Inaction Hero: Surviving Keanu Reeves
by Liz Goodman
Maybe Keanu Reeves is 'the One.'
Having survived 11 years of lascivious photo shoots, terrible reviews, a gay wedding rumor, and Bram Stoker's Dracula, the man who taught me the phrase 'bogus, dude' is, terrifyingly, more famous than ever.
Matrices II and III are due out in the next two years, along with four other movies, one of which seems watchable. The Replacements is doing OK at the box office and the New York Times review conspicuously said nothing either way about his performance. Rolling Stone featured him half-naked on the cover, with the headline 'The Riddle of Keanu.' But 'The Riddle of Keanu' isn't his traumas, or his sexuality, or his brainpower. It's why he's lasted through 37 films.
Reeves has survived every disaster that could befall a young actor. He has suffered through several high-profile, low box-office embarrassments (Johnny Mnemonic, Little Buddha, Chain Reaction) at various points in his career, but even when the movies make money, critics routinely lambaste his performances. As Salon writer Charles Taylor puts it, 'Subjected to more ridicule than perhaps any other movie star, Reeves is attacked with the enthusiasm people reserve for someone who truly drives them crazy.' As if the attacks of other people weren't enough, Reeves occasionally seems to have it in for himself. He survived a near-fatal motorcycle crash in 1988 and still bears the scars of another accident in 1996.
Then there's the gay thing. To this day, Keanu Reeves has publicly been linked to only one other well-known figure: David Geffen. While Reeves and Geffen had never been seen in public together, and both men denied the rumors, Reeves never quite issued the expected blanket renunciation of hot boy-on-boy action. As he put it, 'Ya' never know... .' And this after making out with River Phoenix in the strongly homoerotic My Own Private Idaho. But the rumors faded on their own.
There was nothing inevitable about Keanu Reeves' success. We can think of the American movie business as a jungle, or maybe a really stinky swamp. And like all crowded ecosystems, the American entertainment industry only has so many spots for many more contenders. In a kind of Darwin lite, the system ruthlessly self-selects for certain traits. But unlike the rain forests, where only the inedible survive, the movie industry rests upon the consumption of images in exchange for cash. The audience must find someone to eat up. Long-term survival depends not so much on charm or beauty or one-time luck — the bars of Los Feliz are littered with stunning, talented, broke actors — but on occupying a niche in the food chain. By giving people something so vital that they'll pay $9 just to experience two hours of it.
These are the films that audiences found particularly tasty: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, My Own Private Idaho, Speed, and The Matrix. You can watch him grow up in those movies, from confused teenager to action hero to messiah. But they share one thing: All of them are, more or less, explicitly set on the West Coast. Bill and Ted's is of course set in the SoCal suburb of San Dimas; My Own Private Idaho takes place in the Pacific Northwest; Speed is a fantasy of public transportation in Los Angeles, and The Matrix (I think) suggests the new media/old punk Silicon ghettos of the Pacific Northwest.
Ironically, this icon of California dreaming is in no way, shape, or form Californian. Born in Beirut to a Chinese-Hawaiian father and a British mother, he lived in Lebanon, Australia, New York, and Toronto before he was seven. He grew up playing hockey, not football, and started his career in the Canadian film industry. He is a bassist who, by his own admission, has no soul: 'I'm terribly white; I can't hang,' he has said.
But here's another weird thing that nobody ever talks about, least of all the man himself: Keanu 'Cool Breeze over the Mountains' Reeves is about as 'white' as Halle Berry. Or Brandon Lee. It's not just the oft-praised 'exotic' eyes. It's the hair. And the bone structure. And the skin. Take another look at Little Buddha. In a more obviously 'Eastern' setting it suddenly pops out: Keanu Reeves is Asian-American.
Perhaps no one notices because that's not the niche he fills in the movie ecosystem. After starting his career typecast as a teenage dreamer, he has morphed into the all-around All-American figurehead, playing in quick succession: two football quarterbacks, a cop, an FBI agent, and a redneck. His mongrel ethnicity disappeared into the suburbs of San Dimas; like many an upwardly mobile Californian dreamer, he found that Hollywood casting turned hypenated Americans into plain old Californians.
Given the hippie-dippie reputation of Californians in general, even the Hawaiian name passes muster. Unlike Italian, Polish, and Jewish actors of the past, Reeves didn't even change his given name to blend in (though his first agent suggested it). Americans romanticize the exotic sound of Polynesian and Asian names; his fans adore making puns on 'cool breeze.' One particularly obsessive fan refers to him as 'Ke Anu,' a Hawaiian phrase that means 'Shining God.' One wonders, however, whether a Polynesian or Chinese last name would have gone over so well as the impeccably Anglo 'Reeves.'
