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Comic Reel-lief
Behind the Mask: Tobey Maguire

By Ian Wilson
04 October 2007 You may not think it by looking at him, but Tobey Maguire is in his early 30s and only a scant year younger than Christian Bale. Of course, many actors in Hollywood may seem forever young; indeed, your Nickelodeon / Disney Channel / kid sitcom graduates often play to type. Child actors who bypassed TV roles, and thus weren't prancing in front of millions of eyes on a weekly basis for years on end, can get away with playing younger roles on film. Maguire came to prominence by following this formula, carefully avoiding sickening teen comedies and live action family fare. Indeed, if one were to typecast Maguire from 1997-2001, it would be, to borrow a phrase from Wikipedia, the "thoughtful boy coming of age". Without knowing it, Maguire was doing an extended internship for the role of Peter Parker.

It would be his collaboration with future Hulk director Ang Lee in 1997 that would bring Maguire to the attention of critics. Playing a sexually charged teenager trying to bed Katie Holmes (many years before she would crop up as a Batman love interest), Maguire's role in The Ice Storm showed him playing a youth who, like the rest of his family, is confused with ethics. Even with critical acclaim, a renowned director and a cast that included Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood, the film did not make any sort of profit until it was released on video. Despite this, Maguire moved on to bit parts in films by Woody Allen and Terry Gilliam (Deconstructing Harry and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, respectively) before landing my favorite role of his in one of my favorite films ever: Pleasantville.

This was Maguire's first true starring role; a geeky teenager who gets trapped in his favorite 50s sitcom along with his popular elder sister, both of whom assume the identities of the children of the lead family. Whilst Maguire does his best to fit in as Bud, his sister (Reese Witherspoon) starts corrupting the black and white environment of Pleasantville by sleeping around, releasing the inhibitions of the captain of the basketball team, leading to him becoming Technicolored. As Pleasantville starts seeing more and more colors coming out as individual inhibitions are released (be these inhibitions sexual, artistic or intellectual), a cultural rift comes in place between those who are "pleasant" and those that are "not so pleasant." Whilst Bud initially tries to conserve the purity of the town, he becomes the biggest champion of the progressive colored people, including his television mother and his sister after she begins an interest in reading for pleasure.

This was undoubtedly the film that made me a fan of Maguire's. Admittedly, the film has a lot working in its favor anyway. The cast includes William H. Macy, Joan Allen (again playing Maguire's mother), Jeff Daniels and J.T. Walsh in his final role. And the cinematography is beautiful throughout; and I rarely notice a film's cinematography! But Maguire is the star here, quickly realizing that his television escape from the nightmarish real world is restrictive and just as imperfect as real life. His own change, from a humble geek to an assertive leader, is handled expertly and Maguire played his leading role well. At the age of 23, Maguire had carried a movie, playing a character that was at least six years younger. The age disparity for Spider-Man was larger (a 26 year old playing an 18 year old) but similarly believable.

After the disappointment of an unsuccessful second pairing with Ang Lee for Civil War drama Ride with the Devil, Maguire rebounded with the Academy Award-winning film The Cider House Rules. Whilst it was co-star Michael Caine who won the acting honors, Maguire again led the cast as an orphan fostered by an abortionist embarking on adulthood during World War II. Alongside future Oscar winner Charlize Theron and future Spider-Man co-star J.K. Simmons, Maguire again made an impression, leading to him being cast in the critically acclaimed Wonder Boys. In a supporting role behind Michael Douglas as the movie's protagonist, Maguire played a darker, troubled literary student. Here he was reunited with Katie Holmes and would enjoy a tryst with the future Tony Stark, Robert Downey, Jr. That's right folks, if you want to see Spider-Man and Iron Man get it on, this is the film for you! Finally, Maguire lent his youthful voice to the young dog protagonist in Cats & Dogs, doing battle with a cat called Mr. Tinkles. Needless to say, Cats & Dogs was a much bigger financial success than Wonder Boys.

So then along came Spider-Man. Beating out James Franco (who would capture the role of Harry Osborn), as well as Scott Speedman and his real life best pal Leonardo DiCaprio, Maguire was the preferred choice of director Sam Raimi, who had been impressed with Maguire's turn in The Cider House Rules. Being seen more as a Peter Parker type than a Spider-Man, Maguire prepared for his role by training with a climbing expert, a martial arts expert, a physical trainer and a yoga instructor as well as studying spiders. As such, the scrawny body of Parker's shown in his bedroom mirror shortly before the effects of the transformation began to kick in was that of a double Maguire's true physique was the toned, muscular build that Parker gaped at in awe the next morning. Enjoying a brief flirtation with his co-star Kirsten Dunst, Maguire would enjoy even better write-ups for his portrayal of Parker and the accompanying superstardom that came with portraying one of the most iconic comic book characters of all.

