So without further ado, the winner of our Second Annual Sexiest Man Living Award is …
Watching AMC’s “Mad Men” is a sensual feast. Matthew Weiner’s devotion to getting 1960 right means we feel Joan’s girdle and Peggy’s scratchy dresses, taste the rye and the steak and the oysters, glory in the pastels of Betty’s peignoirs; our eyes water at the end of every episode from all that cigarette smoke. The sexual politics are remarkable; the sex is even more interesting, and the hot center of it all is Jon Hamm, who plays Sterling Cooper creative director Don Draper, haunted, predatory, at the top of his game, miserable.
I assumed I’d missed Hamm in other roles, but he hasn’t had a lot of other major roles. (He was in a half-dozen or so episodes of “What about Brian?” “The Unit,” and “Providence,” and about a dozen of “The Division,” none of which I’d ever seen.) His Wikipedia entry is marked a “stub,” which seems to invite readers to help fill in more details. I wish I had more details to fill in. My favorite fact about Jon Hamm is that he was a schoolteacher before he became an actor — that’s my idea of sexy. But I think it’s possible that some of Hamm/Draper’s hotness is how little we know about both the actor and the character.
Certainly it’s the way he manages the secret at the heart of Don Draper’s story that makes Hamm so compelling on “Mad Men.” The mystery builds intensity: Draper meets strangers on his morning commute who call him by a different name. A long lost brother shows up and introduces a whole new story line. (In the best episode Draper brings a mystery package to his brother’s hotel for a final meeting, and the scene is claustrophobic with dread; Hamm’s darkness combined with Weiner’s “Sopranos” history makes you worry Draper’s going to whack the poor guy, but in fact he’s packing $5,000 and tries to send him away.) It turns out Draper is really Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute, adopted and abused by his miserable father and stepmother after his real mom died; he exchanged dog tags with a fellow soldier who died in Korea and stepped into the dead man’s privileged life as Don Draper. (We need more flashbacks in Season 2 to fill in the postwar, pre-Sterling Cooper Draper years.) When we meet Draper he’s married to beautiful, seemingly batty Betty, but he cheats on her compulsively, almost sadistically. Yet we forgive him because he’s so tortured … and so hot.
Hamm has glossy movie star good looks, great bones and a killer smile, made riveting by Draper’s pain and artifice. He’s the unhappy adman selling happiness. He’s in on the big con, and yet he’s not, entirely; in fact, he’s dying to believe in what he’s selling. He’s the misfit Organization Man, an elitist egalitarian; he makes conformity seem sort of brave and sexy. Hanging out with Mistress No. 1, Midge, he helps us see her beatnik friends as spoiled kids, their bohemian life as much of a pose as his Madison Avenue persona. With Mistress No. 2, Rachel, he’s the WASPy outsider, worshipping her exoticism, her Jewishness, her sexy rich-girl self-reliance and hint of need. Friends and I were briefly convinced Draper’s secret was that he was Jewish, especially after the episode that ended with a coffeehouse folk band doing the haunting “Babylon.” (God, I’m going on about this plot. Maybe it’s Matt Weiner who’s America’s sexiest man…) Draper is never more likable than when promoting Peggy’s copywriting ambitions or busting little rich-kid bully Pete Campbell down to size. When he stands down Campbell’s threat to reveal his tacky secret past to the ad-firm’s founder, he’s the picture of manhood to Campbell’s sniveling boy. Before that, when he tries to flee, and begs Rachel to leave her life and run away with him, he’s a coward and a cad. But the dressing down Maggie Siff’s Rachel gives Hamm’s Draper is in its own category of hot.
At the end of the season finale, after all Don Draper’s suffering, it was a relief to see Hamm’s unlined face and gorgeous smile at the cast party in the footage that followed. The happy-looking actor, who lives with actress/director Jennifer Westfeldt, might be even sexier than his tortured character. Might be. It was certainly nice to see him without a haze of cigarette smoke. We’re awarding Sexiest Man of the Year honors to Jon Hamm but we have to acknowledge: It might be Don Draper who’s won our hearts.
– Joan Walsh
Who: John Amaechi
Know him as: Former NBA player
One of the last things you expect from a former professional basketball player is humility. But earlier this year, when John Amaechi became the first NBA player to come out of the closet — a qualifier for sexiness in its own right — it became clear during the media rounds that he was not only erudite, handsome and smart, but more than happy to cut himself down to size. On “The Daily Show,” when Jon Stewart chided him about being British, he deadpanned: “There’s one [British player] in Chicago now, but he’s actually good.”
For those of us with distaste for the machismo and egocentrism that often accompany professional sports, and, despite that, a predilection for tall athletes in shorts, Amaechi’s self-deprecation is beyond refreshing — it’s hot. Combine that with a British accent, a sharp sense of humor, a delightfully screwy dental structure, and a history of vocal opposition to the National Rifle Association, and you’ve got my vote for the gay male heartthrob of the year.
Although Amaechi — who played center for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz and retired in 2003 — was never a star player during his eight years in the NBA, his impressive size and strong work ethic still made him a hot commodity. At one point, he turned down a $17 million deal from the L.A. Lakers, choosing to remain with the Orlando Magic for a mere fraction of the money. The reason: loyalty. How’s that for sexy?
But, athletic skills notwithstanding, it’s Amaechi’s politics that really make him stand out. During his time in the NBA, he openly criticized American gun culture, and just before his retirement, grabbed headlines with his opposition to the Iraq war. When he published his memoir, “Man in the Middle,” publicly acknowledging his homosexuality, it was only the latest in a long string of public political statements.
It’s as if Amaechi decided to single-handedly destroy all of our preconceptions about professional basketball players at once. Sure, he’s gay. But he’s also a political activist. He’s completing his Ph.D. in child psychology. He writes poetry. He drinks Early Grey tea. He makes introspective YouTube videos about his height. He’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Professional basketball doesn’t just need more openly gay players. It needs more John Amaechis. And so do we.
