age 50).

Writes Sragow, “Flynn’s career would be difficult to replicate today because, as an action hero, he was larger than life, yet not artificial in the Marvel/DC mode.”

Flynn likely would have admired the Reeves character in John Wick. Favoring action over dialogue, Reeves helped cut down his speaking role to a mere 380 words in his new nearly three-hour movie. And that includes grunts.

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