Huge Ackman: The Curious Case of Hugh Jackman’s Career

In the 2001 romantic comedy Kate & Leopold, Hugh Jackman plays a duke living in the late 1800s who falls through an unexplained time portal. He awakens in the very early 21st century, relatively injury free, to find himself in the apartment above Kate McKay, a market researcher played by Meg Ryan. They strike up an unlikely romance and go through the usual fish-out-of-water motions such movies demand (my God, he doesn’t know how to use a toaster!). From there, the film is, literally, linearly regressive. The story actively punishes Kate for even daring to think about pursuing a career, sending her back to the 1870s at the film’s end so she can be with the beloved duke ― effectively rescinding every aspect of her civic life, including, most obviously, the right to vote.

Upon the release of Kate & Leopold, Jackman was largely given positive critical notices, distinctly separate from Ryan’s drubbings. He was singled out for acting convincingly enough as to sell the foundational concept of the film. Such praise for an actor only seems to arrive when the film in question is as weak in premise as Kate & Leopold; shouldn’t there be some kind of moral criticism of Jackman for acting straight faced in such obviously atavistic material, rather than being lauded for simply possessing the skills necessary to sell hokum? Maybe not. Maybe 2001 was actually a long time ago, now worthy of our forgiveness. Either way, Kate & Leopold would prove to be the last breath of Meg Ryan’s romantic comedy career ― she clearly, and very understandably, appeared to want out of the majority of the film’s runtime ― but it would also serve as an introduction to Hugh Jackman’s successful man-out-of-time routine, one that has extended to his own public image (bizarrely, Kate & Leopold would also signal the start of a successful partnership with director James Mangold, who would go on to collaborate closely with Jackman on the final two Wolverine films).

This tension between his public personality and his actorly persona shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given how much Jackman manages to wring out of his character in the early-career Kate & Leopold. Jackman is, seemingly, at his very best when you place him somewhere within the span of the 19th century. In both Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) and Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman (2017) he plays characters ― in the former a deranged magician, in the latter a huckster of a ringleader ― obsessed with the pursuit of spectacle and showmanship. Jackman has let those roles deliberately bleed into his own professional pursuits, spending most of his 2019 showing how much he has learnt from the salesmen he once played. Newly 50, he has been busy indeed unrolling an international set of stadium tours, all under the title Hugh Jackman ― The Man. The Music. The Show

It might be telling that the clunky, declarative title doesn’t include The Actor in it, nor The Movies. Jackman seems to be positioning himself away from being considered as a great actor ― even though he sometimes really can be ― and is instead asking that you to read him as a cultural icon. Whatever its overall intentions, the enterprise ― and it is most certainly an enterprise ― signals the pomp and ceremony that Jackman is so good at serving up, at once serious and not.

The effort feels carried along by the fact of its very unlikeliness. Jackman has, in reality, only been on cinema screens for 20 years, and the notion of a stadium show feels like the kind of monumental, self-reflecting victory lap earned by someone who has spent much longer in our collective memories. The venture certainly risks his film legacy being reduced into wholesale product; he’s aware that there are, perhaps, people who only want to buy one thing from him: the malleable machismo of one James ‘Logan’ Howlett. From (practically unwatchable) leaked footage of the performances staged so far, Jackman appears accompanied by a montage of his past roles, as he operatically sings ‘The Greatest Show’, the almost titular track The Greatest Showman, and quips that if any audience members have come only knowing him from playing Wolverine, it might prove to be a long night for them.

As an actor, Jackman was almost completely unknown to mainstream audiences when he was introduced as Wolverine in the U.S. summer blockbuster season of 2000 in the unexpected hit X-Men (it was unlikely that he would have even registered that well with Australian viewers at the time). There’s an added layer of perversity to this: the rapid rise of his career in America was based almost solely on dumb luck. Scottish actor Dougray Scott was supposed to play the Wolverine role, but got caught up in delays on the Australian set of John Woo’s Mission Impossible 2 (2000). Jackman was only given the chance to audition after being recommended by Russell Crowe, who, having turned down the role himself, had called director Bryan Singer to make the case for his fellow countryman. Jackman was at the time starring in a revival production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, and had to go through nine auditions to secure the role, including attending one interview in a baseball cap, tamping down the perm he was wearing in order to play Curly McLain on stage. His commitment was duly noted.

