James Marsden Is One of the Best Actors of His Generation. Why Hasn’t Hollywood Noticed?

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Throughout his career, James Marsden has made losing into an art form.

On HBO's Westworld, which aired its season-one finale Sunday night, he plays one of the show’s few morally grounded characters, the upstanding gunslinger Teddy Flood whose primary motivation is his romance with girl-next-door Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). On another show, from another time, like the long-running Gunsmoke from the 1950s, he’d be the lead. Instead, on Westworld he’s an android host with a tendency to die in nearly every episode in increasingly gruesome ways. He’s been stabbed, gutted, shot, and left for dead more times than I can count. Instead of winning the girl, he’s meant to always have her just out of his reach.

Teddy is a throwback to a kind of character we don’t quite see anymore, that classic Hollywood couldn’t get enough of: A strong-jawed hero whose goodness is so thorough it feels like a genetic fluke. No one could be that perfect, right? It’s easy, thanks to Marsden’s typically excellent performance, to imagine him existing alongside Golden Age Hollywood actors like Gary Cooper or Fred MacMurray. With a bit of that old MGM spit polish from the 1940s, he could be the kind of A-list star he isn’t now, but deserves to be. But placing Marsden in Hollywood’s Golden Age wouldn’t do him any favors either, since the industry has never known what to do with an actor like him. His versatility is unparalleled by his peers: He can play a resplendent romantic lead, airheaded pretty boy, the fool, the straight man, the unrepentant jerk, a dark soul. And he has, many times over. He’s a character actor in a leading man’s body. That he can sing and dance as well makes him come across as a computer-generated version of leading-man perfection. These are all Marsden’s biggest obstacles when it comes to major stardom — his versatility and perfect good looks are antithetical to what it takes to be a star.

While stardom has changed throughout film history, the strange brew of attributes it takes to be a star hasn’t all that much. There needs to be a balance between relatability and mystery. Charisma, good looks, and believability in front of the camera matter more than technical acting talent. Or as James Baldwin once said of stars, “One does not go to see them act, one goes to watch them be.” Which isn’t to say Hollywood legends can’t act. Many of them have considerable talent. But once they figure out their star image, each role thereafter tends to reaffirm, subvert, or critique the image we come to associate with them. The personas of stars — like Marilyn Monroe’s dumb-blonde act — are as scripted as any film they’re in. An actor also doesn’t become a household name without the PR, gossip, and narrative trends in their work that adds up to an actual persona. When you think of Marsden, does anything about his personal life come to mind? What about a character type he plays repeatedly that inspires audience devotion and connection? Not quite. In effect, the dexterity that makes him an entertaining and often great actor is exactly what prohibits him from being a great star.

This doesn’t mean Marsden doesn’t have the foundation for the kind of stardom that seems to elude him. He’s endlessly charismatic, for starters. While he’s a more quicksilver performer than many of his peers, there are a few types of characters he returns to. Has there ever been a more attractive actor who loses with such aplomb? This is the trait that defines Marsden’s most well-known roles — his stardom is tied to roles in which he loses, repeatedly, to a cooler and more aspirational leading man. Audiences gravitate to the rebels, and badasses, not the kind of men who get in their way. Or as a guest on Westworld remarks to a friend who notes how beautiful  Marsden's character is: "Perfect is boring — I'm more interested in the bad guys."

The first role most audiences likely remember Marsden from is in X-Men (2000) as Cyclops, the moralistic hero next to Hugh Jackman’s more alluring bad boy. Cyclops is something no superhero should be: dull. Marsden brings more gravitas to the role than it deserves, a testament to his workmanlike ethic, in which no scene, no line reading is wasted. (Cyclops did give him a slightly higher profile: Hollywood briefly tried to make James Marsden happen in the 1990s, in teen films like Disturbing Behavior, alongside Katie Holmes, and Sugar & Spice.) But despite its blockbuster pedigree, Cyclops was not the type of superhero that attracts fans. Beyond the kindhearted Boy Scout roles, Marsden has two other modes he returns to most often — the “vainglorious asshole” (seen to various degrees in Sex Drive, The D Train, 2 Guns, As Cool As I Am) and the “other guy” (Superman Returns, The Notebook), which is the second male lead, who acts as an obstacle or pleasant distraction until the leading lady moves onto her true destiny and soul mate. (There’s a third character type Marsden plays as well — the genuine romantic lead. But the lack of mid-budget romantic dramas and comedies means he doesn’t have the ability to work in these genres, which would probably provide him a clearer path to stardom.)

Lesyle Headland’s 2012 film Bachelorette represents my favorite example of the former in Marsden’s career. As the best man, Trevor Graham, he’s a compelling foil for the equally abominable leads played by Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and Isla Fisher. Trevor is the kind of man women are told to marry starting in girlhood because of his striking looks and veneer of respectability. But behind that high-wattage smile is a black hole of misogyny and arrogance. Marsden mines this contradiction to great comedic effect, especially in scenes when he’s playing off Dunst’s equally domineering character. It becomes such a heated dynamic, you’re never sure if they want to kill each other or have sex. Marsden is unnervingly good in roles like this. But it’s probably the romantic other guy characters that audiences most recognize him from — most memorably, his performance as Lon Hammond Jr. in The Notebook. You know, that other guy Rachel McAdams is with before she dramatically kisses Ryan Gosling in the rain and heads off to her (sort of) happily ever after. Even when he’s spurned, Marsden lends Hammond an impressive level of graciousness.

