X Factor: The Rise of Bradley Cooper

Photo illustration by Jordan Bonney. Photos: Everrett Collection (5)/© Sarah Krulwich

What did it take for Bradley Cooper, of all people, to transcend typecasting and become “America’s greatest movie star”?

Show business feeds on a superabundance of talent (so much youth and beauty to exploit!), making the odds of success steep and every career a tricky tightrope walk. Especially for film actors, for whom talent, training, and looks aren’t enough. They must possess that mysterious, alchemical X factor that captivates the camera and clicks with audiences. And that offers no long-term insurance. Even those gleaming sensations who crack the major leagues may find themselves typecast in tired retreads or strapped to a critical and box-office bomb that leaves them combing debris out of their hair for years. Playing cute isn’t enough to cut it, not if you’re going to reach the next magnitude, and few have made more of a quantum jump than Bradley Cooper.

Hard to remember, but only a few years ago, Cooper was considered a bit of a joke, a pretty-boy lightweight puppyishly eager to please, much as Matthew McConaughey was relegated to the good ol’ boy B-list until the three home runs of Magic Mike, Dallas Buyers Club, and True Detective. Like McConaughey, Cooper was a certified sex symbol—People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive of 2011—but his bro-jinks from Wedding Crashers to The Hangover comedies popped out of the same jack-in-the-box. His nadir was All About Steve, a nattering rom-com that paired him with Sandra Bullock, the two of them winning a Razzie for Worst Screen Couple. But like Bullock, who turned it around big that year with The Blind Side, Cooper showed that going serious can be the best way to enjoy the last laugh. Giving his hedonistic grin a rest, he intensified his presence on screen with Limitless, a thriller about a writer who pops a nootropic pill that uncorks his inner genius, whereupon he directs his cerebral wizardry toward the stock market, running afoul of the Russian mob, which you never want to do—they’re such a moody bunch. The movie devolved into the usual murderous cat-and-mouse machinations, but Cooper proved he could be the pivot around which everything revolved and hold his own against Robert De Niro—no minor test. Since then, he has picked his projects smartly, from the glowery The Place Beyond the Pines to the raucous Guardians of the Galaxy, culminating in the glory hallelujah of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and American Sniper.

In retrospect, this second-stage thrust into the upper reaches looks like a can’t-fail feat of career engineering. But almost anything can appear beautifully choreographed in retrospect, and even a smart star can do everything right and still have it come out wrong. Ryan Gosling, Cooper’s costar in The Place Beyond the Pines and also a former rom-com heartthrob, seemed to be on an unstoppable roll—until he starred in two arty existential bloodbaths under the same “hot” director, Nicolas Winding Refn, and stalled. Cooper likewise made two movies (and is currently filming a third) with the same director, in his case David O. Russell, but both proved to be critic- and crowd-pleasers, ensemble pieces that enabled Cooper to rake a neurotic friction across the screen that was compelling even when grating. His FBI agent in American Hustle, an egotistical jerk with a bad perm, was coiled so tight that when he unwound with Amy Adams on the disco floor, it provided one of the great liberating jets of exuberance in recent American movies.

Cooper signed up for an entirely different mission with Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Where Russell entertains comic improvisation and noisy overlaps of dialogue, Eastwood maintains a strict spinal column in his scripts and a tight Adam’s apple in his lines. For the role of Chris Kyle, the obsessive sniper with the largest number of kills in U.S. military history, Cooper had to hunker down psychologically and hulk up physically. An earnest acting nerd behind those phosphorescent baby blues, he turned in a scrupulous, introspective performance—and nailed that Texas accent just right.

When Cooper obtained the story rights for American Sniper, Kyle himself reportedly scoffed, “I’m going to have to tie him to my truck, drag him down the street, and knock some of the pretty off of him.” Cooper has proven he can knock the pretty off all by himself, relinquishing any latent vanity to portray The Elephant Man on Broadway with all of Joseph Merrick’s wrenched, wretched deformities.

The gods like to mete out humility lessons to show who’s boss. Cooper’s most recent movie, Serena, which reteamed him with Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle smoking pistol Jennifer Lawrence, went straight to video on demand, that island of abandoned souls for new releases, before a late, face-saving limited release in theaters. It’ll do neither of them any prestige harm, and a few duds can be very character-building. Past a certain point, the real X factor in success is resilience.