A NOT-TOO-DEEP HUNK FINDS WAY TO BIG TIME
by Robert M. Eaves, London Observer
It's rather refreshing to come across Keanu Reeves, a famous actor who doesn't seem to voice an opinion about anything.
In his summer blockbuster, "Speed,'' Reeves saves damsels and cities in distress. He plays Jack Traven, a police officer who has to rescue passengers from a speeding bus that will blow up if it drops below 50 mph. The film has been a phenomenal success at the box-office grossing $200 million so far in the United States alone and Reeves is in every scene.
The film's success has made Reeves the cinema's latest superstar. With his fame, he says, has come a hope of avoiding a burgeoning ego.
At least that's what he could mean when he says: "I don't want to live a stupid life. I'm going to. I know I'm doomed. I'm just a dog. But I'm trying to shake the dog, you know?''
There's no reason why an actor who is good at speaking other people's lines should necssarily be good at coming up with striking ones of his own. And the saving grace of Keanu Reeves, who once described himself as "just a bourgeois white boy from Toronto,'' is that he has never tried to be deep, beyond saying that he thinks that Buddhism is "pretty neat, really.''
His conversation is either moodily monosyllabic or California-convoluted "Control the ego? I don't know. I guess it depends on what aspect of the ego you're talking about. OK, if the ego puts forth desire for the ego . . .''
Even making allowance for the way they talk in Los Angeles, this is pretty weird stuff. At school, Reeves was known as "The Wall,'' either for his defensive skills at hockey or his conversational ability.
He is a pretty face that is just a pretty face. Three years ago, when he was 27, Reeves was named as one of America's "10 Sexiest Bachelors.'' In Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado About Nothing'' he played the bastard Don John, reciting his lines in a stilted pseudo-English accent. In "Dangerous Liaisons,'' he played young Chevalier Danceny, reciting his lines in a stilted American accent.
Reeves began his acting career playing Mercutio in a Toronto production of "Romeo and Juliet''; with his leonine grace and brooding looks - even his eyebrows seem to brood - he would have been better playing Tybalt, for he fits Shakespeare's haunting description, "You're the prince of cats, I can tell.''
Mere mention of Reeves's name in the newsroom this weekend brought a surprisingly large number of Pavlovian groans of lust from the politically correct, emancipated female staff on the newspaper. It was not his opinions that elicited this response, it was his body and his looks. It was remakable how many women had detailed knowledge of the long scar on his torso, the result of a near-fatal crash on one of his beloved motorbikes seven years ago.
They are looks that a female journalist on another newspaper who once had dinner with him summed up as "the most attractive man I'd ever seen in my life. Long, dark, dirty hair, great smile, chiseled jaw. Completely sexy. A babe.''
It is significant, though, that as the dinner progressed, her initial feelings changed somewhat and she ended up describing him as a bimbo and noting that the most attractive man she had ever seen was "pigeon-toed.''
But her initial, non-intellectual, gut reaction is shared by the British actress Emma Thompson, a co-star in "Much Ado,'' who publicly thanked him for getting undressed in front of her.
No one seems to hold it against Reeves that his first name translates as "cool breeze over the mountains.'' He was born in 1964 when hippies were calling their children "Livingstone Seagull'' and "Mushroom Magic,'' so Reeves's parents, a Chinese-Hawaiian father and an English mother, actually let him off rather lightly. It is pronounced "key-aar-nu,'' with the emphasis on the second syllable.
In "Speed,'' Reeves is more effective for his presence, his karma, his star-quality, rather than his technical virtuousity. He's pretty neat, really.
Above all, he has the indefinable essence that is called star quality. When he's on the screen, you watch him, however bad his acting may sometimes be. Even if you don't share the view of a 19-year-old British fan who said she could "step into his soul, just slide in,'' you still find yourself held by his presence.
Reeves may claim not to be part of the traditional Hollywood cliques ("My house looks on to the famous `Hollywood' sign in the hills and I sometimes think, `Burn, baby, burn'''), but he is most definitely part of the non-traditional cliques that thrive in Los Angeles. His best friend was River Phoenix, his co-star in the cult film "My Own Private Idaho,'' until Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside a Sunset Strip night club, The Viper Room, owned by another actor friend, Johnny Depp.
Reeves was filming "Speed'' when he heard the news of Phoenix's tawdry death in the street. "It scared the hell out of him,'' says director Jan De Bont, who had to change the shooting schedule to work around the shocked and stricken actor. "He became very quiet and it took him a while to work it out. I think it put an end to his wild period.''
Reeves admits to having at least experimented with the modern drug culture: "I am so glad I have hallucinated in my life.''
He's one of the few stars who are successful both as a teen idol, from surfing films such as "Point Break'' and "attitude'' films such as "My Own Private Idaho,'' and as an actor for adults in films like "Dangerous Liaisons,'' Coppola's version of "Dracula,'' in which he played young Dr. Jonathan Harker, and Bertolucci's "Little Buddha.''
The teenage market didn't take much notice of him in his first role, a Coca-Cola commercial, nor in the 1985 television drama "Babes in Toyland.'' It was the cult teen movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure'' that gained him immense popularity, with his performance as the good-hearted guitar-playing airhead, Ted.
The plot doesn't bear retelling, all about teenagers going back in time to capture historical figures so that they can pass their history exams. But Reeves's good-natured performance and his parody of the ultra-hip lifestyle of California that he now exemplifies won him critical and box-office attention.
He has just had a film-study course named after him "The Films of Keanu Reeves'' at a university in California, of course, where there are also study courses available in the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.
His part in "Speed'' perhaps explains his appeal to women, and to the gay community, which has named a dance after him. It is an Action Man role, but he isn't in the grim macho mold of fellow-academic Schwarzenegger. Reeves is Action New Man, tough - he put on 30 pounds of muscle in weight training for the film, but was just as fiercely desired by women when he weighed less yet kind, gentle and frail as well.
He doesn't lumber through the film, slamming revolving doors shut in people's faces. He's a hero who cares. He doesn't bond with a buddy at the end, he gets the girl instead. There are scenes in "Speed'' where he is a man in distress, rescued by Sandra Bullock, who plays the terrified driver of the bus, who cannot let it slow down. And Reeves's on-screen persona is such that his heroic stature, his masculine strength, is not diminished by his dependence. His vulnerability makes him more human.
This vulnerability could well stem from his peripatetic early life. Born in Beirut to parents who traveled constantly, he had been around the world by the time he was two. His parents moved from Beirut to Australia and then to the United States, settling in New York.
"I guess my parents were bohemian,'' he once told an interviewer. "My father's stepfather was very wealthy and his money lives on, thank you. You got money, you can move around.''
His parents divorced when Keanu was 13 (earlier this year his father was sentenced to 10 years in jail in his native Hawaii for supplying cocaine and heroin), and Reeves moved to Toronto with his mother, a costume designer.
School did not represent the best years of his life ("I even flunked gym''), and at 17 he went to Los Angeles to try acting, a career that began in "Romeo and Juliet,'' progressed through 15 films to "Speed'' and may well culminate in his plans to play "Hamlet'' soon.
At least the poetic inability of the prince of Denmark to articulate his emotions should strike a chord with the new prince of Hollywood.