Also in this mode, Marsden plays Prince Edward, the Prince Charming come to life in 2007’s Enchanted. It's his most breathtaking and entertaining work as an actor to date. He sings! He dances! He convincingly plays the ridiculously Disneyfied version of a perfect man, a dolt, and a subversion of that kind of romantic lead. Beyond his rich voice and seemingly effortless dancing (also on display in Hairspray), Enchanted puts Marsden’s greatest weapon as an actor front and center: his physicality.

Take a look at the scene in which Prince Edward nearly finds his princess, Giselle (Amy Adams), when he overhears her singing in a park. When he first hears her voice he seems to get lighter on his feet. His face is marked by an almost cartoonish level of joy, which is even more hilarious when he bites his fist after exclaiming her name. He vaults over the bridge and starts singing the kind of swooning romantic number Disney excelled at in the 1990s. His face is alight with a gleaming smile, his arms outstretched. He’s exuberant … until a group of cyclists run him over. When he’s knocked down his face plant is epic in its goofy mix of surprise and physical comedy.

In less than a minute Marsden goes from looking like an utter fool to genuinely romantic and back again. There are many moments like this in Enchanted, where he colors his performance with a giddy elasticity. But even though the character often becomes a punch line, Marsden seems in on the joke without being condescending to us or the character. His gestures are broad yet elegant enough not to tip over into caricature.

It’s exceedingly rare to see an actor communicate so much in close-ups and wide shots. He really looks, acts, and moves like an animated Disney prince come to life. Watching Enchanted, I realized Marsden is modern Hollywood’s Ralph Bellamy, perpetually losing the woman he loves to the real lead, Cary Grant. But not even Cary Grant looked as perfect as Marsden. Which is the problem here.

We don’t like our movie stars to have such physical perfection, but Marsden does. To call him chiseled would be an understatement. His jawline looks sharp enough to cut glass. Look at that megawatt smile that shows just enough teeth. Those full lips. That frame. That he’s gotten even more attractive in his 40s seems obscene. But to be a star, there needs to be some sort of imperfection, a noticeable quirk that seems a bit off or too grand, either in their looks or personality. Bette Davis had her unusual, large eyes. Elizabeth Taylor had a squeaky voice that seemed incongruent with her radiant looks. Julia Roberts has her toothy, sharklike smile. Will Smith’s face (or rather his ears and goofy air) reminds you he was once the Hollywood version of the class clown. There are some arguable exceptions to this, like Meryl Streep, but that sort of exalted perfection has taken decades to cultivate and she doesn’t to have to navigate the minefield of beauty politics quite like a younger actor would.

But Marsden, physically, vocally, and persona-wise, has none of the touching imperfections that remind us that he is human after all. Now more than ever stars are expected to be relatable — like better versions of ourselves and people we know, not reminders of what we could never be. Marsden looks like a prom king crossed with a Versace model (which he actually was before becoming an actor). His versatility, his lack of star persona, and his overwhelming good looks are all major reasons why he’s so grossly undervalued despite his talent. But there’s another major hurdle preventing Marsden from superstardom — what we conceive of as good acting in the first place.

In his 2015 Atlantic essay, “The Decline of the American Actor,” Terrence Rafferty discusses various reasons why non-American actors are dominating Hollywood over their American peers. He points to the latter’s discomfort with taking on accents, English actors learning their craft on the stage, the dearth of meaty dramatic roles for younger actors, and the lack of joy American actors seem to take in the art of acting. But what’s most telling is the young American actor he signals out for the most praise: Jake Gyllenhaal. His performance in Nightcrawler gets considerable focus in the piece. In praising this performance, for which Gyllenhaal lost a frightening amount of weight and took on various tics, he touches on the most troubling notion of what makes a great actor — transformation.

There’s this idea that great actors must transform themselves physically (often as a way to divorce themselves from their good looks, which they feel is an impediment to being taken seriously) to be a “real” actor. Gaining muscle, losing weight, tricky accents, pronounced physical tics, they’re all on the menu. All of which adds up to making acting look like labor. This belief first started to become the ideal thanks to the mythology around Marlon Brando, and a misunderstanding of method acting. It’s also why an actor like Marsden may never get the praise and roles he deserves. He doesn’t distract from his looks. He leans into them, using them to formulate the most pronounced themes in his work as an actor, which is to critique and understand male beauty and its currency. His career almost feels like meta-commentary on the kind of good-looking leading man he is. In this way, Marsden is an actor who transforms himself within, not without.

Maybe Marsden has exactly the kind of career he wants. He’s not hurting for work. Being part of Westworld, the most buzzed-about new show on television, will certainly help push his career to new heights. But as great as he is, he’s rarely in roles or films that match his talents. Ultimately, Marsden feels like the living embodiment of the argument that American actors aren’t in decline, but maybe the best of them just aren’t valued as they should be.