Each generation has its classical movie stars, its public figures who please the populace while maintaining an impenetrable allure. Matt Bomer might be just such a star. At a recent screening of Magic Mike in downtown Manhattan, Bomer's every appearance occasioned the kinds of sighs that audiences used to reserve for Cary Grant. I can't think of a contemporary romantic actor who has inspired this sort of swooning. Audiences seem to breathe in league with Bomer, seem to relax even amid an awareness of his extreme erotic appeal. He offers a sexy serenity. Grace Kelly had that quality. So did Audrey Hepburn. Grant may have been the only other male actor who shared it, and he certainly faced a lifetime of social suspicion, leaving behind a legacy of questions centered on his sexuality. Was he or wasn't he?
With Matt Bomer, such questions are moot, because the man himself has already answered them, and in his own simple, superlative way. We know that he's gay. And our knowledge, rather than rendering him a joke, or an Oprah-ready over-sharer, suggests a warm, even relieved acceptance. After all, we need no longer gossip about the man. He seems to have made peace with our shifting cultural concerns and transcended them, turning up in Magic Mike as if to remind us of the existence of utter, unselfconscious elegance.
In Bomer's quiet integrity we see not the creation of a new kind of idol but the resuscitation of an old standard of stardom. Simply put, Matt Bomer is the only contemporary male actor whose still-nascent screen presence is in perfect harmony with his superior style of public self-exposure. His quiet classiness in one arena informs his locution in the other, for he is a male sex symbol whose physical perfection seems almost incidental, a function of spiritual grace rather than vice versa. Usually monstrously, self-pityingly envious of the resplendent gay men who pass me on New York City streets, I find myself relaxing in Bomer's presence, appreciating his qualities without once considering my own, far lesser ones.
Is Bomer, in spite of his prettiness and facility with a suit, a unique gay male star? In the striptease sequences of Magic Mike, he doesn't bump and grind in the glorious, show-stopping Cheyenne Jackson manner, or tap his toes to the template of Tony host Neil Patrick Harris. He's physically splendid but a bit awkward, too slow for an Equinox-inflected Broadway show or a maniacally athletic Pride routine. He's like the self-amused Grant of Charade or To Catch a Thief, finding himself in an improbable situation and reacting with childlike delight. His guilelessness is a pleasant surprise.
Like Grant, Bomer can rediscover some boyish qualities while bolstering his suavity. Stripping to booming music in Magic Mike, Bomer's mouth is closed in a satisfied half-smile. Shielding his teeth is, in fact, central to his appeal, as it was to Grant's. Neither man's screen image needs the broad, blinding smile of the young Matt Damon, which always seemed designed to intimidate. The dashingly pursed lips that Grant and Bomer share, which expand ever so slightly and oh-so-mischievously to suggest both seduction and self-containment, are prizeworthy.
Having followed press references to Bomer and to the alleged new era of openness that he represents, I went to Magic Mike expecting more than a few giggles from the gays in the audience. Whatever its potential sources, from sheer cynicism to a shameful, internalized homophobia, my expectation of Bomer-directed derision was quickly rendered ridiculous. No one heckled when Bomer's character referred to his wife, or sneered when he gave a woman a lap dance. I'm not suggesting that Bomer is butch enough to "pass" as straight. I'm saying that his presence transcends such distinctions. He might even be the post-gay Grant, or a male Garbo -- a performer who's immune to the pressures of identity politics.
That Magic Mike is partly an homage to an earlier era of moviemaking is signaled by its pre-credit use of an old Warner Bros. logo. We know, going in, that the film's director, Steven Soderbergh, is going to subject us to some retro aesthetics. I'm currently teaching an advanced seminar on the films of Robert Altman, and my students, who saw Magic Mike a few weeks before I did, hastened to tell me that they'd noticed Soderbergh's adoption of Altman's signature soundscapes and shooting styles, his overlapping dialogue, deep-focus photography, and pan-and-zoom pyrotechnics. What they didn't mention, and what made me purr, is Matt Bomer's momentary resemblance to the Julie Christie of Altman's classic Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In that film, Christie plays a sex worker whose drug of choice is a downer, and, in one glorious shot, she can be seen slumped in bed while Warren Beatty, as the inept businessman who's unabashedly in love with her, stares down at her otherworldly eyes, their ice-blue irises anticipating Bomer's own.
One of the more outré moments in Magic Mike involves the predictable post-success bacchanal at which several key characters consume all manner of mind-expanding drugs, declaring their love for the lurid life they're collectively leading. If opium gives Christie's McCabe character both a newfound serenity and a devastatingly sexy glow, then whatever substances Bomer's stripper manages to ingest make him seem simultaneously alien and accessible. Recalling Christie, he's lying in bed, looking up at an outsider (played by Alex Pettyfer) whose innocence is either galling or touching, depending upon your opinions about unintelligent male ingenues. Bomer tells Pettyfer to touch his wife, to appreciate her nakedness. I doubt that there's another male actor in Hollywood who could play this scene without seeming remotely chauvinistic. And when the sequence culminates with Bomer saying "I love you" to his young male co-star, the utterance doesn't suggest salaciousness, and it didn't elicit so much as a tiny titter from the male moviegoers who surrounded me, and who in all their ribaldry had been hooting at Joe Manganiello's penis pump.
For the past decade, critics have been describing George Clooney as not simply the second coming of Cary Grant but as "the last movie star." On the evidence of Magic Mike, Matt Bomer might be ready to surpass him.