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Jake Gyllenhaal does everything right

Savvy role choices and a private life that stays private equal a brilliant career path. By Patrick Enright
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Perhaps it’s the nostalgia talking, but in the golden era of Hollywood, we movie audiences were so much more civilized. We worshipped the stars of the silver screen for their strength of character, their iron jawlines and gorgeous lashes, their representation of the best of humanity.

Of course it’s true that as long as there have been famous actors, there have been badly behaved actors, as well as the tabloid rags itching to expose the industry’s sordid underbelly. But mostly, we liked our stars for their knight-in-shining-armor-ness — these days, we’re only interested in the idols when they’re slurring drunkenly at the camera, shouting racial epithets at police officers, appearing in haggard mugshots or shaving their heads bald and playing a game of Revolving-Door Rehab.

We care about them the most when they’re at their worst, ruining their careers or starring in dud after dud, not when they’re donating to poverty-fighting charities.

Surely, this comes as no surprise? Well, in the face of an overwhelming avalanche of stupid celebrity tricks, it’s time to sound a counterpoint. It’s time to spend some time on the one actor who has done (nearly) everything right: Jake Gyllenhaal.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

In case you’re unwilling to accept Gyllenhaal’s popularity, which is a good baseline measurement of his success, as a given, here’s a simple experiment you can even try at home. Do a Google search for the phrases “I hate Ben Affleck” and “I love Ben Affleck.” You’ll return about 3,000 results for the former and 37,500 results for the latter, giving you a love-hate ratio of 12.5 (for every person online who hates Ben Affleck, 12 love him).

The same test with Heath Ledger’s name results in a love-hate ratio of about 90. Now try it with “I hate/love Jake Gyllenhaal” — you’ll get 8,410 “love” results and only three (three!) “hate” results, for a staggering ratio of 2,803 people who love Mr. G to every one person who hates him.

Just for Schadenfreude, Tom Cruise clocks in at a miserable 0.05 love-hate ratio.

Doing everything rightAll right, so Gyllenhaal’s widely adored and not reviled. Why? The first answer is his almost preternaturally savvy choice of film roles. He started to get some adoring attention right about the time he played the title character in cult classic “Donnie Darko,” in which he was quirky, conflicted, lovable and just a touch sinister. With that kind of a beginning, your Sean Penn types would have stubbornly clung to the indie path and wound up as Eric Stolz, wasting away in indie-land with occasional forays into big-budget catastrophes like “The Butterfly Effect.” But Jakey immediately mixed things up with a little film called “Bubble Boy,” a beyond-inane laugh-fest about, yes, a boy in a bubble. It’s Jim Carrey-caliber stupid, and equally hilarious, and it was exactly the right thing to burst the Holden Caulfield vibe Gyllenhaal had going after “Darko.”

The actor went dark and indie again in 2002 with “The Good Girl” and “Moonlight Mile,” and he threw his hat into the big-budget-blockbuster ring in 2004 with “The Day After Tomorrow,” aka “An Inconvenient Truth: The Entertaining Version.” In the last three years, he’s played gay in that Oscar-baiting cowboy movie, flexed his muscles as a butch soldier in war flick “Jarhead” and done his thing as a math wiz in “Proof.” Now he’s back on screens in serial-killer thriller “Zodiac.”

In other words, over the course of what is undeniably the most well-planned career in Hollywood, Gyllenhaal has showed his acting chops in every major movie genre except musicals. And he checked that one off his list a few weeks ago when he appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and did a riotous falsetto rendition of “Dreamgirls” tune “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” while dressed in a wig and cocktail dress, marking the first time in several years that the show’s opening monologue has been funny.

Personal life stays privateGyllenhaal has also been clever where his personal life is concerned, revealing just enough to keep fansites abuzz and not so much that he reaches a saturation point or gets his fans overly invested in one fling or another. He had a reported dalliance with Kirsten Dunst, but there’s just enough ambiguity to his sexuality to keep audiences guessing and bloggers blathering.

Though he’s publicly claimed heterosexuality, he’s said that “it’s flattering when there’s a rumor that says I’m bisexual” and that “I’ve never really been attracted to men sexually, but I don’t think I would be afraid of it if it happened.” Is it any surprise that that kind of a non-denial denial, coupled with his fearlessness in “Brokeback Mountain,” spawns rampant rumors?

Furthermore, he’s managed to avoid any and all controversial political statements that might alienate audiences. It might be partly that he’s learned from his sister’s mistakes — back in ’05, Maggie made some comments about possible American culpability for the events of 9/11 that led to public outcry and her widespread condemnation — but it’s still impressive, considering that he hasn’t shied away from political material (cases in point: “Jarhead” and the upcoming “Rendition,” which concerns a U.S. detention center).

Yet even though he’s held his tongue, Jake has done just enough acting out to maintain a little bit of a bad-boy aura, but not enough to really get in trouble.

Take his exuberant, likely alcohol-induced insistence on mugging for the camera at an Oscars pre-party last year (do another quick Google search for “Jake Gyllenhaal Oscars 2006” and you’ll find the shots). They’re silly, he’s making a fool of himself, but … they’re kinda endearing and sweet at the same time.

It’s this fine line that the actor has managed to walk so successfully to date. Regardless of whether it’s Gyllenhaal’s own astuteness that has allowed him to safely navigate Hollywood’s treacherous depths, or the string-pulling of an elite team of super-managers, it seems certain that we won’t see the actor on “The Surreal Life” or in rehab anytime soon. And thank the deities for that.

Patrick Enright is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in MSNBC.com, Mr. Showbiz, Wall of Sound, Movies.com and Seattle Weekly.