Rewatching that first X-Men movie now, he is far more soft-featured than you remember; an uncanny experience, if only because the defining characteristic of that superhero is being grizzled. Jackman has described his own uncertainty when starting out in the role, understandable given the haste of his casting, and the outlandish, intimidating size of the players around him, including British theatre greats Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. After X-Men cemented his Hollywood status, however, he joined their stature, and was speedily cast in a number of roles intended as big swings. The results weren’t great, given that they include the grotty and confused post-Matrix hacker film Swordfish (2001) [if you wanted to see a blonde-tipped Hugh Jackman get a forced blowjob while being held at gunpoint, then this is the viciously empty film for you!] and a further attempt at a wolf-adjacent franchise in the overcooked Dracula revamp Van Helsing (2004). It seems that at some point after those lukewarm efforts, Jackman settled on following through with Wolverine’s franchise success, allegedly turning down the lucrative role of James Bond to focus on one franchise.

The American film and cultural critic Karen Han is partly known for her tongue-in-cheek ‘Karen’s Boys’ ― a makeshift category of male actors who, while not conventionally handsome, she believes to be worthy of being a ‘crush’. Han has edited two montage videos set to Charli XCX’s 2017 pop hit Boys featuring those deemed worthy of admission to her curated collection ― chief among them are Ben Mendelsohn and Noah Taylor, an informal distinction that posits both Australian actors as slightly cult figures, as opposed to mainstream break-outs like Russell Crowe or Guy Pearce, or, indeed, Hugh Jackman.

Inspired by Han, and her love for Mendelsohn in particular (and a little thirsty myself maybe), I decided, as a lark, to edit together my own version ― using only Australian actors in films set in Australia, or in films made by Australian directors. It somehow never even occurred to me to include Jackman in it. This could partly come down to the fact that Jackman is simply too conventionally handsome to be included within Han’s broad, underdog-championing guidelines, but then someone like Pearce did make the cut ― although Pearce has actively resisted the kind of casting that goes along with his level of good looks, whereas Jackman has leant into his. I would suggest, however, that Jackman’s absence in my mind in this experiment largely came from the fact that he just isn’t in many Australian films, and his cultural presence isn’t associated directly with Australian cinema.

Indeed, Jackman only had two pre-Wolverine Australian film credits to his name when he came into his American stardom. Those two films – Erskineville Kings and Paperback Hero – were both released in 1999 and the films again represented his two primary modes: one is an over-earnest family drama set in the inner west of Sydney, the other a cheesy romance. Jackman’s performances in both films are, respectively, vaguely threatening and charmingly vague. Erskineville Kings watches like an extended vanity project for its lead actor – and the writer of the film ― Marty Denniss, who, like Jackman, had graduated from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and who, unlike Jackman, never appeared in another film. Undeniably, the movie plays more like an extended showreel for Jackman than an actual film (despite the fact that he doesn’t show up until half an hour in). The rest of the actors, including a baby-faced Joel Edgerton, come off as amateur at best, and first time director Alan White includes long takes of characters moodily walking between locations as clumsy scene transitions, which makes it feel like an undergraduate effort. That the film somehow managed to capture one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in the brief seconds before they became so is some kind of miracle at work. 

Paperback Hero, meanwhile, is just as throwaway ― or at least as single-use ― as its title suggests. That film briefly seemed to set Jackman up for a future of romantic lead roles, confirmed by Kate & Leopold and the completely forgotten Someone Like You (2001), but he hasn’t since made a return to the genre. Indeed, Jackman’s career has been one of repetitions and refusals. Jackman didn’t return to Australia to make a film until, well, Australia in 2008 (unless you count his voice work in Happy Feet (2006) as an Elvis-singing penguin, which you probably shouldn’t). He was evidently returning a favour by replacing Russell Crowe in Baz Lurhmann’s chaotic, ham-fisted attempt at national mythmaking, but the film more or less flopped in the U.S, and Jackman hasn’t made a film in Australia again since. The lack of another homecoming might circle back around to the fact that he only made two films here before his American conversion. Where other actors in his position, like Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, have certainly returned home to help out local filmmakers that they had connections to, or in order to support the local industry more broadly, Jackman perhaps never felt he owed his home country the same dues.