– Thomas Rogers
Who: Owen Wilson
Know him as: Screenwriter/actor
Owen Wilson has always been intriguing: Handsome in a quirky, broken-nose, surfer-dude sort of way, with oddball friends like Wes Anderson, he always seemed smarter than your average Hollywood bear. Even so, his brother Luke was the hot one. Plus, Owen was such a relentlessly sunny guy, the perfect match for Goldie Hawn’s relentlessly sunny daughter, Kate Hudson. Appealing, sure. But sexy? Not really.
But then Wilson split from Hudson and allegedly attempted suicide. Suddenly, the occasional shot of a grinning, happy Owen was replaced by a tireless wave of photos of a long-faced Owen, striding glumly through the California sunshine with a haunted look in his eyes and a determined set to his jaw. What happened to Mr. Happy? Where did he go?
Sick though it may be, something gloomy and mournful inside each of us saw those pictures and longed to hold the Butterscotch Stallion’s hand and hear all about his trip to the dark side.
Sadness is sexy. And while it’s far too late to save sullen-sexy Kurt Cobain or suave-sad George Sanders or slouchy-sorrowful Elliott Smith, Owen Wilson has another shot at happiness. And this time it won’t be that cheap, shallow “Everything in my life has gone perfectly up until now” happiness, either, it’ll be the resilient, leathery happiness of someone who’s peeked over the edge into the inky existential abyss and lived to tell about it.
When Wilson finally starts to crack a smile on camera (I’ll give him about nine months), he can relish the fact that he’s going to be a lot happier — and a whole hell of a lot sexier — from here on out. And in the meantime, he gets my vote for the Sexiest Man (Still) Alive.
– Heather Havrilesky
Who: Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There”
Age: 38 playing 25
Know her as: Actress
As teenagers hoping to attract members of the opposite or even the same sex, most of us were told by well-meaning (or were they?) adults to “Smile more! Be more open! Look interested, engaged!” Bob Dylan, circa 1965-66, would have had none of that. Not yet fully closed off but shutting down fast, this Dylan — stung by the rejection of longtime fans who saw his plugging-in at the Newport Film Festival as an act of heresy instead of merely inevitable — wasn’t smiling a whole lot, and if you were an idiot, he sure as hell wasn’t going to make an effort to look interested! Engaged!
But was there any sensible person — and who cares about insensible people? — who didn’t want to sleep with this strange, wiry, elfin creature, decked out in fantastic threads he’d recently bought in London, who still seemed to be hoping (a hope that was most definitely futile) that someone out there might be able to amuse him, to stir him, rather than just worship him? His charisma was the caustic kind — it could wither you — but even so, you couldn’t help reaching out to it.
That’s the Bob Dylan Cate Blanchett channels in Todd Haynes’ sort-of biopic “I’m Not There.” She cuts a striking figure in her polka-dot shirts and drainpipe trousers, her seemingly electrified hair (it must be the result of artful teasing, but it sure looks like a miracle of not-combing) looking as tense as her eyes do. But Blanchett’s androgynous beauty — as arresting as it is — isn’t what makes her sullen, cranky Dylan so desirable. It’s the way she captures a pinpoint moment of being both misunderstood and not yet past the point of wanting to be understood. When the Crystals sang “He’s a Rebel” in 1962, this guarded, vulnerable, slightly nasty Dylan was the guy they had in mind, except they couldn’t have imagined him — no one could have. Blanchett plays the Dylan we think we know and yet maybe we’ve only created, the Dylan of our dreams, the guy whose rare smile is itself a kind of secret, as if he’d just heard a joke at dog-whistle frequency, a joke the rest of us wanted to be in on. The smile of this Dylan, when it actually deigns to show up, holds a world of masculine secrets. It’s a smile that says, “Smile more, my ass.”
– Stephanie Zacharek
Who: Ira Glass
Know him as: Host and producer of “This American Life”
Perhaps the least alluring thing about Ira Glass is his voice. On public radio’s stalwart “This American Life,” he doesn’t seduce with velvety warmth; he clips along with flat, unremarkable efficiency. But Ira Glass’s disembodied persona brims with infectious curiosity and inviting wonder. As a conduit for the show’s simple, moving stories of humanity, he coaxes out candid revelations with a refreshing lack of smirk and sarcasm. Fans of the show have for years been drawn to Glass’ disarmingly plain-spoken manner, even if few had ever glimpsed more of him than a few stills of a horn-rimmed, somewhat gangly figure.
Who’d have guessed, then, that he would turn out to be so telegenic? When “This American Life” became a Showtime series earlier this year, a new legion of devotees fell for Glass and his dapper, smart, bookish looks. He could be all nerdy self-deprecation and we’d still be hot for him, but what’s sexy about Glass is that he seems to know damn well how sexy he is: He’s relaxed, he’s genial, and he gazes at the camera with a directness that could bore a hole right into you.
Whether his former reputation as a ladies’ man is true or not (he’s married, not that it’s slowing down our imagination), he sure carries himself with the confidence of one. And no matter how good the stories he brings us are, the best part of “This American Life” is always Glass himself: droll, capable, with a simmering self-assurance that makes us want to tell him all our secrets.
– Mary Elizabeth Williams
Who: Kanye West
Know him as: Record producer/rapper
I find alpha males with a certain amount of humility extremely hot. And they’re not easy to find. Every once in a while I’ve wondered if Kanye West might be one, but until now I’ve always said … Nah, I don’t think so.
Oh, that Kanye, of the wild Katrina outburst, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” (which I agreed with, but couldn’t size up the ratio of wiseguy arrogance to committed angst and passion). Then there are his weirdly predictable explosions when he doesn’t win awards. Where’s the humility? Where’s the humanity? Of course it’s there in his essential nerdiness, the whole college satire, his family shtick, his geeky competitiveness, even his blog. But too often all of that is hidden beyond tributes to the Louis Vuitton good life.
Still, I cozied up to Kanye again recently when he did his crazy Emmy star-turn in September. Come on, you saw it. After being savaged for his outbursts in the wake of losing awards, he played along with Wayne Brady who set up the easiest possible competition for Kanye to win: A reality rap-off over who was best at Kanye lyrics, between “The Office’s” Rainn Wilson and … Kanye West. It was hilarious, especially when Rainn Wilson won. Kanye handled it with a big grin and a shimmering self-conscious humility. “I never win,” he told the suddenly puffed-up Wilson sadly. So funny. Self-aware, forlorn Kanye, what’s not to love?
