Hollywood history doesn’t include many stars like Sal Mineo, a character actor whose feral cat charisma enabled him to hold his own onscreen against no lesser an icon of otherworldly beauty than the equally tragic James Dean. In “Who Killed Teddy Bear?,” Joseph Cates’s riveting sexploitation film noir – which recently screened in a rare 35mm print at NYC’s Anthology Film Archives – about a Times Square disco hostess (the always stunning Juliet Prowse) being stalked by an obscene caller Mineo plays Lawrence, a quiet busboy caring for his mentally retarded younger sister. Quite early on we learn he’s also deeply disturbed. Yet when Prowse’s character Norah unaware of Lawrence’s distasteful predilections compliments him on his toned body after a swim in the local gym’s pool we buy that she might be attracted to this creep. The average looking Mineo could make even a perverted weirdo sexy.
Which brings us to the myth of modern Hollywood – reflected in 21st century life – that beauty and sexiness always go hand in hand. I find this utterly ridiculous. Though I wouldn’t necessarily kick Brad Pitt out of bed, I certainly would grab a one-night-stand with Willem Dafoe over sex with Angelina’s leading man hubby anytime anyplace (of course, the seedier the better). In the good old movie days nondescript manly men like Humphrey Bogart could land vixens like Lauren Bacall without having to resemble Clark Gable; and while the women didn’t do quite so well in Tinseltown an Italian siren such as Anna Magnani looked to be every bit as good a lay as knockout Sophia Loren.
So, with all due respect, to George Clooney, Matt Damon, Will Smith and all those other A-list handsome nice guys, here are five lesser mortals who I’d green light over you in the sack. Beauty is only skin deep, after all, while sexiness comes from the mind and soul.
Bobby Peru. The two words that sealed the Dafoe deal for me. Watching Dafoe as Bobby meticulously mentally disassemble then mind-fuck Laura Dern’s Lula in David Lynch’s warped “Wild At Heart” changed my life. Dafoe tapped into the dirty little secret that you don’t have to look like Nic Cage if you’ve got the X-ray vision to discern another’s most secret desires, and the balls to coax that taboo out into the light of day. Bobby tells Lula he likes a woman with nice tits who talks tough “and looks like she can fuck like a bunny.” “Do you fuck like that, huh?" he teasingly whispers from across the room. Even when Dafoe is playing the good guy (like in “Mississippi Burning” two decades ago) his fiery sinister sexuality can’t be extinguished. Bunny jump fast!
I last saw Peter Mullan playing a less than chaste priest at a press screening of the “Red Riding Trilogy” (due out in February) and it was like running into an old lover you hadn’t thought about in years. The Scottish actor first came to my attention for his riveting performance as a struggling alcoholic in “My Name Is Joe,” and though he may not have the classic studio looks of fellow countryman Sean Connery, he’s got the same aggressive and magnetic masculinity. Mullan doesn’t light up the screen so much as render it null and void, with those lascivious voyeuristic eyes that are forever roving and calculating. Indeed, it’s possible to leave the theater wondering who was watching whom.
Whether it’s “Made in Britain,” “Little Odessa” or “Reservoir Dogs” Roth has a bad boy habit of seducing us with his primal intensity. He commands attention even when in a terrible made-for-TV movie like “Tsunami: The Aftermath,” in which he played a tousled roguish journalist. There’s a striking scene in that otherwise forgettable flick where Roth’s character, fed up with an incompetent bureaucracy, orders a drink at a bar. The camera lingers a tad too long in the uncomfortable tension emanating from Roth’s journo as he doesn’t ask but absolutely demands. Roth knows the line between need and desire is fluid, and he walks it with the sultry skill of a tight-wire artist.
What Spike Jonze captured in “Being John Malkovich” was the same sexy quality apparent in “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Ripley’s Game” and even “Shadow of the Vampire” (opposite fellow sinister hottie Willem Dafoe) – the aspect of being an enigma. The elusive Malkovich compels us with his unreadable, hence unattainable, demeanor, forever creating secretive characters to toy with us. Unlike hot-blooded Roth Malkovich is an ice prince, a cool tease. Rather than give us what we want he’ll always leave us begging for more.
From the start of his career the gangly song and dance man was just too weird to be a lead. As good as he was in “The Deer Hunter” Walken’s striking physicality and creepy charisma often overtake the character of Nick, and it wouldn’t be until madman Abel Ferrara came along to cast him in “King of New York” that his offbeat air of sexual menace was allowed to fully shine through. Even weirder Ferrara did the same for unconventional Harvey Keitel in “Bad Lieutenant.” Walken like Keitel makes you feel dirty just by watching him, as if there’s a pornographic subtext hidden inside his every line.