Still, even cloaked under a whitewashed Californian identity, Reeves' 'exoticism' does have a lot to do with his continued popularity. He's neither a buffer-than-thou George Clooney lookalike nor a blonder-than-thou Brad Pitt clone nor a blacker-than-thou Denzel Washington. Reeves has cornered the market on his particular niche: He's 'ethnic,' but not so much that distributors sense any potential interracial controversies. Hollywood as always been more welcoming to non-white women than men, mostly because of the unwritten rule that white men can acceptably sleep with anything with two X chromosomes, but that God forbid the coupling go the other way. He looks, in fact, like no one else in Hollywood, and movie audiences crave novelty.
Yet obviously Asian men get a raw deal in Hollywood. They are houseboys, worried businessmen, or science geeks. They are most often neutered, as monks or wise old men. Roles that step outside those boundaries are most often played by white actors in yellowface (Yul Brynner, say). Occasionally, they get to kill lots of people in action flicks (see: The Replacement Killers), but even though Hong Kong cinema is very fashionable, it doesn't really translate to American box office success. There have no major male stars of Asian descent. Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li never made it big here, and Jackie Chan is strictly an action-adventure sidekick. The late Brandon Lee, had a chance at giving Keanu a run for his exotically-good-looking-yet-still-'white' money, but being dead sure puts a crimp in Lee's career plans. Reeves, as a buff, yet 'exoticly pretty' white man, neatly sidesteps those traps.
As Michelle Chihara writes in the Boston Phoenix, 'Outside of roundhouse kicking, the underlying dynamics of the situation seem to go something like this: Asian people are inherently foreign, but Asian women are exotic sex objects, which gives them a shot at being starlets. Asian men, on the other hand, are geeky and weak, except when they have a lot of money, in which case they're foreign businessmen trying to make up for being geeky and weak by being sneaky and villainous. Geeky and sneaky are both major disqualifiers when it comes to serious male stardom.'
In his success as a completely objectifiable sex symbol, what Keanu Reeves most resembles, in fact, is an Asian female actress. Reeves, as director Kenneth Branagh admits, is 'tremendously attractive to men and women;' I think his varied fan base (a man actually runs one of the largest sites, www.keanu-net.com) is a result of his uncertain placement within our ethnic categories. 'Exotic' in America often signifies 'feminine.' And 'femininity' often signifies passivity, secrecy, sensuality, and stupidity - characteristics which article after article attribute to Reeves.
More than anything, the fuss about exoticism reveals our blindness to the changing face of America. The joke is on the fans. Keanu Reeves was perfectly cast in The Matrix and Johnny Mnemonic because he is not 'exotic' at all. He is the quadruply-hyphenated future of an increasingly multicultural, multiethnic America: Chinese-Hawaiian-British-Canadian-American. In 20 years, most of America will look like Keanu Reeves. The suburbs of California even look like him now.
Conveniently, Reeves' growing popularity coincided with the sudden vogue for all things West Coast in the early-to-mid '90s. Grunge was from Washington State, Green Day from East Bay, Beck and the Red Hot Chili Peppers from Los Angeles. On TV we had Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place. Remember Gleaming the Cube? And those rollerblading/skiing movies? Then there was Brad Pitt's little trip through California. Roles for grungy, alienated teens suddenly became available. And after his actually really affecting performance as a freaked out high-schooler in River's Edge (1986), Reeves was in the perfect spot to take them. Hence the teen movies that paid his bills through 1991: Bill and Ted's, Parenthood, The Prince of Pennsylvania, Providence, and Permanent Record.
But we shouldn't forget that Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure really kicked off the whole California trend in 1989. Reeves and Alex Winter defined the new California: lazy, dumb, and probably stoned - but essentially harmless. And they were tremendously popular: Such faux-Californianisms as 'bogus,' 'excellent,' and, of course, 'duuude,' became common currency everywhere from Texas to Minnesota. I don't know anymore what the actual California slacker accent was before Bill and Ted: They remade it in their own image.
Later, in the mid-'90s, Seinfeld and Friends pushed the pop culture center back to the East Coast, but the damage was done. There's now this huge group of Americans between the ages of, say, 22 and 32 who spent their seventh through 12th grades imitating the speech patterns and slang of Bill and Ted and Brenda and Kelly. I don't think it's coincidental that I know l people from Ohio who sound more 'Californian' (which is to say, more like Bill and Ted) than Los Angelenos.