Yes, I know Kanye’s got secrets and hidden quirks, and sure, I have been waffling about his greatness, and hotness, for years. “Graduation” is his best CD, even though I loved the musical theatre of “College Dropout” and “Late Registration.” “Stronger” and “Good Life” have been awesome summer/fall anthems, especially the way they show once again how the proud frontin’ Kanye coexists with and emerged from the struggling loser. In the “Good Life” he crows about his successes, sure, but the sweetest one is, “And now my grandmama ain’t the only girl callin’ me baby.” His mother and grandmother are all over all his records; that line from “Good Life” immediately reminded me of his tribute to his mother in “Touch the Sky” from “Late Registration.” After music industry bummers, he relates:
“Me and my momma hopped in the U-Haul van.
Any pessimists I ain’t talked to them,
Plus, I ain’t have no phone in my apartment.”
The way he tells his story put Kanye on our list before his mother died this week, but her death did sort of seal the decision. I don’t want to even think about the circumstances, reportedly related to cosmetic surgery procedures. I’d have had higher hopes especially for Kanye’s mother, Dr. Donda West, an English professor at Chicago State University, to be able to avoid that sad trap for women. Maybe her death will remind us we’re all vulnerable to what happens when money teams up with our vanity and enables us to succumb to stupid ideas of what women are “supposed” to look like.
But when thinking about Kanye and his mother I’d prefer to remember their love and respect. It’s always a turn-on when you meet a man who loves and gives props to his mother — and actually, a great indicator that he’s capable of long-term commitment. We’re sorry for Kanye’s loss. He’s a compelling, original human being who’s making it up as he goes along, just like the rest of us, and we admire him for that.
– Joan Walsh
Who: Judd Apatow
Know him as: Producer/writer/director
Judd Apatow is an old-fashioned romantic. He’s also staggeringly raunchy. In other words, he is the very definition of a dream come true. He’s also just plain cute. In photos, he looks stubbly and slightly rumpled, defiantly embraceable.
Two years ago, the creator of the brilliant, so-dead-on-it’s-painful and tragically short-lived TV show “Freaks and Geeks” gave us “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” a two-hour festival of horniness that was also a very modern morality tale of the virtues of virtue. This summer, he topped himself (and the box office) with “Knocked Up,” a story of an unexpected pregnancy that extolled familial responsibility via lighthearted depictions of substance abuse and gynecological indignities.
It takes a certain kind of man to wring humor from the cinematic cliché of sex-starved, underachieving guys. But it takes an altogether smarter, sharper one to make those virgins and stoners so human and likable we’d totally go home with them. Apatow even goes one better — he lets their female counterparts be just as funny and messed up and terrified as they are. Apatow’s always crude but he’s never mean, a striking, tricky combination. His films feature constipation, inconvenient arousal, and barfing. His characters fumble with bra straps and contraception. This is what we’re like, he says, in our most intimate moments. It’s pretty ridiculous. And that’s what makes it — and him — so real, and so appealing.
– Mary Elizabeth Williams
Who: Jacques Pepin
Know him as: Chef and host of PBS’s “Fast Food My Way”
Yeah, yeah, leave it to Salon to prefer a Frenchman to a great American like Rachael Ray. Believe me, I know. But get with the times: It’s 2007, people. Even the congressman who came up with “Freedom Fries” admits it was a stupid idea. Besides, Jacques Pepin could beat the yummers out of Rachael with his whisk hand tied behind his back. And he could do it in 20 minutes. This won’t be a surprise to you if you’ve watched his show on PBS, “Fast Food My Way,” which, if you’re trying to learn to cook, clearly outshines anything Food Network could even hope to do.
That’s what’s sexy about the guy: He’s perhaps the preeminent authority on classic French cooking techniques in the U.S. these days — he was Charles De Gaulle’s personal chef, for God’s sake — with more than enough credibility to become the stereotypical snobby Frog if he wanted to be, and yet he’s on TV showing people how to make dessert out of just berries and a store-bought cookie. And that’s not out of character for him, either; this is, after all, a guy who turned down a chance to be chef in JFK’s Camelot to go work at Howard Johnson’s. (And he’s proud of his work there, too.) But he cooks what he likes, the right way, and he’s good enough to know that he doesn’t need to win Michelin stars or make foams just because he can, as long as he’s making things that taste good. It’s the sexiest trait in a chef.
Also, I’m a sucker for an accent. Come on — you knew it was coming.
– Alex Koppelman
Who: Jeffrey Wright
Know him as: Actor
Jeffrey Wright is a consummate second banana. He has a Tony, a Golden Globe and an Emmy — all for best supporting actor (and all three for the same role: the flamboyant nurse Belize in “Angels in America”). True, he’s shared the bill on Broadway in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” and played the title role in Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat.” But Wright is still better known as the Felix to Daniel Craig’s James Bond and for his ensemble work in films like “The Invasion,” “Syriana,” “Ali” and “The Manchurian Candidate.”
Yet whether he’s sporting a tuxedo in “Casino Royale” or eyeliner in “Angels in America,” whether he’s got second billing or falls considerably lower in the credits, Jeffrey Wright makes every scene he’s in his own. Any actor who can stand by while Al Pacino chews scenery and make you watch him instead, who can turn a simple scene of painting a picture into a balletic physical performance, is an actor who can fascinate through sheer force of his charisma — and a whole lot of straight-up talent.
He’s the actor whose depth and intelligence are no mere performance, the sex symbol with a degree in political science. With his slightly freckly face, deep brown eyes and rich, throaty purr of a voice, Wright never fights for your attention. He just smiles enigmatically and knows you’ll give it anyway.
But while Wright can put a quiet razzle-dazzle into even the most tantalizingly minimal screen time, we prefer when there’s more of him to love. Next year, we get our wish. He’s currently attached to the forthcoming adaptation of “Little Scarlet.” In the potentially breakout role of Walter Mosley’s tough, complicated P.I. Easy Rawlins, Hollywood’s favorite second fiddle may finally become the top dog he truly is.
– Mary Elizabeth Williams
Who: Matt Damon
Know him as: Actor
Turns out Matt Damon is People’s Sexiest Man Alive. I don’t care: I’d still like to be him.