In 2009, when anticipating that year’s Oscars which Jackman would memorably host, the American film critic Dana Stevens joked that she liked to call him ‘Huge Ackman’. Stevens’ homophone, written in an epistolary wrap-up of the previous year’s films to fellow critics, was in part to point out what she saw as Jackman’s indistinctness:

“…he’s always had, to me, the same strangely rubberized quality as Kim Basinger or early Richard Gere; if you sliced him down the middle, he’d be the same consistency all the way through, like a Barbie doll.

This plastic toy-like quality must derive from the fact that Jackman’s filmography is marked by repeat performances of a living action figure, but perhaps Stevens was right in suggesting that there is a kind of surface-level sheen to Jackman that blinds us to what would otherwise be memorable detail. The biographical facts of his life, for instance, don’t stick out like those of other actors. Until researching this essay I had completely erased from my mind that he had attended the same university as me, and had, in fact, graduated from the exact same degree. It felt like it took years before his affable friendships with the key players of the reigning American political nightmare, Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump, were reported on. His neutral stance on such relationships has been self-pardoned by the fact that he doesn’t “talk politics at birthday parties” – a perspective that feels historically out-of-step with many of his Hollywood contemporaries. Dana Stevens also saw Jackman as an anachronistic throwback, questioning whether he might have plausibly appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, or have squired “Claudette Cobert to the Brown Derby?”

It might not be an obvious comparison, but I would suggest the closest contemporary to Jackman working today is surely the unimpeachable Tom Cruise. They seem to share some kind of similar internal processing hardware, the same chaotic devotion to pleasing audiences above anything else. They project the same relentless affability in public appearances. They share the same unwavering belief in the good of franchises, and the same dedication to pushing bodily extremes. Like Cruise, Jackman has only made a couple of serious attempts at playing against type in darker fare, in the now practically nonexistent thriller Deception (2008) and in Denis Villeneuve’s American debut Prisoners (2013), a self-serious ‘missing child’ awards season player that hides the deliciously nutty melodrama at its core. 

Nowhere was this connection between the two actors clearer than the scene Jackman caused at Oprah’s Australian farewell tour. Four years earlier, Cruise had torpedoed his own career by jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch. Jackman’s subconscious mind seemingly tried to one-up Cruise by jumping off the top of the Sydney Opera House, sailing down a flying fox before smashing into a lighting rig at the top of the stage where he was supposed to gracefully alight, and instead nearly cut his eye open. This wrongheaded gameness extends to grotesque extremes in the unwanted sketch anthology movie Movie 43 (2013), in which Jackman wears a prosthetic scrotum glued to his neck, and Kate Winslet tries to keep a straight face as his beleaguered scene partner. Such is the fate of the song and dance man; he’ll tap to the beat you give him, and beat you to any joke you can make about him.

The quasi-mythology of Jackman’s career isn’t complete, of course, without pointing to his musical theatre background, or his time spent on Broadway, in particular his portrayal of Peter Allen in the jukebox musical, The Boy From Oz, a role for which he won Best Leading Actor in a Musical at the 2004 Tony Awards. Allen, a fellow Australian who also practically disappeared into the American cultural lexicon (despite being well known for singing longingly about his home country) was a perfect fit for Jackman. It is not that, like Allen, Jackman is un-Australian (an undeniably fraudulent category), but rather that he is very Australian indeed ― but more than happy to shed his cultural markers to please America, while making a healthy profit from her, too (indeed, Jackman took the role from its original star Todd McKenney for the Broadway production). Likewise, Peter Allen’s broad, camp theatrics let Jackman play to the back of the room ― one has to imagine that this ability to sell anything in which one appears is derived from the cultivated charms that go along with perfecting theatre of this kind.

