Back in 1999, a floppy-haired, wide-eyed aspiring actor posed a question to his screen idol Sean Penn on Inside the Actors Studio.
“Hey, Mr. Penn. I’m Bradley Cooper, a second-year actor,” he nervously said. “My question is regarding Hurlyburly: What was it like to revisit this character, Eddie, after a 10-year hiatus? Did you have new discoveries? Did you find that it was a different approach, because you had already done this character before?”
He leaned in and listened intently as Penn responded, hanging on his every word. Back then, Cooper was just a 24-year-old second-year acting student. How time flies.
This weekend, Cooper’s film American Sniper—whose domestic box-office total currently stands at $332.2 million—will officially pass The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 ($337 million) and Guardians of the Galaxy ($333 million) as 2014’s highest-grossing film. It’s a feat attributable to many dynamics, yet lost amidst the bickering over the film’s politics, or talk about its shutout at the Oscars despite its astounding monetary haul, is the fact that it’s the latest in a string of triumphs for its star.
As the headliner in Sniper and the voice of wisecracking, gun-toting bounty hunter Rocket Raccoon in Guardians, Bradley Cooper starred in two of last year’s three biggest films. In the process, he earned himself a record-tying third straight Academy Award acting nomination (for Sniper, following his 2012 Best Actor nod for Silver Linings Playbook, and 2013 Best Supporting Actor nod for American Hustle)—the first time that’s happened since Russell Crowe pulled off the achievement in 1999-2002. Factor in his acclaimed (and lucrative) Broadway turn as the deformed Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man, and it’s hard to ignore that, at some point in late 2014, Bradley Cooper became the world’s biggest movie star.
But wait! I hear the naysayers crying. American Sniper’s popularity had less to do with Cooper than with its director, Clint Eastwood, and its biographical subject Chris Kyle, and ISIS-weary audiences’ hunger for a stirring story about a military hero dispatching Arab bad guys in the Middle East! And Guardians of the Galaxy’s success was mainly the result of Chris Pratt and director James Gunn’s sense of humor—and anyway, anyone could have voiced Rocket Raccoon and made the character an instant geek icon! Cooper was lucky to be in those projects, and his Oscar nominations have less to do with his talent than with a general dearth of great mainstream male performances! And, well, how dare you say that one of People magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive is actually, you know, our favorite leading man!
While it’s true that Cooper has made some shrewd professional choices over the past few years, his participation in one critical and/or commercial hit after another underlines the basic fact that audiences and critics alike like Cooper, want to watch him on-screen, and repeatedly feel he’s deserving of award recognition. From 2009-2014, Cooper has starred in numerous smashes: The Hangover ($277 million), The Hangover Part II ($254 million), Silver Linings Playbook ($132 million), American Hustle ($150 million), as well as the profitable Limitless ($79 million) and the ensemble romantic drama Valentine’s Day ($110 million). When you also take into consideration American Sniper and Guardians of the Galaxy, Cooper’s box-office track record is one to be reckoned with, and looks even more impressive when you realize that, before he became a lead, Cooper also played crucial roles in Yes Man ($97 million), He’s Just Not That Into You ($93 million), and Wedding Crashers ($209 million).
Only a handful of movie stars boast that sort of resume, and even fewer can lay claim to such popularity while also garnering the award-season recognition Cooper has received over the last three years. Cooper is only the tenth actor ever to score an Academy Award nomination three-peat, and the company that puts him in is, to say the least, illustrious: Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, William Hurt and Russell Crowe. Whether Cooper is as great as those legends is a topic for another debate, but his place alongside them in Oscar history speaks volumes about his current hot streak. For the last half-decade, Cooper has done consistently better work than just about anyone not named Meryl Streep (and even that’s questionable), and though his striking good looks and mega-watt charisma are no doubt a benefit to him with moviegoers and Oscar voters alike, his recent output suggests that he’s now at the top of the list of actors who can bring both credibility and commercial drawing power to a late-year prestige picture.
Moreover, Cooper has wracked up his trio of consecutive Academy nods for wildly different performances. Be it Playbook’s mentally unstable Philadelphian, Hustle’s ambitious Jheri-curled federal agent, or Sniper’s stout, nobly patriotic military man, Cooper has exhibited a deft ability to employ his magnetism in varied ways, so that in Playbook, his charm helps offset his character’s self-destructive hang-ups, and in Sniper, his irrepressible self-confidence helps convey—and augment—Chris Kyle’s unwavering sense of duty. In all three films, Cooper doesn’t turn his characters into versions of himself, but rather emphasizes parts of his natural appeal—his big smile, his hustler-type energy, his poise and quick-witted intelligence—in order to get to the heart of his protagonists.
Cooper’s primary big-screen persona may still be the preppie-playboy hunk à la The Hangover (and, to an even more amusingly smirky degree, The A-Team). Increasingly, however, that seems like just the easiest and most casual of the actor’s many guises. As his much-admired Broadway work in this season’s The Elephant Man reconfirms, Cooper now regularly ventures outside his grinning-stud comfort zone by taking on roles that, on the surface, might not necessarily seem like perfect matches. That’s true not only of Elephant Man, but even American Sniper, in which he’s wholly convincing in a role defined by traits one wouldn’t necessarily associate with him: physical robustness, guarded emotional sincerity, modest composure. It’s an undervalued turn that’s convincing without ever resorting to gimmickry. And as 2015 begins, it definitively establishes that he’s more than just a pretty face—he’s our preeminent movie star.