Mainly that’s what it is, why straight men like me perk up at that wide grin, the triangle jaw and schoolboy hair; why online speculation regarding a fourth mission for Jason Bourne gets us more click-happy than the tagline “NSFW”; and why, even when he’s sharing the screen with the chillingly beautiful Franka Potente, not to mention the tepid Julia Stiles, it’s Damon we gawk at in slack-jawed wonder.
The dude, face it, has long been pretty enough to rock People’s cover. Matt-lover’s trivia: Everyone around him — friends Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey and “Ocean” frat mates Brad Pitt and George Clooney — have been SMAs. They kid him that his relentless campaign for the title will one day pay off. This year the smart money was on him, and the smart money won.
But I posit he’s different from previous SMAs. Not that I’ve done any surveys, but I suspect he’s the first who appeals more to men than ladies: While the women I know find Damon bland, for men — well, for me — he represents the movie persona worthiest of emulation. That’s not exactly sexy — he doesn’t conjure the same emotions as Franka Potente — as much as it is irresistible. Irresistible the way Roger Federer and Macgyver and John McClane are irresistible, and also the way Novocain is. If you’re packing a Y-chromosome, to watch Damnon as Bourne — like for instance in the third one, the time he slinks into the intelligence baddie’s office after punking everyone into chasing him elsewhere, a trademark move — is to become absolutely numb with envy. You think, Tell me, is there some place I can sign up to be so straight-up badass?
Associates have suggested the possibility that I’m more entranced by Damon’s characters — specifically Bourne — than I am with the actor himself. But this is a distinction without much difference: To us commoners Damon and Bourne and his other onscreen men aren’t really separate individuals. Each media role feeds into the other, reinforcing the other’s plain awesomeness. So the things I like about Damon — that he’s clearly smart but not preeningly so (as Clooney can be), that in interviews he’s quickly clever and sly, that he appreciates a joke, that he is built — are also the things I like about Bourne.
I’ll cop to this being a little disturbing, that I’ve ascribed traits to an actor — a real person — based on the fictional characters he’s played. I am not usually a celeb cultist, and of course I understand the silliness of thinking that Matt Damon is probably a nice guy because, say, the energy analyst he plays in “Syriana” is stand-up, or that the energy analyst is also probably pretty cunning, too, because Damon’s Ripley, from another movie altogether, was that way. But isn’t this the essence of stardom — that in an actor’s every role we glimpse things we picked up in previous roles, that the actor’s life and his characters become, in the sequential rush of images and stories, a full life to be either acclaimed or deplored?
So maybe it’s the parts he plays or the way he plays them. I’m not fully sure, but either way, Damon’s life comes to us as a thing of perfection — he’s a tough man who isn’t overwhelmed by his physical prowess, whose real strength is his mind, and who, even when isn’t doing nice things, can charm you to bits (see Ripley and also “The Departed’s” Sgt. Colin Sullivan). Hey, what man wouldn’t want to be that guy?
– Farhad Manjoo
Who: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Know him as: Filmmaker
Every time I see an image of Alejandro González Iñárritu I ask myself what such a fine-looking man is doing behind the camera: The suave cineaste’s looks are on par with the Adonis-like actors that he puts on-screen (Gael García Bernal, Benicio del Toro, Brad Pitt). Then I pop one of his films into my DVD player and am reminded why: The man is a master.
Iñárritu’s splintered, temporally scrambled narratives hinge on collisions, both actual and cultural. In 2000, he burst onto the screen with “Amores Perros,” a jarring, bloody romp through Mexico City told through three intersecting plotlines. (Variations of this now-signature structure are employed in his subsequent films.) Applauded by critics at Cannes and nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film, “Amores Perros” immediately established Iñárritu as a formidable talent. With his second, English-language film, “21 Grams” (2003), Iñárritu penetrated the consciousness of mainstream American moviegoers. His most recent picture, “Babel,” earned seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best director. And as if that weren’t cool enough, he gets to knock back drinks with friends and compatriot filmmakers Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Alfonso Cuarón (“Y tu mamá también,” “Children of Men”).
Iñárritu is a man of substance and style. Exhibit A: the scarves that he rocks with Aristide Bruantian panache, even though he lives in L.A. (Actually, what’s with that? Don’t care — I love it. He makes winterizing hot.) His sculptural features, careless hair and Mexican accent make an archetypical sex symbol of Iñárritu but it is his cinematic genius that cements his immortality, for he will live on in film. Iñárritu makes exhilarating art of ugly realities. Watching his films, we are both unsettled and seduced.
– Megan Doll
Name: Billy Parish
Know him as: Clean energy activist
Fighting global warming, hot? It is if you’re Yale dropout Billy Parish, who gave up his shot at an Ivy League degree to devote himself full-time to the cause, running the Energy Action Coalition, a group of some 40 youth organizations working for clean energy. Whether he’s challenging universities to curb their CO2 emissions or fasting to protest Congress’ inaction on global warming, Parish has couch-surfed his way into our hearts. His unshakable idealism and optimism in the face of the biggest threat to the planet today gives even us complacent and cynical oldsters hope.
A newlywed since September, Parish announced his nuptials via e-mail, naturally. “It was, forgive the cliché, the happiest day of my life,” wrote the groom — then he asked recipients to spread the word about Power Shift 2007, the first national youth summit aimed at solving the climate crisis, which was held in early November, and Step It Up 2007, the national day of action on climate change held on Nov. 3, which inspired actions and rallies in all 50 states. (There was no consumeristic frenzy around Parish’s wedding: The groom and his bride, Wahleah Johns, herself an environmental activist with the Black Mesa Water Coalition, requested that well-wishers donate to their respective organizations in lieu of buying them traditional CO2-intensive wedding gifts.)
We (heart) Billy for proving wrong those who scold young people for not being politically active about climate change. By networking the youth movement for clean energy, Parish is not only helping make the YouTube generation’s voice heard offline, he’s speaking up for generations to come, who will suffer the worst impacts of rising sea levels and a warmer world.
Parish even signs his activist e-mails “with love,” as well as this quotation from Martin Luther King: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Love on, Billy!
