Apparently Aaron Eckhart doesn’t like to watch his own movies – he prefers not to mess with his memories of making them. So what has the 42-year-old actor-star of Battle: Los Angeles and Rabbit Hole been missing?
A mixed bag, it must be said. Eckhart is a widely admired performer, a leading man, but not quite an A-list movie star. He hasn’t had a blockbuster hit (unless you count The Dark Knight, where his contribution as Harvey Dent was completely overshadowed, even overwhelmed, by Heath Ledger’s Joker). Perhaps Battle Los Angeles will change that, but he has little enough lined up at the moment, which suggests the money-men don’t consider him the hottest guy in the world. At least Eckhart has not been under any pressure to repeat himself, and his choices have ranged far and wide.
He’s hardly an acting chameleon, but he’s done romantic comedy (No Reservations; Love Happens), thrillers (Suspect Zero; The Black Dahlia), dramas (Nothing is Private; Rabbit Hole), satire (Thank You For Smoking), a disaster movie (The Core), and even a western (The Missing).
As that list reveals, Eckhart’s a more versatile actor than he first appears. A big (6’1), blocky Californian, he’s somewhere between Robert Redford and GI Joe in his all-American good looks, with what may yet prove to be the movie’s most significant chin dimple since Kirk Douglas.
Raised in the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Eckhart received his biggest career break when he befriended aspiring writer Neil LaBute at a Mormon college. Eckhart appeared in several of LaBute’s plays – most of them off-campus, because of their taboo-breaking candour.
In due course he starred in LaBute’s first film, the controversial and disturbing In The Company Of Men (1997). As the vicious misogynist Chad, Eckhart essayed a portrait of a super-competitive corporate climber as charming, calculating, and almost pathologically cruel. This was a great debut, the Alpha Male as Creep. The movie (which was made for next to nothing) wasn’t any kind of box office smash but it was widely noticed, and it was hardly surprising that of the three principals it was Eckhart who went on to have a major career.
Of course it didn’t hurt that LaBute went on to cast him in Your Friends And Neighbours, Nurse Betty, and Possession, but it was their intense, toxic first collaboration that caught the eye of Oliver Stone (who gave Eckhart a part in Any Given Sunday) and Sean Penn (The Pledge).
The second big break came courtesy of Steven Soderbergh, another director with an eye on indie movies. He paid Eckhart the highest compliment, casting him as the polar opposite of Chad, as Julia Roberts’ supportive biker boyfriend George in Erin Brockovich (2000). With his pony tail and beard, Eckhart was hardly recognizable as the same actor, and if he didn’t get the awards attention of his co-stars, he won something just as valuable: the hearts of a huge female audience, many of whom wanted someone just like him at home.
That should have been Eckhart’s moment, but either his taste or his luck was off. Movies with big budgets and big name talent like The Missing, Paycheck and The Black Dahlia didn’t pay off commercially. Smaller, artier fare like Possession and Conversations with Other Women by and large didn’t get seen by enough people to keep his career buzzing.
The only exception was Jason Reitman’s acerbic lobbyist satire Thank You For Smoking, a movie as poisonous in its way as In the Company of Men (but much funnier), and a welcome reminder of just how good Eckhart can be when the material is there. But again, his timing was off: Reitman’s next film, Juno, would be a huge hit and gave everyone associated with it a boost. But Thank You couldn’t translate good press into box office, and Eckhart only got the faintest sniff of the Oscar nomination that he probably deserved.
It seems like, for all his skill, Eckhart only clicks into sharpest focus when he’s playing a louse or a rogue.
Maybe it’s the Mormon in him, but if you cast him as the romantic lead he slips a little too easily into playing second fiddle. It was the same story this year, when his moving, subtle performance in Rabbit Hole was eclipsed by his (Oscar-nominated) co-star Nicole Kidman – no matter that she had hand-picked him for the part.
Meanwhile Harvey “Two Face” Dent will not be reappearing in Christopher Nolan’s third and final Batman movie – which surely represents a severe blow to Eckhart, even if comic book fans seem not to mind in the slightest.
Eckhart has the talent to survive a dry spell, but he probably should avoid playing the love interest to Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Zeta Jones, or Jessica Alba for that matter. If I were his agent I’d be looking for another two faced role: charming but brutal, confident but mean – and the sooner the better. And if he can’t get Jason Reitman on the phone, then it might be time to forgive and forget Neil LaBute’s Wicker Man fiasco…
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