The dreamboat; the matinee idol; the screen lover; the heartthrob. Whatever you call them and whatever you prefer, they’ve been with us as long as we’ve been going to the movies, giving us the lover ideal, a soft fantasy to adorn adolescent bedroom walls. It could be the chiseled jaw and baby blues of a Paul Newman or the self-contained intensity of a Denzel Washington that has set hearts aflutter. But, whatever the type, for most of the last century, the movie theatre has been a safe space for female longing. Where else but in the cinema could a woman – regardless of race or age or social class – desire so openly, without concern for what was forbidden?
More like this:
- Is Cats a cat-astrophe?
- A sociopath for our Instagram age
- Will the Star Wars universe survive?
Outside of the cinema, men have been welcome to ogle women wherever they wish, regardless of that woman’s own fears or feelings. But women, so hamstrung by men’s own hunger, so taught to deny and dodge male lust at every turn, might find in a movie-star crush the idealised object of their own desire. They might find a small reprieve from being looked at in order to do their own looking.
With the release of Little Women this month, fans of Hollywood’s current favoured pin-up Timothée Chalamet will no doubt be doing plenty of their own looking – or swooning. To examine Chalamet’s appeal – fulsome flop of brown curls, skinny-legged like a lost member of The Strokes, angular cheekbones – is to see our perennial love of the non-threatening man returning. In the post #MeToo era, perhaps that’s not too surprising. Over the decades, the actors who have become heartthrobs have had much to tell us about straight women’s desires both sexual and romantic; the popularity of their personas has reflected how we have viewed masculinity at any particular time. So here’s a whirlwind tour through the male pinups of the past century – and what they tell us about the times they existed in.
Type: The Latin Lover
The Heartthrob: Rudolph Valentino
In the silent era, more women went to the movies than men; working-class and immigrant women of the 1920s often credited cinema as their one treat throughout the day, offering them an oasis of calm in an overworked domestic existence. It makes sense, then, that the one heartthrob whose name we still remember today – Rudolph Valentino – was discovered by a female screenwriter, June Mathis, who knew female audiences might take a shine to him. Valentino was Italian by birth, and with his trim figure, slick black hair, and tilted, almond-shaped eyes, he played a variety of suave, ‘exotic’ characters, helping to define the trend for the so-called ‘Latin Lover’. It was noted that Valentino’s fans were almost exclusively women, and that he conjured feelings of resentment and dislike in most American men; perhaps because he was deemed as a ‘foreigner’ taking the attention of American women.
Valentino died tragically young, cementing his fame and causing borderline hysteria among his female fans, but other, less-remembered names would crop up, too: Wallace Reid, Ramon Novarro, Gilbert Roland. What remains striking about the popularity of Valentino and his type – even all these years on – is how they appealed so much more exclusively to women than to men, and still managed to become enormously successful.
Type: The Salt-of-the-Earth Tough Guy
The Heartthrob: Clark Gable
During the years of the Great Depression, movie audiences’ tastes began to move away from the highfalutin fantasy of the decade before and so tougher, more grounded actors got a chance to shine. The fast-talking broad replaced the glamour queen; so too the macho tough guy replaced the effete, well-dressed gentleman. It made sense. In a tumultuous time of hardship, flouting traditional rules of gender was put aside for the idea of a solid, safe mate – a man who might protect you from the unpredictability of the world outside.
While James Cagney and Edward G Robinson defined crime cinema with their depiction of street criminals, another rough-and-tumble – and perhaps crucially, ‘all-American’ man – would become known as ‘The King of Hollywood’: Clark Gable. Tall, square-jawed, and sporting that famous moustache, Gable played steamy romantic leads opposite Hollywood’s most desirable women of the time; Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. In real life, Gable was plainspoken and known for his love of the outdoors; fan magazines of the era endlessly reiterated that he was a ‘man’s man’ who had little truck for the indulgences of the women who idolised him. One fan mag reported in 1934 that in a visit to New York he was greeted with Beatlemania-style intensity: ‘caught in a surging mass of shouting, squealing women’. And in 1939, he would close out the decade as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, forever cementing his status as a dashing man.
The Type: The Crooner
The Heartthrob: Frank Sinatra
Physically speaking, Ol’ Blue Eyes was unprepossessing; lanky, forever underweight, and standing 5 ft 7 (170cm), by comparison to some of the hulking he-men of the screen, he might seem like a small fry. But it hardly mattered when he opened his mouth to sing; that honeyed croon would be the soundtrack to millions of female fans’ romances, and even helped to raise money for war bonds, thanks to its appearance in adverts for the US treasury.
Gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote of Sinatra in 1944: “In the twenty years I’ve been covering Hollywood, I’ve never seen anything like the Sinatra craze.” By this time, Sinatra had already starred in a handful of musicals, including Anchors Aweigh, opposite Gene Kelly. His capacity for dramatic roles would become increasingly clear in the following decade, but the 40s saw him at the height of his romantic popularity among female fans, nicknamed the ‘bobby soxers’. Before Elvis or The Beatles, Sinatra-mania was in full flow.
The Type: The Rebel
The Heartthrob: Marlon Brando; Harry Belafonte
It’s true that if you wanted to find a clean-cut exemplar of the 1950s man – a la Don Draper, for example – you could find them in the form of the strikingly handsome Rock Hudson or the man in the grey flannel suit, Gregory Peck. But the more interesting – and certainly more influential – heartthrobs were those whose bohemian spirit and unconventional attitudes were set to change US society in the years to come.
Marlon Brando was the thinking woman’s beefcake and the centre of his own forcefield of charisma. In 1951, when he starred in the screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, after a successful run on Broadway, he played ignorant lout Stanley Kowalski with such a charge of sexual energy that movies never seemed entirely upright again. In the juvenile delinquent craze that would take over 1950s America, his reputation would become writ large along with fellow Method actors Montgomery Clift and James Dean. Brando, like Dean and Clift, was bisexual, and his combination of masculine and feminine qualities – broad shouldered, virile, with tight, sweat-drenched t-shirts, but also soft-faced, pouty-lipped, almost pretty – was central to his allure. He embodied a paradox which has long fascinated women – and made many arbiters of traditional gender roles in the 50s uncomfortable. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote in 1952: “In any group of women, the name Marlon Brando acts like a flash fire”, but admitted he certainly wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Hopper recounted that some of her friends found him ‘vulgar’ and that his bohemian style of dress – jeans, a t-shirt, and moccasins – made him look scruffy.
Meanwhile, Calypso star Harry Belafonte broke into screen stardom in the early 50s, becoming what Photoplay called ‘the first Negro matinee idol’. Belafonte moved beyond being a musical entertainer and became a sexy romantic lead in musicals like Carmen Jones (1954) and Island in the Sun (1957), breaking traditional rules about what leading men looked like. He and his friend Brando would also become outspoken supporters of the civil rights movement later in the decade.
The Type: The He-Man
The Heartthrob: Richard Roundtree; Burt Reynolds; Fred Williamson; Robert Redford
Perhaps the 1970s saw an explosion of hunky heartthrobs because of the after effects of the sexual revolution. But in the freewheeling 70s, when cinema had finally shaken off the remainders of censorship, it seemed like preening men, unafraid to strip off for Playgirl Magazine or wear their shirts unbuttoned to the belly button, were everywhere. On screen, they combined this louche, knowingly sexually provocative style with the machismo of cowboys (Redford), rednecks (Reynolds), tough city cops (Roundtree), and gangsters (Williamson). The decade really was a sexually liberated woman’s smorgasbord: whether you fancied Shaft or The Sundance Kid, the exposed chest hair and pointed virility was enough to put anyone over the edge.
The Type: The Yuppie
The Heartthrob: Richard Gere; Don Johnson
The 80s pin-up was unafraid of crass materialism and vanity, happy to wear expensive shades and spend a lot on his haircut; but maintained his macho appeal through aggressively heterosexual gestures in real life and on screen, playing tough guys, womanisers, and gigolos. Don Johnson would help define the look of the decade in television show Miami Vice, with his sleek, borderline-sleazy style.
So too would Richard Gere: though he would arguably not truly peak as a romantic idol until his starring role opposite Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1991), he had a persona that made him a creature of the Reagan era if ever there was one. His starring turn as a high-end escort in American Gigolo was drenched in luxury goods. With his permatan and lightly toned body, he was a cheerful object of the female and queer gaze – something relatively new in US cinema. More men – from Gere to action heroes like Jean-Claude Van Damme – were stripping off and exposing their bare bottoms to the audience.
Type: The Sensitive Pretty Boy
The Heartthrob: Leonardo DiCaprio
Though it seems faintly entertaining now to imagine the debauched, supermodel-dating DiCaprio as the sensitive, pretty-faced boy he once was, in the 90s he fit perfectly into the role. His contemporaries – Johnny Depp, River Phoenix, Brad Pitt, and the like – would share the same snake-hipped, boyish charms, looking as much like they could be in a band as they did movie stars. A far cry from the old American ideal of square-shouldered macho man, they often played poets, drifters, doomed lovers, and Anne Rice-written vampires. But it was DiCaprio who landed at the top of the pile with his starring role as Jack Dawson in megahit Titanic (1997) and as the titular doomed lover in cult favourite Romeo & Juliet (1996). The two combined to make Leo the tragic romantic angel of the decade, feeding into a culture where movies, music, and literature were all more interested in deconstructing traditional manhood than they were in upholding it.
The Type: The Internet’s Boyfriend
The Heartthrob: Timothée Chalamet
These days, with the help of memes and twitter fan accounts, stanning the heartthrob du jour (and they are always du jour) is easier and more popular than ever. The internet’s boyfriend doesn’t always have a particular look or type, but one thing he does seem to have is a rabid online fandom and a propensity for real-life charm to add to his overall reputation. It could be Keanu Reeves’ renowned kindness, Chris Evans’ hatred of Donald Trump and love of dogs, Adam Driver’s meme-friendly facial expressions, or Timothée Chalamet and his nonplussed ‘who, me?’ nervousness that sends their devotees wild, but there’s something loveable about these guys that goes beyond their screen acting.
Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.