– Salon staff
Who: Sean Penn
Know him as: Actor/director/activist
Proof of Sean Penn’s sexiness? He can actually pull off — without irony — the single most challenging facial accouterment known to man: the mustache. From Baghdad to Houston, millions of men around the world try to sport the mustache. And let’s face it, for 99.99999 percent of them, it is a swing and a miss. You look like a cop. Or the cowboy in the Village People. Or just an asshole. True, a small, lucky percentage will break even on the deal. Those mustaches are not particularly irritating, I suppose, or in some benign cases, not overly distracting. But precious few men actually look even more sexy with a mustache than without. Burt Reynolds, in his prime, was one of the obvious exceptions. Tom Selleck goes in the break-even category — but only because his mustache has become a permanent facet of the American psyche. If he shaved it off, gravity would probably reverse itself or something. Deep inside my mind there is a furious ongoing debate about Jason Schwartzman’s mustache in “Hotel Chevalier.” But so far it is a hung jury, since I can’t decide about the irony thing. And the fact that Natalie Portman finds it sexy is an obviously complicating factor. Plus, the Schwartzman mustache appears during the 13 coolest minutes ever captured on film, making the whole thing a puzzle inside an enigma.
For most men, so terrifying is the mustache attempt that, only once or twice in a lifetime they will shave their lip last, in the privacy of their bathroom, out of sheer, morbid curiosity. Like wanting to see a dead body. After turning the head this way and that at the freak staring back in the mirror, few of these intrepid explorers will even step away from the sink, open the bathroom door and shock their wives with the horror, horror of it all.
But not only is Sean Penn sexier with a mustache — have you seen the style of mustache that Sean Penn has the massive cojones to walk out the door wearing? I’ve seen Sean Penn in magazines, his twisted mug in that semi-smile/semi-glower, staring lazily at the camera through squinty eyes with a pencil-thin Zorro clinging daintily to the ridge of his upper lip.
Are you kidding me?
Absolutely nobody should be able to do that. It would be like me, a half Jew, tugging on a pair of cowboy boots, perhaps the most fashion-risky footwear to tread the earth since the moccasin.
The smoking thing is a riddle too. To all you kids out there wondering if you look cool with a cigarette, you don’t. Plus it smells. Plus it will kill you.
So why is it, when I see Sean Penn smoking, I want a cigarette? Or to be him? Or his cigarette? Or something. Why why why why why?
– Mark Benjamin
Who: Junot Diaz
Know him as: Author
When even Michiko Kakutani calls someone “irresistible,” you know his appeal is potent. Eleven long years after his riveting first short story collection, “Drown,” appeared, Diaz’s debut novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” arrived this fall to the kind of acclaim that leaves critics scrambling for superlatives.
Diaz writes about race and sex and the most brutal parts of history and the way all these things seep into our experience of life — the kind of stuff that can, in unskilled hands, turn into Hallmark Channel dreck. But what makes Diaz beguiling isn’t just that his story of Oscar, a guy he calls “a big dork in New Jersey,” is so joyous and painful and funny and deeply sincere. It isn’t just that he writes with such a pitch-perfect ear for the idiosyncratic rhythms of his characters’ voices and their limitless mash-up of pop culture obsessions. Or that he doesn’t even italicize his Spanish — that’s how much of a linguistic badass he is.
It’s all that, combined with his wiry, close-cropped good looks, the distinctive Dominican lilt in his voice. It’s the courtly way he thanks his audience at readings, the soft-spokenness in media appearances, the way a guy who can write so astutely, and with such romantic bravado, can appear so humbly oblivious to his own supreme attractiveness.
Diaz writes, “Love is a rare thing, easily confused with a million other things,” with the conviction of a man who knows a rare and “wondrous” thing when he sees it. So do we.
– Mary Elizabeth Williams
Who: Alec Baldwin
Know him as: Actor
The Long Island lilt. The arrogance. The temper. The paunch. The propensity to play louts.
Oh, Alec Baldwin.
He got me most recently with his imitation of chifforobe-busting Tom Robinson from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Baldwin was playing Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock,” and in the midst of an episode about network-whipped television cowards who refuse to take political risks, Baldwin launched into an ear-popping tirade that incorporated every racial and vocal cliché available: from “Sanford and Son” to “Good Times” to Harper Lee’s revered story of racial intolerance.
The scene’s circuitous subversion may have been the product of Fey’s fevered brain, but only Baldwin and his balls of steel could have pulled it off with such damn-the-torpedoes gusto. One of the things that makes Baldwin so appealing in his latest incarnation is the willingness (nay, relish) with which he serves the whims of his new young female boss.
Fey may be the improbable foil of Baldwin’s dreams, but the man has been around for a while. And while it may not be correct, politically or otherwise, to fantasize about Long Island’s brashest, bloviating bear of an actor and short-fused father, I’ve never been able to help it. From his brief turn as Melanie Griffith’s scuzzy rat-bastard boyfriend in “Working Girl” through his current renaissance, Baldwin is one of those damnable men whose sex appeal has increased (see also, James Gandolfini) at the same pace as his age and his girth.
Baldwin has always had the hotness to be a matinee idol of a certain sort — the rough, stubbly, working-class sort — but has repeatedly chosen quirkier, less obviously appealing roles. He played men named “Cucumber” Frank De Marco, Old Man Dunphy … Jimmy Swaggart. He’s been 15 flavors of jerk, 16 shades of bad guy. And through it all, his big bulging brains have shone from underneath his hirsute exterior.
If loving Alec Baldwin is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
– Rebecca Traister
Who: Flight of the Conchords (Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement)
Age: McKenzie: 31; Clement: 33
Know them as: Stars of an eponymous HBO show
A guy with a guitar is hot. A guy with an accent is hot. And a guy who can make us laugh is really, really hot. What, then, could be better than a man who embodies all of the above? Two men who do.
From the moment “New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo” arrived on HBO this summer with their bone-dry brand of humor, Bret McKenzie (the bearded one) and Jemaine Clement (the one with the sideburns) crooned their way into our nerd-chasing hearts. How can you not fall a little in love with men who offer a dirty little toy-piano ditty about getting lewd with food called “If You’re Into It,” or an exuberantly nonsensical Gallic pastiche titled “Foux Da Fa Fa”?