Each installment of the franchise would see Maguire take on a different side of Peter Parker. The first film dealt with Parker handling his origins and learning that "with great power comes great responsibility," whilst playing out his serious crush on Mary Jane Watson. The sequel would see a miserable Parker abandon the mantle of Spider-Man after it affected his personal life too much, whereas the final part of the trilogy saw Parker's dark side emerge leading to the creation of Venom. Each time, Maguire stepped up to the plate admirably. After concerns that he would not reprise the role due to back injuries sustained during the making of his 2003 film Seabiscuit, the actor returned and even poked fun at the drama surrounding his return when a de-powered Spider-Man clutched his back after a great fall. Again, Maguire got good notices, although co-star Alfred Molina would effectively steal the movie as Dr. Octopus. The third installment would be less well-received. The film called upon Parker to be arrogant, hurt, angered, distraught and then finally, a douchebag. Whilst this is not to say Maguire didn't have to show range in the previous two installments, the cramped script forced Parker to be vastly, almost uncharacteristically different from scene to scene. Jumping between dealing with Harry, MJ, Eddie Brock, Aunt May, Sandman, Jameson, the landlord's daughter and Venom repeatedly typified the somewhat uneven feel of the movie and Maguire received something of a backlash. Whilst Internet opinion is obviously easily dismissible, criticism ranged from Maguire phoning his performance in, to him "looking" like he feels much better than the film / role. Admittedly, few people came out of Spider-Man 3 with high praise (most plaudits went to Thomas Haden Church as Sandman, and Topher Grace was well-received by all save the most puritanical of comic book readers for his take on Eddie Brock). But with that criticism out there, and with three films now to look back upon, was Maguire really the best choice for the role?

I would argue that he was. Peter Parker is a fundamentally different kind of hero to most other comic book icons. In addition to his smarts and all-too-human emotions (RE: guilt), Parker is above all, a young superhero. Finding a young, yet mature actor who could be trusted to carry such a franchise isn't easy. And in casting Maguire, Raimi tweaked the expectations of what this franchise would be. For someone who has grown up in dramatic roles as a youth, Maguire would undoubtedly get his teeth into the more heady subject matter of Spider-Man. He is a kid who feels responsible for his uncle's death and has to act to stop crime before other dire consequences come out, even if it endangers or gets in the way of the things that he loves. Any schmuck can play a young action hero (please stand up, Chris Evans) but it takes ability to show why he would choose to dresses up in lycra to fight crime instead of going out on the town with girls. Even when Parker strays into his dark side or gives up the responsibility, Maguire conveys just how badly his dilemmas affect him in a subtle way. Harsher critics jeer at how Maguire's acting style extends to him widening his eyes at situations, but it's more than that; even if Maguire admittedly uses his eyes a lot they're the most expressive feature that humans have after all. It is the subtlety that makes Spider-Man's humor so good when it comes, such as him asking where all these freaks come from as he empties his boot of sand, or the hilarious elevator scene in the second film.

The future for Maguire is promising. Whilst he was a good actor before the franchise came along, the role of Peter Parker has turned him into a big name star and gives him several options. Contrary to reports before the release of Spider-Man 3, Maguire has not ruled out returning to the role for the proposed fourth installment. Were he to take that up, he would be first person to play the main hero over four films in the same series since Christopher Reeve as Superman, although Hugh Jackman and Sir Ian McKellen will reprise their roles for a fourth time beforehand in their respective X-Men spin-offs. (As such, expect to see those two in future editions of Behind the Mask.) But if Maguire were to decline future appearances, his career is unlikely to suffer. His next films will see him star as a music-loving mute in a romantic comedy and then in a film adaptation of a writer who sees a column of his (interestingly one which has the main character as a superhero) turned into a film, only for the director of said film to turn up dead. Both films will expand Maguire's palate away from action and thoughtful drama. One day Maguire will win an Oscar if Halle Berry can get one, there's hope for all in the acting community. But Maguire is an actor of depth, even if he hasn't reached his full potential yet, and he certainly has the talent to leave behind the stigma of "being Spider-Man" that might affect the Academy judges again, George Clooney won an Oscar, despite being the worst on-screen Batman to date.

One thing is for definite. Sony is definitely making three more Spider-Man films. And I, for one, will be sad if Maguire doesn't return. I can do without Franco and I can really do without Dunst, but Maguire, more than any actor out there, is Peter Parker. Even though he'll be 35 by the time Spider-Man 4 hits, I still don't know whether anyone else could pull off the youthful Parker more believably. Anybody can play a man in a Spider-Man suit, but it takes a special kind of actor to play the man underneath. And for Raimi's series, Tobey Maguire remains to be that man.


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