It's two and a half hours into the latest Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, and I am as captivated as I was at minute one. I'm watching Andrew Garfield -- playing the role of aimless, troubled thirty-something Biff Loman -- steal a show that was supposed to belong to Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. He's crying -- or, at least, it sure as hell seems like he is from my vantage point in the rear mezzanine at the Barrymore Theater. The place is deathly quiet. The tension is palpable. We're all keenly aware that we're watching something very special.
Garfield hits his knees and throws himself into Hoffman's arms. Hoffman embraces him. Garfield's bawling uncontrollably. Hoffman's Willy Loman is shaken. He's, seemingly, as rapt as the rest of the audience by Garfield's mesmerizing performance.
At this moment, I arrived at the conclusion that Andrew Garfield is an even bigger star than I first thought. One doesn't need to channel Nostradamus to make such a prediction. Those who saw his turn as jilted Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network knew instantly that he was ticketed for the big-time. Hollywood has given Garfield its blessing, as he's going to star in the highly anticipated The Amazing Spider-Man this July -- a movie that's both sure to be a hit, and become a franchise.
But the one thought that occurred to me, as I arrived at the conclusion that Andrew Garfield is going to be our next big movie star, is that, surely, my grandfather wouldn't have approved.
Going back two generations, male movie stars were titans. Bogart, Brando, Cooper, Dean, Gable, Grant, Wayne -- just to name a few. These were men. They had their moments of vulnerability, for sure. James Dean crying out "I got the bullets" in Rebel Without a Cause, for instance. Or Brando's lament that he "coulda been a contender," in On the Waterfront. But those moments were earned. The men of this generation were, by and large, tough guys (at least emotionally speaking) who had moments of weakness that they would only let those closest to them, if anyone, see.
Andrew Garfield, conversely, wears his vulnerability on his sleeve. It is his defining trait. He dominates the screen by making himself smaller, not bigger. Granted, Garfield has that moment in The Social Network where he completely owns Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker. Saverin, perhaps acting on the desires of every musician whose music was fleeced by Napster, threatens to punch Parker -- who meekly scurries away. Had the fight actually gone down, I suspect it would've been less like Hagler-Hearns, and more like Alonzo Mourning-Larry Johnson. But even after that tough-guy moment, Saverin says, "I like standing next to you, Sean. It makes me look so tough." This, of course, is an acknowledgment that he isn't tough -- an admission that the Gary Coopers and John Waynes wouldn't have made if they were standing in front of a firing squad.
The shift began during the last generation. Yes, you had guys like Pacino and de Niro, playing ruthless gangsters, tough cops, and the like. But you also had guys like John Cazale, playing weak, frail characters like Fredo Corleone. And you had guys like Pacino speak glowingly about Cazale, talking admiringly about Cazale's ability to make himself so frail and emotionally vulnerable on camera. ''He was the most giving actor I've ever worked with," Pacino is quoted as saying in Entertainment Weekly. "The most involved and sensitive. All I wanted to do was work with John."
There's no way to know how big a star John Cazale would've been had he not died prematurely, and appeared in more than five movies -- all of which were Best Picture nominees -- in his career. But my guess is that there was a ceiling to Cazale's stardom. He was overlooked by the Academy for his work as Fredo in The Godfather: Parts I and II. In each, three of his co-stars received Best Supporting Actor nominations.
A generation later, John Cazale comes to us in the form of Andrew Garfield, and America is now ready for him. Obviously, Garfield has the advantage of looking like, well, Andrew Garfield and not John Cazale. But that will only account for part of his success. Garfield's ability to give himself over to us emotionally will account for the rest.
Stephen King, in his brilliant memoir/writing manual On Writing, wrote that his generation "had a chance to change the world, but opted for the Home Shopping Network instead." Well, we are the generation that was parented by these Home Shopping Network watching droids. We were coddled. We were given everything we wanted. We were told that we were special. We got trophies even if our car finished in 14th place in the Pinewood Derby. We got smiley faces drawn on academic tests on which we scored well. When we scored poorly, we were consoled, and told we'd surely do better next time. When we played sports -- which was rare, as we wiled away hours by the bushel playing video games, which gave us the impression that we were supposed to be in control of the universe -- we were steered away from full-contact sports like football, and towards much softer sports like futbol. I can count on one hand the number of schoolyard fights I witnessed growing up.
As a result, we (and I'm focusing on men here, as women shouldn't ever be asked to apologize for the fact that they are emotional beings) are weak. We weren't drafted to defend our country in military combat. Our defining "rock" band is Coldplay. We're allowed to cry during movies. We are, in increasingly larger numbers, gravitating towards companions who are older than us -- a sign that we are comfortable with, and perhaps even seek out, relationships in which we cede power. We expect to be handed high-paying jobs immediately upon leaving school without first paying dues -- recession be damned -- in the same way that we were handed 14th-place Pinewood Derby trophies. (My naïve 8-year-old self somehow thought that cutting the car down to the size of a Matchbox would get the damned thing to travel at Earnhardt speed. Clearly not over this.)
This is not written out of contempt. I'm not looking to assign blame here -- that's our parents' thing. (And you can thank them for the countless portrayals of psychotherapy that we're now subjected to on screen. Please spare us, Hollywood. Your relationship with your shrink is neither interesting, nor profound.) Rather, the contrary. I'm happy with how I turned out. I'm secure in who I am. I'm man enough to admit I like Coldplay. I've cried during movies. (Awakenings comes immediately to mind.) I think it's cool that some twenty-something dude just got Jennifer Lopez to buy him a truck. And though I'd fight for my country in a second if called, I'm incredibly grateful that call hasn't yet come.
I have no shame admitting I'll be the first one in line to watch Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man. Undoubtedly, the lad will tap into a more vulnerable, softer side of Peter Parker. I'm okay with this, even if the Greatest Generation isn't.