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A History of People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive

Every one but one (Denzel) is white. Every one but one (Sean) has hair. Most often the hair is dark but sometimes it’s blonde (Brad, Jude, Matthew) and twice it’s been gray (Richard, Harrison). Every one but one (John, Jr.) is an actor. Most are film actors and most of the film actors have been leading men and three of these (Sean, Denzel, George) have won Academy Awards. Every one but one (John, Jr.) is alive.

They are the sexiest men alive, and they’ve been around since 1985.

At one time, in the 1970s, feminism tried to fight the objectification of women, but since this was dull, pointless work, and since women came into money and careers of their own, what was good for the gander became good for the goose. The “Sexiest Man Alive” series was part of this trend. Plus it was a great marketing ploy. It had a variant of the word “sexy” in the title, which always attracts attention (see: this article), and it provoked debate. It was like Time’s “Man of the Year,” but, you know, sexier. If the man you want on the cover is the man you want under the covers, then Mel Gibson had it all over Deng Xiaoping.

But questions remain. Is it unmanful to be the Sexiest Man Alive (since you’re an object), or is it the ultimate in alpha-malehood (since you’re, you know, the sexiest man alive)? Does being the Sexiest Man Alive help or hurt a film career? Finally, is there something about being the Sexiest Man Alive that encourages religious fervor? A kind of “I’ve conquered the lower desires, now I must seek the higher ones” philosophy?

The high priests

If you’re going to pick your religion based upon its Sexiest Man Alive representative — and what better way is there? — I don’t know why you wouldn’t go with Tibetan Buddhism. Gere projects an inner calm, while the other two act kind of nuts. They’re manic. Gibson, at least, feels slyly manic. Even during the whole “Passion of the Christ debate, even when he was threatening the life of Frank Rich’s dog, there was a wink in there somewhere. Tom Cruise’s manic behavior, in contrast, always feels humorless and combative. If you don’t agree with me I’ll stick my finger in your face! It’s got a Nietzschian Overman quality to it. Man is something to be overcome. He’s doing it; why can’t you? Haven’t you read the research?

I’ll give Cruise this, though: unlike a lot of movie stars (such as Gibson), he seems to revel in playing fairly despicable guys. He’s either a villain, as in “Collateral” and “Interview with the Vampire,” or an unlikable hero, as in “War of the Worlds” and “The Last Samurai.” He played his most likeable character 15 years ago — Lt. Daniel Kaffee in “A Few Good Men,” and he was good at it — but he was at his best, and most unlikable, as the misogynistic self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” Here’s the fascinating part. As he was being interviewed by the female reporter, and glared at her warily through a big tight grin, the character seemed only a step or two removed from the Cruise character we see promoting his latest film on entertainment shows. That is: spooky.

Richard Gere is also at his best playing unlikable heroes (“An Officer and a Gentleman”) and villains (“Internal Affairs”). He has too much inner calm to play nice guys and comes off as bland instead. He was offered the title role of “The Jackal,” a professional assassin, but chose the hero role instead. Bad move. The movie needed his calm cold efficiency to root against.

As for Gibson? He was the first Sexiest Man Alive, and remains, for a generation, the uber-Sexiest Man Alive. Back then he was known for his impossible Aussie cool (“Mad Max”) and smoldering sexuality (“The Year of Living Dangerously”). After the award he became known for comic craziness (the “Lethal Weapon” series, “Hamlet,” “Conspiracy Theory”) and blood-soaked, crucified triumph (“Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ”). His latest, “Apocalypto,” currently filming in Mexico, has just been delayed because of heavy rains. Maybe somebody doesn’t like Mel’s movies as much as he thinks.

The TV guys

The first two are mostly known for their TV roles, although the characters they played (on “St. Elsewhere” and “L.A. Law,” respectively), weren’t particularly vivid. Other characters had the quirks; they were calm, handsome epicenters.