The bifurcated nature of Jackman’s career has meant that he has had access to a greater range of publicity opportunities than other actors. A particularly savvy Reddit user posted a photograph of two magazines – Muscle & Fitness and Good Housekeeping – with Jackman on the cover exhibiting ‘the difference between marketing for men and women’.

Apart from the criticism of gendered media bias, what is clear here is that Jackman is something of a living translation of the ‘Get you a man who can do both’ meme. He is both the tough man and the soft touch, and this, of course, speaks to a supposedly desirable and marketable form of contemporary masculinity. The delineations, for one, are simply too neat, and the ‘Nice Guy / übermensch’ hybrid airbrushes out the messy complications of real life. 

The broad appeal of Jackman’s mass marketing has also, of course, led to the indistinctness that Dana Stevens grappled with ten years ago. Part of the hefty dramatic weight of his final outing as Wolverine in Logan (2017), carried in the movies final moments as a once invincible character finally died, was surely a sigh of relief from audiences that Jackman was finally freed from the demanding 17 year project (finally retiring the diet of plain chicken breast and brown rice, alongside the unhealthy promotion of intermittent fasting sold by men’s magazines). Although, his superhuman efforts are not quite done: having already played cavernous venues like Madison Square Garden, Jackman is set to perform for an audience of 21,000, at each of the five shows – two in one day! – at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena.

The merging of Jackman’s musical and dramatic acting styles would finally cohere in his worthy performance as Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper’s otherwise turgid Les Miserables (2012). That was my thinking, at least, until seeing Jackman fully inhabit himself in The Greatest Showman. My wife and I walked past a bus stop ad for the film on New Year’s Day in 2018 as we carried ourselves to the cinemas while nursing twin hangovers. We were undecided about what to see in the dark, and I had only the slightest intuition that The Greatest Showman might provide some relief. From the opening number, we embarrassingly and uncontrollably sobbed through every song. Inasmuch as hangovers have special qualities, they have a powerful capacity to completely distort your emotional register, opening you up to being more emotionally vulnerable than usual ― more open to, say, enjoying a film about a con artist and his all-singing, all-dancing crew of circus performers (and one which whitewashes darker historical facts about its lead character). 

We went back a week later, like many others, to see it again. The film, with all its extremes of glossy pop, serves as a sugary rush and, for practical purposes, invites comforting replays. Which is to say, it does the job and then some. Indeed, repeat viewings were key to the film’s overall box office success; in America the film made a rare increase from its opening weekend to its next, jumping a record 76%, the highest ever for a film shown on more than 3000 screens.

Leaving the cinema after watching The Greatest Showman for a third time, I could not help but appreciate it as more than just a highly airbrushed biography of P.T. Barnum. In my mind, it simply played as ‘The Story of Hugh Jackman as Told By Hugh Jackman.’ There was the great joy of watching someone hit the notes only they can hit. It’s The Greatest Showman, after all, more than any other role, that seems to have prompted a demand for a stadium tour, although Jackman had toured a smaller, medley driven version of it before as Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway. Perhaps, for Jackman, there was simply the added promise of living a little longer in the role that must have felt like a second skin. The auto-nostalgia of this phase is also understandable in the wake of two final Wolverine films that were almost exclusively and morbidly preoccupied with mortality.

In Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), Russell Crowe’s Maximus gives us the famous line, ‘are you not entertained?’, with spectatorship (and anti-spectatorship) in mind. You get the feeling the line should somehow belong to Jackman instead. Crowe threw out the question in spite, unimpressed by his own audience, whereas a Jackman reading might sound more like he’s asking if you would like another cocktail, another canapé, another go at watching him dance atop the pool table. In everything he does, he genuinely seems to care if you’re having a good time. It might not necessarily be a quality that makes for a great actor, but it is one that makes for a peerless entertainer.

Such nonstop enthusiasm has meant that Jackman has been immune to most forms of criticism, which has, perhaps, denied him convincing biographical portraiture too. But what does that matter? In August, in stadiums around Australia, Jackman will stand on stage alone, enveloped by the empty air of oversized arenas, and we’ll get to see exactly how he wants to author the story of his own career.

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Sam Twyford-Moore is the author of The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania, which was released by NewSouth Publishing in 2018.

Sam Twyford-Moore