20th century boy

It's Ewan McGregor's old-time Hollywood charm that's making him a big-time Hollywood star.

Published May 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There's something profoundly fitting, if twisted, about the fact that an
actor who first came to the world's attention playing an alarmingly vital
junkie has named Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant as the
performers he revered as he was growing up. When we first see Ewan McGregor
as Mark Renton in "Trainspotting,"
he's running for his life down a city street, pursued by someone we can't see.
The pursuer is beside the point. Renton, wiry and whippet thin, seems motivated less by a determination to
escape, or even by fear, than by the innate drive you see in a greyhound at
the track: a simple need to run. His rubbery physicality is the first thing
that gets you. There's no elegance in the way he moves -- he's in too much
of a hurry for that. He's less like a thoroughbred than a gangly boy
hellbent on reaching the finish line. And when he does (he smacks into a
car hood), he looks straight into the camera with a bawdy, demented grin.
There's no trace of Gable, Stewart or Grant in this punk -- no sophistication,
no apparent subtlety, no suave charm nor aw-shucks congeniality.

But the more we see of Renton, the more obvious it becomes that McGregor
has plenty in common with his American idols, and less with, say, the later
generation of actors -- Brando, Dean, De Niro -- who might be more easily
connected with Renton's streetwise demeanor, his seemingly completely
modern edginess. As Renton -- and in almost any of the roles he's played
since then, from Iggy Pop-style rock star Curt Wild in "Velvet
to the simple-minded bird-keeper, Billy, in "Little Voice" to the hapless kidnapper Robert in "A Life Less Ordinary" -- McGregor shows an
astonishing subtlety, an almost disconcerting inner gravity, that owes more
to old Hollywood than to its more recent past. In "Trainspotting" in
particular, he is, quite simply, a joy to watch -- in the way consternation
crosses his face as gently as a cloud drifting across the landscape, or the
way his features soften and open up, like time-lapse photography of flowers
unfolding, when he takes a hit. You see some fragility in the way McGregor
carries his round-shouldered, lanky frame (he dieted down to 140 pounds for
the role), but the resolute bounce in his gait also betrays an almost
shockingly buoyant confidence. There's a visceral quality to his charm
that's both timeless and completely modern: He conjures average-guy
sweetness without shambling. He transmits a crackling erotic charge, though
he's too much of a goofball to really smolder. The intelligence in his eyes
is always readable, and his comic timing shows the agility of an acrobat.

But all that said, McGregor is also maddeningly elusive. I've adored every
single one of the performances I've seen, and I've watched him closely, but
I find myself dumbstruck in trying to get a handle on him. For that reason
alone, it makes sense that McGregor should play the sapling Obi-Wan Kenobi
in George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequel, "The Phantom Menace." McGregor and
Alec Guinness (who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original "Star Wars") are
completely disparate actors -- Guinness has always traded heavily on
understatement, and always makes a graceful bow to formality; McGregor, far
more casual, just seems to wing it, with stellar results. There's a
prevailing notion that McGregor generally plays high-strung, vaguely
scruffy vulnerable guys, but even the performances that fit that
description in the most basic way are all radically different. Guinness is
the kind of actor whose looks are hard to pin down -- it always seems as if
he could be anyone. McGregor has star quality in spades, but he's
always able to slip that quietly into a role, to flesh out all its dimensions without shouting,
stretching or wriggling.

