Why Alden Ehrenreich Deserves Your Respect
Standing at just under six-feet tall, Alden Ehrenreich has, literally, a big job ahead of him in the coming weeks: filling the shoes of the six-foot-two Harrison Ford and winning over audiences as the new face of Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Ford enraptured audiences decades ago as the space smuggler; with his trademark disinterest, he performed the rare feat of creating a character whose diegetic legend actually birthed an unlikely pop-culture icon of equal prowess. Only a short time before the release of Solo, fans and general audiences seem to be worried about one aspect of the movie more than anything else: that being Alden Ehrenreich. Can the mostly unheard of actor actually rise to the challenge of embodying one of the most legendary characters of American film history? I don’t know. But for my money, Ehrenreich earned my respect two years ago playing one of the finest characters of this decade in Hail, Caesar!.
In Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers 1950s-set Hollywood anthology, Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, a young Western actor who mostly stars in singing cowboy musicals. Far from being an unnoticed face among an all-star cast of George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, and a tap-dancing Channing Tatum, Ehrenreich steals the stage the moment he enters on the set of one of his westerns. He is equally physically comedic and impressive. Doyle moves from twirling matching pistols to running and jumping onto his trusty steed to eventually performing a handstand on the horse and dismounting by latching his legs onto a nearby tree.
Ehrenreich’s best turn in the movie though is when Capitol Pictures, Doyle’s studio, calls him up to be in a costume drama directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). The twangy cowboy obviously does not fit into the world of the prestige stage drama -- he literally doesn’t fit as one shoe is too large and squeaks with every step he takes. The scene culminates in the most memorable moment of the movie as Doyle and Laurentz repeat the line, “Would that it were so simple,” to each other.
The Coens have always had a knack for creating memorable characters. The baby-stealing H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) from Raising Arizona, the efficient and pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) from Fargo, and the entire cast of The Big Lebowski all come to mind. Hobie Doyle manages to become more than just an exhilarating and funny side character, though. He joins the ranks of H.I., Marge, and the Dude as one of the Coen's great heroes. And Doyle never could have worked as a character without Ehrenreich.
Entering the star-studded movie, Ehrenreich seemed like the unlikely hero. Not only does his do-good star Doyle come across as more of a confused pushover, but Ehrenreich himself surprises as the one who ties the threads of the movie together stronger than even Brolin’s Eddie Mannix. When his back is against the wall, however, and even Mannix, the studio fixer, doesn’t know how to fix the problem of returning their kidnapped movie star, Hobie jumps into action. He bails on one of the cutest dates of all time with Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) -- which includes spaghetti lassos and two young stars hitting it off -- to track down the missing star.
I’d be stretching to say the movie turns serious when Hobie begins his hunt. Hail, Caesar! Constantly flirts with the absurd. Yet when Hobie begins to drive to the coast, the Coens fix a camera on his face. The weight of the moment relies almost entirely on Ehrenreich as shots of Hollywood streets are superimposed across his face and windshield determining him to not be the reflection of the facades, but to be the one breaking through the facades and revealing a true, determined self. The montage is followed by the another serious moment in the film as Mannix, a man struggling with his Catholic faith in spite of his job, approaches the fake cross, set-up for the scenes of Jesus’s crucifixion, and has a seemingly spiritual experience in this space between his two worlds: the Church and Hollywood.
Hobie Doyle emerges as the hero in a world that he thought he could just skirt through. This reminds me of Han’s journey in the first Star Wars. While Hobie is never openly opposed to helping others (he just comes across as unknowing), Han entirely neglects his companions only to return in the last moments to be the hero the galaxy needed. In both cases, the true self and their true drive pushes through their defensive exterior to reveal a hero with a burdened heart.
Ehrenreich may not sound too familiar to most people, but in his short ten-year career, he has already cemented himself as a director’s actor. He kicked off his career starring in the two most recent films from legendary director Francis Ford Coppola (Tetro and Twixt). From there he filled an uncredited role in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, and played a supporting role in Park Chan-Wook’s terrific Stoker. Most notable, though, is his relationship with Warren Beatty. Ehrenreich remarked in a 2017 interview with W Magazine that he first auditioned for Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply in 2009 when he had a 4 hour dinner with Beatty. He then says that the audition lasted for another 5 years. Rules Don’t Apply was Beatty’s first film in nearly 20 years and finally released in 2016.
Disney famously fired Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie) as the directors of Solo and replaced them with Ron Howard in 2017. Lord and Miller had hired Ehrenreich to play Han Solo and developed the film around his persona. While Ehrenreich might not yet have proven himself as one of the great actors of the moment, he has carried an ensemble film from two of the great living directors, forged a relationship with one of American cinema’s foundational families, and starred in Warren Beatty’s quiet passion project. Whether Ehrenreich perfectly embodies the space smuggler or not, he can undoubtedly bring new depth to the character and can hopefully catapult himself completely into the role of total movie star.