JFK, Jr. was also a calm, handsome epicenter on a show filled with quirky characters: the 1988 Democratic convention. Years later he reprised the role as the object of Elaine Benes’ affection on “Seinfeld.” Ironic that this, his best performance, wasn’t really him but someone playing him. Who knows? Maybe that’s what his life felt like. The only non-actor to make the cut, he was an inspired choice: essentially American royalty. The handsomest prince from our saddest fairy tale.

The forgotten sexiest men (part I)

Connery had just won the Oscar for “The Untouchables” and was starring as Indiana Jones’ father in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” There’s no doubt that his buzz, and the “Sexiest” title, gave him the clout he needed throughout the 1990s — to make some really bad movies. From “Highlander II: The Quickening,” through “Medicine Man” and “First Knight,” to “Entrapment,” he was in some visible stinkers.

The SMA title seemed to do nothing for Patrick Swayze. After “Ghost,” his most memorable role of the 1990s was competing against Chris Farley as rival Chippendales dancers on a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Then he went on to such feature films as “City of Hope,” “Fatherhood” and “Three Wishes.” Yeah, I don’t remember them either.

Those who know Nick Nolte mostly for his infamously disheveled mugshot a few years back will no doubt be surprised to see him on this list; but in ’92 he’d just made Babs’ “Prince of Tides,” and that film appealed to People’s sentimental demographic. To be honest, I’d like to see more men like Nolte here. He has a “Don’t give a shit” aura about him. He takes risks and makes good, small movies, and he was memorable as Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall in one of the best movies of the 1990s: Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.” Rent it. Buy it. Live it.

The Golden Age

After Swayze and Nolte, People seemed to reach a dead end, anointing their one-and-only “Sexiest Couple Alive” in ‘93 (Gere and Cindy Crawford), and, like the World Series, not playing at all in ’94. Turns out they were merely retooling. For the next six years, bookended by Brad Pitt in ’95 and Brad Pitt in ’00, they achieved a kind of Golden Age in which all the actors chosen were big stars and good actors whose careers didn’t tailspin afterwards but stayed level or kept rising: Brad, Denzel, George Clooney, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere and Brad again. Not a Harry Hamlin in the bunch.

Denzel also does scuzzy well but his most memorable roles are intense ones: “Glory,” “Malcolm X,” “He Got Game,” “Training Day” and “Inside Man.” He’s a competitive sonofabitch and he’s best playing competitive sons of bitches. Lately he’s specialized in the hero we’re not sure is a hero: “Remember the Titans” and “Man on Fire” and the like. The Jackie Robinson of the group, he’s still waiting for a Larry Doby (or a Roberto Clemente or an Ichiro Suzuki) to be called up. And all the while Terrence Howard is tearing up the minors.

Unlike the others in this group, Harrison Ford was chosen at what looks like the tail-end of his career. His best roles were 20 and 30 years ago, and he hasn’t made a decent film since “The Fugitive” in ’93. He needs to realize he’s not 40 anymore. Or 50. Or 60.

Pierce Brosnan (2001) was a good choice, our second-best Bond ever, and he may wind up in the Golden Age category someday. But since him we’ve gotten the fallen half of Bennifer, Ben Affleck (2002), the sudden, box-office Pirate of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp (2003), and Alfie Redux, Jude Law (2004). The odd thing about Depp and Law is that while they’re great actors they rarely play sexy. Depp, in particular, usually plays odd, asexual Tim Burton man-boys. All elbows. Not sexy.

Think global, act local

So perhaps it’s time to retool again. Perhaps People can do the unthinkable and go outside the acting community to find their Sexiest Man Alive. Aren’t there sexy athletes? Singers? Politicians? Firemen? Teachers? Chauffeurs? Postmen? Insurance underwriters? Surely some of these guys can’t be worse than Ben Affleck.

A better alternative, of course, is for women everywhere to put down the gossip rags and find their own Sexiest Man Alive. It would be like the environmental dictate “Think Global, Act Local,” but, you know, sexier. And ladies? Please be gentle when anointing.

—Although never Sexiest Man Alive, Erik Lundegaard did place second to Dave Paulson for “Biggest Bookworm” at Bryant Junior High School. This piece was originally published 5/4/2006 on MSNBC.com.