He is a Mickey Mouse club graduate who once busted moves in parachute pants and belted “When a Man Loves a Woman” at a Church of Latter-Day Saints talent show, the star of the pro-feminist “Hey Girl” memes, and a real-life superhero who broke up a street fight and rescued a woman from being hit by a car. That’s right, we’re talking about Ryan Gosling: One of the most magnetic and versatile actors working today, whose charm comes as much from his looks as his aloof self-awareness and droll, quick-witted sarcasm, which allows him to poke fun at his humble Disney beginnings and puncture his mythical, dreamboat image. Gosling shines in a wide variety of genre-spanning films, from lighthearted toe-tappers to gloomy indie dramas. He’s the kind of guy who can tap dance, drive speeding cars, or build you a table and then make love to you on it. With First Man (which reunites the La La Land team of director Damien Chazelle and Gosling) ready to launch, it’s worth looking back at some of Gosling’s career highlights to see what makes him such a compelling performer.
In staggering opposition to his adolescent roles as a Mouseketeer and young Hercules was Gosling’s leading dramatic performance as an apoplectic self-hating Jewish neo-nazi in The Believer (2001). Gosling seethes with white-hot rage as he spews heinous anti-Semitic rhetoric with a curled lip and chilling sneer. It’s an electrifying and terrifyingly convincing portrayal. A year later, his role in Murder by Numbers (2002) as a cocky, homicidal high schooler would tap into this same menace, mixed with a dash of post-Columbine nihilism. Gosling relishes in these demonically evil roles, and he’s returned to them over the years, most recently in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Oedipal drama, Only God Forgives (2013).
But it was Nicholas Sparks’ weepie The Notebook (2004) that catapulted Gosling into mainstream fame. It is Gosling’s earnest and intense commitment to his role as Noah Calhoun, a hopeless romantic willing to dangle from a Ferris wheel for a date and spend years of his life building a dream house for a girl engaged to another man, that elevates the material from its mawkish pathos. The scintillating chemistry he has with Rachel McAdams, whom he dated and was briefly engaged to in real life after shooting, adds to the vigor of his performance. It is this same impassioned devotion to the script that makes his performance as a painfully timid hermit who finds romantic comfort with a plastic doll in Lars and the Real Girl (2007) so powerful. Lars’ relationship with the doll, Bianca, is genuinely touching and Gosling’s sensitive and honest performance makes you believe every minute of it. You truly root for Lars to gain more confidence and shake off his jitters.
Director Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010) is a more sober depiction of contemporary romance that demonstrates Gosling’s flair for introspective indie drama. He brings his musical skills to an effective ukulele performance of “You Always Hurt the One You Love” as a foreboding prelude to the couple’s eventual dissolution. In this heartbreaking story, Gosling subtly conveys the nuances of his characters’ transformation over the years as the film weaves between the past and present. His smooth winsomeness gives way to a quick temper as the enormous burden of adult responsibilities weighs on him.
Gosling earned one of his two Oscar nominations for his performance in Half Nelson (2006), a different kind of romance about an inner-city English middle school teacher who forms a bond with a student while suffering from a crack cocaine addiction. It is an achingly vulnerable and broodingly volatile depiction of a haunted man crumbling from the pressures to save his impoverished students while simultaneously committing slow suicide.
Gosling’s quiet pensiveness serves the film noir genre well in Drive (2011) and Blade Runner: 2049 (2017). In the former, he is expertly cast as Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish and inscrutable getaway driver-slash-stuntman. Refn’s camera fetishizes every angle of Gosling’s chiseled features: His strong gloved grip on the steering wheel, his hulking back in the scorpion jacket, the way he stomps on a man’s head to save the girl he loves. We are just as infatuated with him as Carey Mulligan’s lonely housewife. “There’s something inside you, it’s hard to explain,” Kavinsky sings on the soundtrack; and thanks to Gosling’s subtle introspection, we sense there is a wellspring of complex emotions beneath the surface of the no-named driver’s brawny silence. This same meditativeness suits his role as the tortured replicant K in Blade Runner: 2049. Gosling manages to convey with just a flicker of his downturned eyes the soulful loneliness of a man searching for his place in the world. One of his standout scenes is with his holographic lover Joi doting on him like a 1950s housewife. His voice cracks with palpable heartache and the devastating recognition that his life, performing a job he hates while unsure of who he truly is, is all a façade.
But Gosling is not limited to the confines of drama. The Nice Guys (2016) capitalizes on his natural sense of humor and ability to poke fun at himself. It’s refreshing to see Gosling so warmly embrace a pulpy and loose role with swift one-liners and wacky physical comedy. His rollicking rapport with Russell Crowe enhances the exuberance of his performance. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016), for which Gosling earned his second Oscar nomination, returned him to his musical roots as he plays the piano with astonishing ease and emulates Gene Kelly’s grounded grace in the star-studded dancing sequences.
Ryan Gosling is a captivating bundle of contradictions, juggling hardness and vulnerability, reservation and goofiness, ferocity and tenderness over a wide-ranging assortment of genres. Beneath the allure of his innate “hunkiness” is a mature, versatile, and truthful actor—indeed, Ryan Gosling is one of the finest actors in modern Hollywood.
Watch Now: Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl.