Much Ado About Keanu
He is half-Hawaiian, half-Chinese, born in Beirut, with a name that means "cool breeze over the mountains". His favourite role is that of a questioning innocent. Angela Holden ponders the exceptional appeal of the Nineties' most lusted after young star
AT THE STYLE magazine where I work, there is always some weary, harried staff member on the phone fielding The Conversation. It goes like this. Harried staff member: "No, I am sorry we do not have Keanu Reeves's home phone number. Even if we did have it we couldn't give it to you. Yes, yes, I understand you just want to call him up and tell him how you feel about him, but really, honestly, we do not have his number." Soothingly, now: "Yes, of course, I'll send you that picture of him we had in the magazine, yes, yes, I know, the one where he's naked. Just please, please don't ask me for his number again..."
We do not get calls like this about Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gigg or Damon from Blur. Nor do any of these lust objects have a college course devoted to them (Pasadena Art College's The Films of Keanu Reeves), or a dance named after them by a lovestruck gay group (Canada's The Lavender Panthers), or a Bafta acceptance speech name check from Emma Thompson, who thanked her Much Ado About Nothing co-star very effusively indeed "for getting undressed in front of me".
Reeves, a 30-year-old half-Hawaiian, half-Chinese movie star, is undoubtedly the most lusted-after young male in the world right now. His latest film Speed (in which he stars as a well-toned Nineties action hero) has already made more than $ 120 million at the US box office. This month in Britain he will appear on around six magazine covers. So broad is the man's sex appeal that his photograph can simultaneously and unjarringly grace the super-exclusive pages of fashion shrine American Vogue, a weighty piece reconstructing him in the gay glossy, Attitude, and a neon-green Just 17 key-ring (which my 26-year-old friend uses with absolutely no sense of irony or shame).
Why is Keanu Reeves so sexy? To Hollywood marketing types he is, of course, a zeitgeist wet dream. He is fashionably ethnic-looking (but not too ethnic-looking), his name means "cool breeze over the mountains", and his global meltdown heritage - born in Beirut, Hawaiian-Chinese father, grew up in Canada, now lives a gypsy existence in hotels - gives him a kind of Buddhist-bohemian meets Benetton ad appeal. His friendship with the late River Phoenix confers added status. Plus he has this really cool scar that runs the length of his torso from, yes, a motorbike smash.
But all this is beside the point. The point is that Reeves appeals to young women in a shockingly intense, scarily gut flipping way. There is, of course, the fact that he is a total babe whether dripping in a wetsuit in Point Break or starved, sinewy and wearing fake tan and Liz Taylor eye make-up in Bertolucci's Little Buddha. But his beauty is only the half of it.
IT IS the qualities he exudes on screen that make him so inviting. Cynicism, resentment, tight-lipped bitterness, boiling macho anger - all deeply unfashionable, unwelcome, unmodern character traits (time for an image rethink, Bruce Willis?) - are totally absent from Reeves's screen personae. Instead, he most often plays a questioning innocent; he has an impossibly appealing openness. Key Keanu qualities are: wondering, eager, curious and uncertain.
Even at his worst and, let's face it, Reeves is not renowned for his great technical performances, he projects a slight oddness. He is sometimes not quite there in a really sexy way like a really cute boy drifting down gently from a totally wrecked night before.
For young women in their mid-teens to mid-30s in the middle of the Nineties, all this makes him not so much an image enhanced celebrity as a fellow soul-surfer. Though Reeves's asking price is now $ 7 million a movie, he doesn't seem like a film star. He seems like a gorgeous, befuddled guy with an E-hangover who has just had his cashpoint card swallowed.
Then there is his curious hyper-modern unisex quality. Reeves is, well, evolved. In interviews he talks with an open-spirited, complex positivity that could easily come from either gender. Women don't just want him - they think they could be him.
Several years ago when he was still a virtual unknown to people outside his age group, we put Reeves on our magazine's cover. He was sopping wet, had his hair stuck to his face and was crawling, for some reason, out of a swamp. Cue lots of excited letters. A 19-year-old woman wrote: "Keanu inspires me - I feel could step into his soul, just slide in." This is not the kind of thing one feels about Robbie from Take That.
Reeves has spent his 20-odd films flinging himself from genre to genre for the sheer ecstasy of the experience, while shrewdly preserving a movie star unknowability - when did you last see him out at a dodgy party with Amanda de Cadenet or sliming round supermodels at the Versace show?
Still, not everybody gets him. Charlie Sheen (recent contributions to film culture: The Three Musketeers and Hot Shots Part Deux) whined about Keanu to American film magazine Movieline: "Emilio and I sit around and just scratch our f...ing heads, thinking, How did this guy get in? I mean, what the f...? How does Keanu work with Coppola and Bertolucci and I don't get a shot at that?"
Figure it out, Charlie, honey, or pretty soon you'll be starring in Hot shots Part Dix.