Where have the real hearthrobs gone?

It used to be that the screen idols we followed and admired had both talent and charm. Please allow me to lament the mass lowering of standards and let me know if you’re in agreement…

The supposed sex symbols that make it on the hot list of the decade say a lot about the collective personality of each generation. The 50s had Marilyn Monroe and the 60s Brigitte Bardot. The 80s had Corey Haim and Cindy Lauper. The 90s had Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt. This generation finds teens screaming for Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez.

Sigh indeed.

A quick look at the hearthrobs of yesteryear, going as far back as the ‘60s and the ‘70s, reveals that these two generations were pretty much masters at gauging sex appeal combined with talent. Back then, the celebrity arena was reserved for the likes of Linda Hayden (Baby Love), Bridgitte Bardot (too many to mention), Elvis Presley (do I need to add more?) and David Janssen (The Fugitive). Teenagers knew their place – and their place most certainly was not on a centrepage poster.

Brigitte Bardot - photography by Michel Bernanau

The general public knew what it wanted, mainly oodles of charm and good-looks and the ability to carry off a good plot/good song (depending on whether we’re talking music or film). Innocence and political correctness were not a factor and hence had no place in stardom. The fact that the term “general public” usually excluded anyone between the 10 year and 17 year age bracket certainly helped ensure that the audience got real men and women to think nasty thoughts about. As opposed to a crop of babystars that would land you in jail if you so much as looked in their general direction.

Just look at Brigitte Bardot’s iconic pouty lips and the hair that somehow managed to give the “just out of bed” look to an upstyle. Or Lauren Bacal’s perfectly oval face and “that” killer look. Seventies stars had that “it” quality that extended far beyond garden variety, pretty looks. Which is why the top tier names remain revered icons to this very day.

The ‘70s gave way to a fresh crop of hearthrobs (the word idols hadn’t been yet invented, so to speak) to suit the general ‘80s zeitgeist of social and economic change . At a time when the whole world seemed to be going all corporate and serious, the audience wanted screen and stage heroes who could flick the proverbial salute at all these unwelcome changes. So we had rebels like River Phoenix, who started out innocently enough in Stand By Me but then moved on to cult classics like My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues…before settling into a rock’n’roll lifestyle that combined bouts of partying with bouts of environmental rights activism. His untimely demise due to drug overdose did nothing to lessen his popularity or his status as a bonafide icon.

Evidently, ‘80s babies did not give a toss about being politically correct. Which is why if you surf a list of ‘80s hearthrobs, you’ll find that the names are more likely to include bad boys (and girls) like Samantha Fox, Jon Bon Jovi, Mark Wahlberg (who is now promoted to serious actor thanks to movies like The Italian Job) and Luke Goss of the Bros’ short-lived fame.

Things started calming down on the rock’n’roll lifestyle during the ‘90s (unless you count the advent of grunge, of course). With the world (mostly) happy and enjoying an affluent lifestyle, there was no more need to stick a finger to the system and the focus went squarely back to talent and looks.

The ‘90s talent pool was not inconsiderable and yielded the likes of musicians Nick Cave and Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan as well as actors Leonardo di Caprio, Winona Ryder, Johnny Depp and Ryan Philippe amongst others. What do these celebs have in common besides their good-looks? To date, they all remain respected in their individual fields.

Fast forward to the new millennium, which brought with it widely available cable TV and a mass lowering of standards. With a never-ending parade of teen idols who all enjoy (short-lived) A-list status, there really isn’t much to distinguish this latest decade from the previous one. The more established names from the previous paragraphs are still there, of course. But as for a fresh crop of talent that might include the new Richard Burton or Johnny Depp? Forget it. The only thing that this particular pool contains is copious amount of hair gel. And that’s just for the boys.

Sure, there are notable exceptions like Daniel Radcliffe but, respected as his is since he ditched his wizard-boy status and switched to serious theatre…well, he hasn’t quite made it on the list of hearthrobs has he? So it doesn’t quite count. It’s almost like celebrities nowadays come in two camps: the talented ones and the pretty ones. And the camps are mutually exclusive. The much lamented Heath Ledger might have made it on both, if he had only had enough time to do so.

There are no prizes for guessing in which camp idols like Zac Efron, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers belong. I almost automatically included Robert Patterson there – but much as the Twilight trilogy makes most of us want to puke, the jury is still out on whether Patterson will be stuck in teen idol role forever or whether the guy has some mettle to him. His role in Water for Elephants went down rather well for those who managed to forget his previous cringe-worthy filmography. His upcoming Bel Ami includes names like Christina Ricci and Uma Thurman.

I never thought I’d say this, but maybe there is hope for that list of hearthrobs after all.

This post appeared on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).



  1. j says:

    Excellent post. I guess the keyword is “talent”. Everytime you go online or swith on the telly, all you see is people famous for being … well, just famous I guess. Paris Hilton comes to mind. What does she do exactly?

  2. tita buds says:

    Ramona, I can talk for HOURS about 80s heartthrobs, haha. (My sisters & I had a 3′ x 4′ poster of River Phoenix in our dorm.)
    Yup, the current crop has a LOT of growing up to do. Meanwhile, we can laugh at all the posing and hybrid smile-pouting (oh, the ridiculous duckfaces — they have so much to learn from Ms. Bardot). :)