Fan Letter: Keanu Reeves
In the second of a regular series of star tributes, Polly Frost tries to stop her knees from trembling as she wrestles with the phenomenon of Keanu Reeves
"Young, dumb and full of come"- that's how Keanu Reeves' character is described in Point Break. And that's how Reeves himself comes across on screen. He's a young sex object, a hot number bursting with more testosterone than he knows what to do with.
This is not a fresh archetype, of course, but there's something new about Reeve's version of it. We're used to seeing stars like Errol Flynn, aggressive men of action who take off on adventures. We're used to seeing men lke Montgomery Clift and James Deam, meltingly (and narcissistically) offering up their sensitivity to the camera. There are the chesty, muscly young method heartthrobs, and there are nonthreatening puppydogs, like Johnny Depp.
Good looks have always been a different kind of problem for men to deal with on-screen than they are for women. Cary Grant made the accident of his great looks into high comedy. Men who are handsome often look as though they feel silly about it, no matter how effectively they market it. I can't be the only woman who, watching a good-looking man on screen has thought, Stay still (or: quit acting) and let me run my eyes over you.
Keanu Reeves does let me run my eyes over him. Although we're in a period when women resent being used as sex objects on screen, Reeves plays one bimbo after another. Tim Robbins offered his maleness up in a similar way in Bull Durham, but since then he has taken to shaping his roles in politcal ways; by now, it's as though he's doing penance for his gender.
Keanu Reeves seems to grow ever more honest as a sex object. There's no apparent Method technique to discount in order to get to the sexiness, as there is with even a good method actor such as Aidan Quinn. Reeves doesn't seem to rely on any tricks; there's nothing in the way of your pleasure. He's moody, but the moodiness isn't passive; it's the moodiness of adolescent hormones, even if he is 28. You can find him beautiful and sexy, and he just stands there and lets you find him that.
Reeves was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a British mother and a Chinese-Hawaiian father, the latter evidently the source of some of his Polynesian-like exoticism. At 17 he left his home in Toronto to be an actor in Hollywood. In some of his early films he does the bizarre characters that were essential to being a young actor in the Eighties. In River's Edge and Prince of Pennsylvania, both of them searching, class-conscious dramas that weighed down their actors, Reeves doesn't do weirdness in the hip way his colleagues generally did. Instead, he lets his odd beauty contrast with his sincerity.
In Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure he plays a suburban California kid who's given the gift of time-travel and who returns from his trips with great figures from the past. The film's unpushy pop happiness -in fact, wouldn't Freud and Socrates rather live in a Southern California town where they could visit the mall? - seems to have set his spirit free. His character is similar to Sean Penn's in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but Reeves doesn't slap 'bad taste' labels on. He's the embodiment of California; his arms and legs move as though they have no connection to each other - he's centreless. His natural physical gifts are like the Southern California landscape; buried under the bright mall clothes. His hair falls in his face; some actors would make this a ridiculous expression of their character. Reeves moves in to his haircut so fully that it seems like a valid art form by the end of the movie.
In Dangerous Liasions, as one of Glenn Close and John Malkovich's playthings, he's impassioned and naive. He brings the innocence and anger that's bound up with youthful sexual confusion. In My Own Private Idaho he plays a privileged kid who takes his desirability for granted. The film is a Portland, Oregon-set variation on Henry IV. It doesn't work as a conceit, but Reeves has genuine audacity. Critics praised River Phoenix in the film. Phoenix gives a thematically consistent performance - I suspect that reviewers liked him because he spelled out his character. Reeves gives a subtler and more original performance; it's his right to do with Shakespeare what he wants. The film-maker Gus Van Sant use him in a Bruce Webber-like way, photographing Reeves as the kind of beauty that need to be destroyed a little so you can bear it.
Reeve's character in Point Break, Katherine Bigelow's testosterone fantasia, is young, but smart and tough. He's an FBI man who goes undercover to ferret out some bank robbers. (He doesn't signal, the way Tom Cruise would, that he's going to show you what he's really made of.) Bigelow includes all the standard male bonding scenes. While she ribs the way guys need to see themselves in pop-mythic terms, she clearly gets off on the way in which they need to prove themselves. She's as free of ideology in her use of the camera as Reeves is in being an object for her.
The press hasn't know what to make of Reeves. One interviewer dwelled on his lack of education, reporting that Reeves was making his way through Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann, and quoting his comment about Doctor Faustus: "I'm like, 'Wow, fuck.' " I'd discuss literature with Reeves any day. In the view of most critics, he's simply not an actor. One reviewer of Bram Stoker's Dracula wrote that Reeve's line deliveries sounded like they came from a kid who'd prefer to be on a skateboard than in a period film. In fact, it isn't easy to strip away your defenses as a performer - to let your audience find pleasure in you. It's less risky to cover up with pleas to be taken seriously.
Reeves is likedly to get some derisive comments for Much Ado About Nothing, just released in America. It's true that he doesn't really know how to give a classical line reading, but he's very effective visually as Denzel Washington's bastard brother. With his shining chest bared, little black goatee, and complete lack of false modesty about his looks, Reeves makes a convincing, sexy Satan. There's only so much acting you can absorb, anyway; Reeves' muscles are a nice respite. If Keanu Reeves remains gorgeous, it'll be enough to keep me going to his films.
The Modern Review is a London publication devoted to pop culture ("Low Culture for High Brows").