Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam, who was originally set to play kinky billionaire Christian Grey in the movie adaptation of the best-selling Twilight-fan-fiction-turned-erotic-bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey series, dropped out of the project. And perhaps who can blame him? The attention was apparently overwhelming — Sons is a hit, but of a different magnitude, and on a different wavelength than Fifty Shades — and taking attention away from Hunnam’s work on Sons. Universal, which is producing the project, had hired bodyguards to create space between Hunnam and fans, not all of whom were particularly pleased by his casting. And The Hollywood Reporter suggests that Hunnam had a great number of script notes (the movie has hired a writer for a polish).
But as Universal looks for Hunnam’s replacement, I think there’s a larger issue at stake. As Molly Lambert wrote at Grantland, “The project is both coveted and untouchable among young actors. It will either be a huge hit with its intended audience or a laughable bomb on the scale of Caligula, punished for the sin of trying to combine mainstream entertainment with pornography.” But it’s not merely that the part, which follows Grey as he deflowers and provides BDSM training to a virginal recent college graduate, is intensely sexual. It’s that taking on the mantle of Christian Grey requires the actor who plays the role to accept that he’ll become, to an unusual degree, a sex object whose primary role is to be consumed by female fans.
In Fifty Shades Of Grey, Christian himself is undeniably in charge, both in the terms of the contractual BDSM relationship he negotiates with Anastasia, who becomes his lover, and in their interactions outside of it. After their initial meeting, he approaches Anastasia about the prospect of entering into a relationship with him. When she explains that she’s a virgin without much real sense of her own sexual desire, much less a knowledge of BDSM that would guide her decision about whether or not to accept Christian’s offer, Christian has sex with her to give her some idea of what she might be in for. The contract she ultimately signs gives Christian broad control over Anastasia’s life, including determining who gives her medical care, regulating her eating, and regulating her time and availability to him. And his financial resources mean that he can do things like charter a private jet and simply show up wherever Anastasia’s on vacation. Christian ultimately shows a certain amount of flexibility in his dealings with Anastasia as part of the book’s larger theme, which is that Anastasia’s charms pull him away from his commitment to keeping his sexual partners at a distance. But the hierarchy of the relationship remains relatively consistent, with Christian on top and Anastasia negotiating from the bottom.
But a crucial part of that dynamic is that Anastasia is the object of pursuit, rather than the other way around. The female character isn’t a supplicant, a beauty whose appeal is mysteriously disguised behind a pair of glasses, a heavier woman whose erotic capital has been overlooked and who is longing after a man who she thinks is beyond her reach. Christian may be the dominant partner in the specific dynamics of his relationship with Anastasia once it’s begun, but she has one crucial power that is unavailable to him: she can decide whether she wants him or not. That’s a rather radical inversion of the conventional dynamic in romance dramas, in which the climax of any third act involves the man recognizing the value in the woman he’s missed all along and declaring himself. The friction between Anastasia’s role as a decision-maker and the restrictions on her life she agrees to accept once she’s consented to the relationship is where much of the raw power of Fifty Shades comes from.
That sense of female power extends to the manifestation of Christian Grey on-screen, as well.
The main obligation of the man who takes the part is to fulfill the sexual fantasies of the heterosexual women who are the overwhelming audience for Fifty Shades. Given the thinness of the writing, his responsibility to create a compelling character is relatively minimal. It’s possible that whatever script Sam Taylor-Johnson ends up shooting on November 1 will invest more detail in fleshing out both Christian and Anastasia, but if it does, that isn’t likely to be a major selling point for the final product. What matters is his ability to smolder in a corporate office, his comfort with extended sex scenes, and his plausibility as a dominant.
What also counts, and this is where it gets complicated, is how well he fits into the pre-existing perspectives fans bring to the movies. Grey is supposed to be some sort of combination between Robert Pattinson — which makes sense, given the series’ origin as Twilight fan fiction — and Ryan Gosling, neither of whom was interested in the role. He’s supposed to be slim but ripped, which may have been one reason some fans were dissatisfied with Hunnam, who’s somewhat more hulking than he is hipster. There’s the “copper” hair, which can be handled with tint, and the grey eyes, which can be done with contacts. But lots of women have their own private Christian Greys in their heads, and it’s unlikely that whoever ultimately takes the role will fit neatly into all of their preconceptions.
In that sense, auditioning to play Christian Grey, much less accepting the part, subjects the actors in question not just to the prospect of participating in a flop, but to the kind of looks-based gauntlet that their female counterparts face constantly. It’s incredibly rare to have a significant part to a man where the value of the role is so dominated by sex appeal, rather than a cocktail of leadership abilities, professional and financial success, with sex appeal added in at the last minute like a dash of simple syrup, if it’s not simply inferred by the former qualities. And it’s also quite rare to turn the determination of what makes a man sexy turned over so wholly to women, and to have that determination depend so heavily on the state of a man’s body, rather than by his other attributes.
If a fellow didn’t want to go through that experience — and didn’t want to go through that experience in a film that carries the risk of sticking to him throughout his career in all the wrong ways — it would be hard to blame him. It’s one thing to be Kyle MacLachlan and to have Showgirls as an silly footnote on your career. It’s quite another to be Elizabeth Berkley, and to end up substantially defined by a striptease and a splashy romp in a pool. Fifty Shades Of Grey reverses the normal sexual equation, putting a man in a position normally reserved for women: required to be intensely sexual and but open to potential ridicule for it. No actor, male or female, wants to be in that position. Fifty Shades is just a reminder that men have less practice at steeling themselves against the possibility.