Separately, they’re adorable, but together, they enter a pantheon of witty troubadours that includes Jonathan Richman, They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Coulton — men who are a little bit Bruce, a little bit Groucho, and more than a little appealing. And though we may love Bret for his reedy shyness and Jemaine for his inexplicable overconfidence, what we love best about them is how appealing they are together. Because that’s what we’re into.
– Mary Elizabeth Williams
Who: Strong Bad
Know him as: Cartoon character
“Greetings, party people in the place to be! I am called Strong Bad! … I’ve been described as cool, awesome, hot, video games, the hottest, and real real hot.”
Naming Strong Bad, a character from the cartoon and game site Homestarrunner.com, among the sexiest men living may require a flexible understanding of the word “living” — and, for that matter, a flexible understanding of the word “man.” The animated Adonis is fictional, and though he’s definitely male, we’re not totally sure he’s human. But factor in his gravelly voice, wicked wit and perpetual shirtlessness, and it’s clear that Strong Bad is indeed real, real hot.
Strong Bad’s primary gig at Homestarrunner.com is answering reader e-mail, which he’s been doing since 2001. Readers turn to him for answers to their burning questions, which range from the pedestrian (“I was wondering if you could give me some ideas for my new Web site”) to matters of life and death (“Dear Mr. Bad, How do you know if someone’s butt is stupid? I mean, is there some kind of IQ test?”). Each new Strong Bad e-mail is presented in its own animated video clip; Strong Bad recites each incoming message — exaggerating any errors in punctuation, spelling and grammar along the way — and reads his answer aloud as he types it. For some responses, he moves away from his computer and into the magical world of Strong Badia, where he carouses with the other offbeat inhabitants of the Homestar Runner universe. It’s a pretty simple format, but Strong Bad’s literal yet loopy humor makes it sublime.
Here’s Strong Bad on how to attract ladies: “You’ve got to look as much as possible like the Strong Bad. Take off your shirt, sand off your nipples, and wear tight pants that accentuate all your suppleties.” On what to name your band: “The easiest way is to, you know, just have a really cool last name and use that. You know, like, Van Halen, or Dokken, or to a lesser extent, Z’Nuff.” He also gives great guidance on distinctive fraternity party themes: “I think you guys should throw a ‘FRAT PARTY’ And you could all come in baseball hats from the college that you go to. And khaki pants with a tucked-in T-shirt from the party that you threw last month. And at some point get the guy with kinda long hair to whip out his acoustic guitar and play everybody some white blues.”
Strong Bad is no overperfect Prince Valiant — he’s vengeful and self-congratulatory, and his primary interests are death metal, hair metal and skirt-chasing. He bullies his nemesis, the affable doofus and site namesake Homestar Runner, and his own younger brother, downcast emo-boy Strong Sad. But Strong Bad is also appealingly fallible: Most of his moneymaking and lady-catching schemes backfire, and though he’s been around this great, big Internet of ours a few times, he’s beset with technical problems. His computers age and break, his printers are always running out of ink, and the title tag on the Strong Bad e-mail archive reads “Denny’s Menu.” It’s very relatable.
Plus, he’s handsome — at least, we think he is. His trademark lucha libre mask covers most of his head, but it can’t obscure the manic glow of his neon-green eyes, or the expressiveness of his rectangular mouth. Even Strong Bad’s mask has its own allure — it has mystical forces that can open beer bottles, making it handsome in a Bud Light sort of way.
In the end, description doesn’t really do the guy justice. For the full experience, dust off your Flash player, head over to the Strong Bad e-mail archive and check out all his majesty. Our favorites? The e-mails titled “dragon,” “Trevor the vampire” and “sugarbob.” And “mini-golf.” And “English paper.” And…
– Page Rockwell and Louis Bennett
Who: Anderson Cooper
Know him as: Anchor of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360″
I used to obsessively watch CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” staring slack-jawed at the screen, my cheeks reddening and my heart leaping. Nightly, I would get my panties in a twist, thinking one thing and one thing only: This passes for journalism? So, it wasn’t love at first sight. But, with each goofy, gravitas-shattering laugh, Anderson Cooper has managed to transform my contempt into a full-blown crush.
Post-conversion, it’s possible to see Cooper’s journalistic fumbles in a whole new, libido-tinted light. His choked-up, sputtering interview with Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu after Hurricane Katrina? Endearing! His apple-polishing one-on-one with Angelina Jolie? Cute! Intellectually, you think: He’s just a “Method anchor.” But emotionally, lustfully, you believe in every contemplative, burdened and reflective look that he summons for the camera — the furrowed brow, pursed lips and squinty eyes. You become distracted by the way his gunmetal-gray hair complements his watery baby blues, the perfectly parallel angularity of his nose and chin, and his adorably elfish ears.
Cooper has no shortage of devotees, from both sides of the gender divide. Fan sites abound with the type of digital collages and enthusiastic misspellings befitting a shrine to a pubescent heartthrob. He recently inspired a blogger frenzy by broadcasting from the Cambodian rain forest, wearing a form-fitting black T-shirt — it seems all along he’s been hiding quite a bit of muscle under those studio-appropriate blue button-downs. In the same series he was shown bathing elephants in a lake, his wet T-shirt suctioned to his skin. Bloggers have been on around-the-clock bicep watch ever since.
Perhaps broadcast porn has arrived to fill the void of hard-hitting broadcast news.
– Tracy Clark-Flory
Who: Peter Sarsgaard
Know him as: Actor
Peter Sarsgaard may be best known for playing creepy and disturbed characters, starting with his turn as Brandon Teena’s killer in the harrowing “Boys Don’t Cry,” through to the stricken screenwriter he portrayed in “The Dying Gaul.” But damn, the man has range.
He shared a kiss with Liam Neeson in “Kinsey,” seconds after displaying some rare full-frontal male nudity (in interviews, he’s shrugged at the idea that either of these things should be shocking). The beleaguered New Republic editor he portrayed in the pitch-perfect “Shattered Glass” was a smart, good guy just trying to do his job, and it was both thrilling and heartbreaking to watch him untangle Stephen Glass’ lies. Sarsgaard was sweetly strange as an animal-lover alongside Molly Shannon in “Year of the Dog.” And in “Garden State,” he played a pot-smoking gravedigger still living with his mom in the Jersey suburbs. The role could easily have been a caricature, but Sarsgaard exuded a subtle, sympathetic sexiness that made the grief of Zach Braff’s character seem almost vulgar.