There's also something admirable about McGregor's choice of roles: "Phantom
Menace" is the first project he's done that could conceivably make him a
star in the big-time Hollywood sense. He's done some 15 movies in five
years, generally working with lesser-known directors (prior to
"Trainspotting," he'd appeared in Danny Boyle's earlier feature "Shallow
Grave") or doing small-budget pictures like Mark Herman's "Brassed Off"
and Peter Greenaway's "The Pillow Book." His guest appearance on "ER," as
the robber of a convenience store who gradually reveals so much
vulnerability and inner turmoil that it takes you apart, was so staggering
that it busted the seams of a television show that more often than not
trades on manufactured drama. And in March McGregor ended a run onstage in London
as Scrawdyke in David Halliwell's 1964 play, "Little Malcolm and His
Struggle Against the Eunuchs," directed by McGregor's uncle, Denis Lawson -- who had a small role in the original "Star Wars," and whom McGregor has
cited as being influential in his career choice. The play, about student
revolutionaries who come to see the phoniness of their enterprise, starts
out fully aware of (and able to laugh at) the naiveté of well-intentioned
young people and ends up a tiresome screed. But in the performance I saw, at
the end of the play's run, McGregor was flawless. Even in the laggard
second half, his timing kept the action going like clockwork, and he
managed to make even the play's most obvious message-board diatribes about
the dangers of haphazard radicalism sound as if they were being spoken by a
real person -- no small feat. What's more, it was clear that he did "Little
Malcolm" simply because he wanted to, not because it was a good career
move. "I did the show because I wanted to remember what it's like being
totally frightened again," he told GQ. "The fear of being crap is always
what makes you good."

If McGregor ever feels any fear, it never shows. In "Little Voice," he's
saddled with a dreadful role of male wallflower -- he's a pigeon keeper
who falls for the movie's main character, LV (the magnificent Jane
Horrocks), a withdrawn young girl with the uncanny ability to mimic
go-for-broke singers like Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey -- but he elevates
it without even trying. When he kisses one of his beloved birds on the
head, or looks at LV with lovestruck wonder, his boyish innocence is
miraculously easy and unforced; he hangs back just enough to make the
performance work, whereas lesser actors would turn the tap on full blast.
And he's the emotional anchor at the center of the feverish, messy and
oddly wonderful "A Life Less Ordinary." He and his cohort Celine (Cameron
Diaz) pause to kiss in the parking lot of a bank, just after they've robbed
it. He happens to glance toward the back seat of their getaway car and
suddenly has a premonition of her slumped down there, her stomach a bloody
hole. He turns back to look at the real Celine, standing in one piece
before him, and looks at her quizzically, forlornly: The wind has been
knocked out of him by the prospect, glimpsed only in a brief hallucination,
of losing her so soon after he's found her. It's a mystically lovely
moment, one that encapsulates in a fragile bubble the sensation of suddenly
realizing that you can't live without someone.

In Todd Haynes' clumsy but well-intentioned "Velvet Goldmine," McGregor
plays the quintessential bad-boy rock star, only badder. Onstage, scrawny,
shirtless and raw, he's the picture of voraciously omnisexual masculinity
-- like Mick Jagger with balls instead of nuts. His Curt Wild is a naked
ape who comes wrapped only in his own mythology. He grew up in a trailer
park, had some vaguely defined relationship with a pack of wolves and was
forced to undergo shock treatments as a kid ("to fry the fairy right out of
him," according to one character). What's wonderful about the performance
is the way McGregor balances the feral sexual menace of his character with
a carefully veiled yet undeniable crushability. When Wild kisses Arthur
(played by Christian Bale), it's his sexuality -- not necessarily
his homosexuality -- that shines through. It's not that the homoerotic
quality of his scenes is in any way denied or downplayed; it's just that
McGregor is so believable as a lover, so free of awkwardness or
shyness, that his character doesn't seem to be wearing any kind of a
gay/straight/other ID label -- he's a sensual human being, plain and
simple, a quality that's shockingly elusive in portrayals of gay, lesbian
and straight characters in the movies these days.

Strangely enough, maybe it's that sensual freedom that puts McGregor
squarely in league with old-time Hollywood leading men. Movies are so
different now. Comparatively, they're more open about sex and love and
longing -- but they're not necessarily more honest. It's actors like
McGregor who can keep them honest, who can be purely sexual in the
way they speak and move, even as they clearly have no interest in the
game-playing of machismo. Like his forebears, McGregor understands that
sometimes the most deeply sensual gestures are the seemingly small ones,
like the shy flicker of an eye or the tenderness in a smile. McGregor isn't
a leading man in the old-fashioned sense -- he's far too visceral for that
-- but even his rawest performances show a kind of delicacy. If the best
acting is really just another kind of singing, a way of connecting with an
audience in a way that's verbal on the surface but infinitely more
complicated below it, then McGregor is both a rock star and a crooner,
often at the same time -- and he knows how senseless it would be to even
try to choose between the two.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

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