In defence of Keanu: humanity’s gentle emissary, who never claimed to be a great actor
by Jacqueline Maley
There are some provocations with which one cannot put up. When my own newspaper published an article last week, ostensibly marking the 30th anniversary of the seminal 1991 Cali-surf-action movie Point Break, but really using this as a hook to traduce its star, Keanu Reeves, my limit was reached.
The article’s author, my colleague, the revered cricket writer and novelist Malcolm Knox, said the movie’s main crime, apart from its “death spiral” plot, was the acting of its star. Reeves was a “thumpingly terrible actor” and “sometimes the whole movie feels like a prank at his expense”, Knox wrote. He was unable to make his lines “sound like they’re spoken by a sentient being” and watching the movie, “you pity him”.
Ordinarily, I love to read brutal film reviews – they remind one that failure is part of the artistic process, and also, mockery can be fun. But in this case, my respect for Knox is equalled only by the vehemence with which I disagree with him.
First, I declare an interest. I have been an ardent Keanu fan since I went to a cinema in 1991 and saw him on screen in My Own Private Idaho with River Phoenix. I probably shouldn’t have been watching it – it’s an art film about two rent boys and I was under age. But it wasn’t seamy, it was dreamy and tender, and it was the first depiction of queer sex I ever saw on screen. It was controversial for its time and it could have destroyed Reeves’ career before it even began, but Reeves has never cared for such worldly concerns.
I have seen Keanu’s band, Dogstar, play. Twice. And when he was in Sydney filming The Matrix, I believe he glanced at me once in Martin Place.
Reeves has never claimed to be a great actor; he humbly submits that he loves movies, and he loves making movies, and given that people love to see his movies, his mark on the world has been firmly struck in the column of love, and happiness, and dreamy eyes.
Despite being world-famous, Reeves has eluded capture by celebrity culture. He is not on social media, so we are blissfully ignorant of his thoughts on many, many subjects. He seems to promote his movies and then vanish back to his normal Keanu-ish life, which I imagine involves riding his motorbike through the Mojave desert, surfing in remote parts of Central America, and visiting his mother.
Reeves is not into “wellness” and he does not spruik expensive watches. I know nothing about his fitness regime. As far as I know he never threw a phone at anyone’s head and he has not pissed off his neighbours by building a compound. Why should any actor need a compound? You are not the Chechen president. Reeves probably just lives in a house like an ordinary person. On his rider, Reeves would not ask for scented candles or cocaine. On film sets, he probably just takes a beer when he’s offered one, and only after others have been taken care of too.
A video of Reeves from 2007 shows him being filmed, without his knowledge, as he rides the subway. He stands up and gives his seat to a woman laden with a heavy bag. Can you remember any other time a movie star was caught out on camera doing something decent? Reeves never, ever, #MeToo-ed anyone. You just know he is the guy who quietly protects women from predators, the guy who remembers the names of the tea lady’s kids.
In fact, it has been noted by the internet’s Keanu experts that when he poses for photos with female fans, he hovers his free hand around them rather than placing it on the waist of a woman he doesn’t know. His respect for women is innate and unshowy. His current girlfriend is an artist who has let her hair grey naturally. He doesn’t need to take to Instagram to declare himself an ally – Reeves has been an ally of humanity his whole life.
Consider, if you will, Reeves’ contemporaries – Johnny Depp is a wife-basher, Val Kilmer went off boil, Tom Cruise is sexless and strange. Only Reeves endures, his appeal enriched with every passing decade. There is a reason women love him – he is the antithesis of toxic masculinity, and was so even before anyone was talking about toxic masculinity. He is sensitive and kind, quiet and dreamy. He likes climbing trees and smoking marijuana. He looks like a man who listens to women when they speak – which makes him rarer than rubies and infinitely more precious.
In 2010, a picture of Reeves went viral, in which he is sitting on a park bench, eating a sandwich and looking sad. He was any of one us who has ever taken a small moment to enjoy a snack while we ponder the melancholy of existence.
This photo became the “Sad Keanu” meme, which in turn sparked an internet thread where people with some connection to Keanu posted about times the actor had done kind things for them, small and large. That’s what Reeves does – his benevolence echoes across the internet, like a wave rippling out from the Malibu sands.
Is Reeves a mediocre actor? Perhaps. But that is like asking if the Dalai Lama is a good public speaker (I have seen him speak, and no, I don’t think he is). Reeves’ medium is film, but his gentle humanity is the message. He is a one-man reminder that non-excellence is OK, that we can resist the tyranny of #bebest, that being not-so-good at something doesn’t mean you can’t do it anyway.