Whether sporting some scruff, a shaved head or shaggy hair, Sarsgaard makes me seriously weak in the knees. That wan smile of his blossoms easily into a goofy grin, and his signature murmur can shift quickly from soothing to menacing. He comes off as familiar, but also mysterious, in performances that are always layered and subtly intense.
Reassuringly, he has excellent taste in women: his fiancé and baby mama is the ravishing Maggie Gyllenhaal. The story goes that when they started dating, Gyllenhaal showed Sarsgaard her movie “Secretary,” in which she was emotionally and physically naked as a woman in an S/M relationship with her boss. Sarsgaard, unfazed, screened for her “The Center of the World,” in which his character has explicit sex with a prostitute. Dreamy!
– Eryn Loeb
Who: Anthony Lane
Know him as: Film critic for the New Yorker
I’ve had what can be called a man-crush on Anthony Lane — a swell of admiration verging on covetousness — ever since reading his review of “Pride and Prejudice,” in which he compared Keira Knightley’s underbite to that of the queen in “Aliens.” I wish I could so eloquently turn pretentiousness into comedy. Later in that same review, Lane narrates the climactic scene between Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy: “Widening her eyes to maximum chocolatey hue, she stares into his, which are of that sea-cold, grayish blue favored by Gestapo officers in war movies … In a last, despairing gesture to Georgian England, they do not kiss. Oddly, however, they do rub noses, like well-bred Eskimos, while the rising sun gleams between the tips.” This passage of ridicule was not written with malice; it is a vivid, accurate description. Like a Robin Hood of good taste, Lane damns his victims by doing them justice. This strategy has been perfected by generations of imperturbable British men, from Oscar Wilde to Winston Churchill. Unlike these forebears, however — who probably developed their sharp wits by evolutionary necessity, in proportion to their ugliness — Anthony Lane is handsome. Dapper. Rakish. Take a bit of Prince William’s haute-boy charm, add Jude Law’s swagger, and multiply by funny. What you get is one sexy movie buff.
– Ben Van Heuvelen
Who: Bryan Ferry
Know him as: Musician
As the day draws nearer when my AARP card will arrive in the mail, I have returned, like Donna Hanover and Andie MacDowell, to the heartthrob of my youth. Thirty years ago, a British fop named Ferry made a man out of me. All other man-crushes since, from John Doe to John Smoltz to Don Cheadle, have been mere drive-bys.
When Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music freed me from the stoned and lumbering boredom of ’70s arena rock, he also delivered me from macho. I had found a new male role model who smirked instead of swaggered, who bragged about redecorating hotel rooms instead of trashing them. He did not own a bong, but he did own a white tuxedo. And gaucho pants. And an eye patch. As soon as I heard Bryan, in his thin, fey croon, name-checking Nijinsky, it was out with the Marlboro hard pack, in with irony, Jerome Kern and hetero camp. Instead of earnest and bedenimed, Ferry was formalist and tongue-in-cheek, a walking, winking essay on pop. He was also a ladies’ man, 6-foot-1, and Turner Classic Movie handsome. I wanted to be him.
I learned early on to forgive Bryan. First I overlooked the saxophone in his band. Then I pretended he had not written an entire concept album about being dumped by Jerry Hall. I grant him absolution for all his weak-minded spawn, be they Duran Duran or the Killers, and for the many sins committed in his name, including every ’80s music video that ever featured a lip-syncing supermodel. And I positively celebrate the nearly motionless shimmer of his own ’80s work, when the obsession with perfect surfaces produced songs burnished to the dead sheen of coffee-table books.
To be honest, Bryan and I lost touch during the past two decades. I spent most of the ’90s immersed in country music, perhaps because of the love of gesture and archetype and songwriting he’d instilled in me; perhaps because, after Bryan, I got bored fast with indie rock’s louche lack of polish. I admit that I don’t know what he’s up to these days, at least artistically. I do know what kind of suits he’s wearing now, and that he’s grown gray at the temples. I’m also aware that he married a model, of course, and that his faux lounge lizard pose hardened into real country squire. One of his kids is a fox-hunting activist — a pro-fox-hunting activist.
But I have returned not to the live Bryan, but to the Bryan I remember, who is again visible, through the gauze of middle-aged nostalgia, on YouTube. When I want to see my Bryan, I put his name in the search box, and then scroll past all the confusing results, the ones that refer to songs I’ve never heard of, meaning anything he recorded after 1985, or that otherwise allege he still has a career. Instead, I click on “Jealous Guy,” from 1981, in which he whistles. I listen to “Oh Yeah,” which is a song named “Oh Yeah” about a fake song named “Oh Yeah” that is the favorite song of a nonexistent couple. It is our song, and Bryan and I are young again.
– Mark Schone
Who: Tony Leung
Know him as: Actor
Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-winning “The Departed,” a remake/rip-off of the nail-biting 2002 Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs,” turned off fans of the original for one unavoidable reason — and it wasn’t Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing. It was the absence of the smoldering Tony Leung in the role of the undercover cop lost in a convoluted game of spy vs. spy. As good as Leo DiCaprio’s Boston honk and flinty rage are in the remake, he just can’t hold a candle to Leung.
But then, of course he can’t. Leung is a professional smolderer; the guy’s a virtual human Duraflame. Throughout the past two decades, in “Hard-Boiled” (1992), “Chungking Express” (1994), “Happy Together” (1997), “In the Mood for Love” (2000), “Hero” (2002) and “2046″ (2004), he’s left only glowing embers in his wake. In this year’s “Lust, Caution,” he added a sadistic streak we’d never seen from him before that caused us to recoil — and still come back for more.
How, exactly, does he do it? We think it’s the way he will occasionally hold our gaze — a beat or two too long, with such haunted, hungry eyes we feel slightly bruised afterward, like we’ve had an actual physical interaction. We sure don’t get that from Tom Cruise’s maniacal, trademarked grin.
Observers are fond of referring to Leung as “Asia’s answer to Clark Gable.” But in film’s new world order, Leung ranks as a much bigger global star than most of the pretty boys in Hollywood’s (or People’s) stable these days. And the fact that his roles are being recast for more middling American tastes doesn’t just make him the poorer for it — we’re the poorer for it, too.
– Salon staff
Who: Javier Marías
Know him as: Novelist
For weeks after my first encounter with Javier Marías I could scarcely speak of anything else. “‘A Heart So White’ is so good that I can’t concentrate,” I confessed to a co-worker. This was no exaggeration; I was smitten.
With his lettered looks and distinguished intellectual pedigree (his father, Julian Marías, was a renowned philosopher), Javier Marías seems an inhabitant of his scented, sophisticated fictive worlds, in which secrets, scandals and spectral narrators lurk in shadowy corridors. Everything, down to his slowly unfolding phrases, which swell with dependent clauses, is permeated with suspense. The moral haziness of his characters, the stylishness of his writing and the sound of footsteps echoing through his narratives lend a noir tone to his work and betray his cinephilic sensibility: In addition to his fiction, Marías has written a collection of articles on film (not yet translated into English), “Donde todo ha sucedido. Al salir del cine.”
Marías’ allure lies in his prodigious talent — he wrote his first novel, “Los dominios del lobo,” at the age of 17 — and his capacious mind. Far from confined to his ivory tower, Marías keeps a hand in the journalist world, penning a weekly column for El País. (His polemic on Spain’s smoking ban, which ran in the New York Times, was persuasive even to this nonsmoker.) And, like so many of his narrators (opera singers, ghostwriters and interpreters whose careers demand that they cede their own voices) Marías works as a translator. The man is so ultra-literary that he hasn’t only read “Tristram Shandy,” he has rendered it into Spanish.
Part of Marías’ cachet comes from the fact that he remains scandalously under-read on this side of the Atlantic — despite a devoted readership in continental Europe and rumors of an imminent Nobel Prize. It has become de rigueur to begin every English-language article on Marías tsking about his relative obscurity in the Anglophone world. This is a shame; Marías is too good to be for the happy few. The quality of a bookstore can — and should — be judged by whether it stocks Marías on its shelves.
I tend to claim that most of the things I love in life — cities, certain countries, entire centuries — were made for me; I, on the other hand, was born to read Javier Marías’ fiction. That is the most romantic relationship between a reader and a writer that I can imagine.
– Megan Doll
Who: Will Arnett
Know him as: Actor
Will Arnett is not the kind of guy I usually go for. He leaves his shirts open one button too low and his hairline is a bit thin. I shrink from his alpha attitude and garish theater voice. He’s too tall. He’s too mannish.
But being hilarious goes a long way, and with him, I wonder what was ever worth laughing at before. I gush to bored acquaintances: “Omigod you’ve never seen ‘Arrested Development’? Dude rides a Segway around a construction site in white pants. And he does this magic, er, illusion show … Come on!” I know his softer side, too — he got all teary-eyed and huggy behind the scenes after shooting the series wrap. Me too, Will, me too.
Lately he’s playing hard-to-get. I might get around to renting “Blades of Glory” one of these days, and I took no note of “Hot Rod” until just now, when I googled “will arnett hot picture” for inspiration. But for now I’m satisfied with inappropriately long DVD sessions watching “Arrested Development,” which unfailingly knock the wind out of me and leave me sighing, with a faraway look in my eyes, “Oh, Will. Oh, God!”
– Christopher Walsh
Who: Britt Daniel
Know him as: Frontman of the band “Spoon”
Britt Daniel writes perfect songs. As the man at the center of the band Spoon, he’s responsible for six albums of fiercely solid material. I rarely apply words like “precise” and “flawless” to music I really love: Isn’t rock best when it’s at least a little messy and dirty? But Spoon’s songs — showcased most recently on this summer’s record “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” — really are those things, without being careful, safe or clean. They’re the results of very smart songwriting, tracks with which it’s nearly impossible to find fault.
Daniel’s throaty, clever reflections take command on songs about cheerful resignation (“That’s the Way We Get By”), a man with a secret (“The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine”), and a fitted shirt (the appropriately titled “Fitted Shirt”). There are, of course, also plenty about girls. All will lodge themselves happily in your head. In 2006, Daniel co-composed the score for the movie “Stranger Than Fiction.” His adaptations of several Spoon tunes proved a natural soundtrack for Will Ferrell’s semi-literary misadventures. The band’s star continues to rise. In October they performed on “Saturday Night Live,” and played their biggest headlining show yet, at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom.
Onstage that night, Daniel played tirelessly, wearing a nice white button-down shirt. He raked his fingers through his sweaty hair, turning it into a spiky, rock-star version of bed head. The minor dishevelment was adorable, and exemplary: Despite the band’s clean clothes, Spoon plays the kind of music that practically demands that you go off and do something that’ll get your hair all mussed. The band was so tight and thrilling it made me want to kick the other 3,000 people out of the venue, pull on a prom dress and dance in my socks on the wood floor.
Oh, and Daniel’s quite the hottie. As the face of music this excellent, his rather striking good looks are almost suspicious. But why complain? At least the music matches the man.
– Eryn Loeb
Who: Omar Vizquel
Know him as: Baseball player
Sexy is an athlete who performs with joy and grace and invisible confidence. You laugh when you watch him in action because his every move is choreographed with a sly intelligence that announces his superiority; he hovers above other players. I hesitate to call Omar Vizquel an athlete because that somehow reduces the man on the field to a set of coarse physical skills that don’t account for the elegance with which the masterful shortstop glides into the hole to field a searing grounder, leap and throw in a single fluid move. Sports are too serious, like the military, and so how wonderful it is to watch a 40-year-old man whose litheness and good humor veritably light up the game and allow it to sparkle. A dark cloud has often emanated from left field in San Francisco, from so much of commercialized baseball, but it has never passed over Vizquel, who always trots off the field at the end of an inning with a huge smile, one that betrays even his own surprise at how exhilarating his game, his life, can be. And, really, how sexy is that?
– Kevin Berger