But I shouldn't talk. I totally owe Bill and Ted a major debt. I moved to Los Angeles from Boston, and the ways of the natives were strange to me. Keanu Reeves taught me the correct way to say 'dude' (with three syllables and one head-bob) and the correct monosyllabic responses to almost any question. He taught me how to face the unknown with polite confusion, and just accept it. Yeah, it's stupid that I needed a film to help me relate to people. But it worked, and it stuck with me. I still have a hint of the assumed accent. You can hear Keanu Reeves everytime I open my mouth.
Theodore 'Ted' Logan, the comic creation of his 22-year-old self, sticks with Reeves as well. Amiable, pretty stupid — Ted would have just stumbled onto stardom, and the assumption is that Reeves has done the same. Perhaps that's why he stirs up such violent disagreements. How many other actors leave so many people not just unsure whether he's a good actor but whether he's acting at all?
It's a deserved question. In The Matrix, Reeves is as blank as one can get and still have a pulse. His body swoops beautifully through the fight scenes, but his most palpable emotion is confusion. He seems to have 'uh, what?' tattooed on his forehead. In America, we pay actors millions for pretending to be alone while a sound stage full of people watches them. In The Matrix, Reeves goes one better and gives the impression of there being no one on the sound stage to watch.
Me, I don't disrespect Keanu Reeves. He's had some terrible movies, but no male actor in America cuts through space so wonderfully. When he bulks up, you can't forget the amount of air his muscles displace; when he slims down, he just slips through the molecules. E! Online calls him a piece of 'handsome machinery,' but the gears turn so quickly they occasionally propel the movies past their flaws. In My Own Private Idaho, the scene in which he betrays his vagabond mentor begins with a shot of his suit-clad back. Reeves stands like a colossus, legs wide apart, hands jammed in pockets. Just that shot, and you know what comes next. Or check out the last fight scenes of The Matrix. I spent most of that movie wondering how the Brothers Wachowski would ever get me to buy this blithering idiot as the savior of humanity. But in the climactic subway fight scene, when Keanu sways through the air and lets the bullets whip around him, I believed in him. Almost.
Almost. It's the voice that kills him. The discrepancy between voice and movement is striking. He always sounds, well, like a slightly more mature Ted Logan. somehow monotone and lilting at the same time. In the preview for his latest movie, The Watcher, his portrayal of a serial killer looks thrilling — until he speaks. The pauses are all in the wrong places for the threatening effect he's trying for. Instead, he just seems vaguely confused. His voice undid him similarly in Much Ado About Nothing. As the malevolent Don John, he glided around sneakily enough, but muttered his lines with only slightly more conviction than a passive-aggressive monk. He fares better in the small, quirky movies such as My Own Private Idaho or River's Edge that can play on that dichotomy between incommunicative voice and eloquent body.
But after Speed established him as a bankable action/romantic hero, those parts were few and far between. He knows it, too. Reeves, though he has famously called himself a 'meathead,' is no dummy. In the recent Rolling Stone profile, he lists his career favorites: River's Edge, Permanent Record, Bill and Ted's, I Love You to Death, Little Buddha, Tune in Tomorrow, The Last Time I Committed Suicide, The Matrix, Devil's Advocate. Even granting that the movies are in roughly chronological order, more than half of Reeves' favorite performances were filmed before 1990. River's Edge was his first big movie, in 1986. Of the 18 movies he's made since '99, only four made his top list. Of the seven big-screen movies he made before then, five made the list. Do the math — he's registering some major career dissatisfaction. As he says himself, 'Thanks for putting me in a box. Is there any way out of here?'
The success of The Matrix proves that audiences want the box. I'd argue, in fact, that this weird dichotomy satisfies some need in Americans right now for unconvincing acting. Reeves is a movie-star for people who value movement over voice, the visual over the verbal. Reeves' acting is character-optional; He is the anti-Method, the anti-De Niro.
Stephen Pina, who taught the infamous 'Films of Keanu Reeves' class at a local college, has described Reeves' recent acting thusly: 'He has a peculiar detachment that doesn't allow for the kind of psychological relationship you have with a traditional method actor.' The phrase 'detachment' crops up again and again in descriptions of Reeves' acting. He is detached from the character; you are detached from his portrayal. It's the filmic equivalent of completely safe sex.
You have to wonder whether lots of people in America aren't tired of emotional investment in fictional characters, whether they're happy to just stare, detached, at the action on the big screen. You have to wonder whether lots of people in America aren't tired of emotional investment in general. Reeves' ascent shot to big-money stardom in the early '90s coincides with the rise of irony as the mode of communication the public sphere. Keanu Reeves is the most ironic actor I know: He moves with utter commitment, and yet I don't believe a word he says.
Except for maybe 'Whoa.'