2022 won’t be remembered as a banner year for film. But we might look back on it as the storybook time when a new superstar was crowned.
That would be Austin Butler, who wowed the world with his performance as the King in “Elvis,” and who’s nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars on Sunday.
The kid’s on the brink of the big-big-time, right when the industry needs it badly.
For more than a decade, Hollywood has searched in vain for worthy successors to Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio while trade publications have mourned the death of the old-school Leading Man.
Our former heartthrobs can still sell tickets (see: “Top Gun: Maverick”), but they are getting long in the tooth and caring less and less about the state of their beards.
While plenty of great young actors are on the rise, there’s no cultural consensus around most of them.
Timothée Chalamet, 27, is a major talent and has rapidly become a film fixture, but has so far preferred prestige films (“Dune” is as arthouse as science-fiction gets) by filmmakers such as Luca Guadagnino and Wes Anderson, whose work most Americans don’t know or go out of their way to see.
Smiley Eddie Redmayne and Andrew Garfield are quirky if good-looking and respectable Brits (Garfield, who has a British accent, is technically British-American) and already, respectively, 41 and 39.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, 50, and Jason Momoa, 43, are purely action stars.
Last year, I predicted singer Harry Styles had a shot at making the leap . . . and then I saw his two movies.
The closest we’ve come to the bygone days of red carpet royalty, I reckon, is Michael B. Jordan, the villain of “Black Panther” and the star of the “Creed” movies. However, while he is the secret to his films’ successes, it’s mostly the titles that draw in ticket-buyers.
What has struck me about Butler, though, is his extremely broad and enthusiastic appeal — and how excited people are when they talk about him.
I’ve heard gushing appraisals from fans in their 20s and their 80s; liberals and conservatives; diehard lovers of Elvis and viewers who had never heard of “Unchained Melody”; Americans, Brits and Aussies. Everybody is in love with this guy.
Same goes for those who know him personally.
One Hollywood pro who’s worked with Butler told me, “I’m crazy about him. I’m a total believer. He’s for real, and he knows how to work.”
Naysayers might suggest he’s a one-trick hound dog. After all, plenty of performers have turned Elvis impersonations into a life-long career, and Butler got flack for holding on a little too tightly to the Memphis accent after filming wrapped.
However, the multi-faceted actor is absolutely not in the late-night Las Vegas category.
At age 31, he’s successfully dabbled in a variety of far-flung genres. He was a love interest on the “Sex and the City” prequel “The Carrie Diaries.” He played creepy Manson family member Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” And Butler got terrific reviews as Don Parritt in the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” which starred Denzel Washington. That’s about as un-Presley a show as there is.
In fact, it was megastar Washington who recommended the young actor to director Baz Luhrmann, whom he hadn’t even met before, for “Elvis.”
Seizing momentum, this year Butler will star in the new film “The Bikeriders,” a 1960s-set crime movie, alongside Tom Hardy and Michael Shannon, which is reportedly aiming for a Cannes premiere. He’ll also be seen in “Dune: Part Two” with returning Chalamet and Zendaya.
Of course, the world has changed.
There’s a lot more entertainment out there than when “Titanic” came out in 1997, or when “Risky Business” was released in 1983, and therefore a lot more stars to divide our attention.
But I can’t help but feel that there’s something about Austin. Unlike just about everything else that hit the big screen in 2022, Butler had moviegoers all shook up.