FOR A young man with mild, deferential manners, a blank if undeniably beautiful face and a comparatively minor part in Much Ado About Nothing, Keanu Reeves cut a surprisingly controversial figure at this year's Cannes festival. The divide fell along generational lines, roughly speaking, with the older half of the journalistic establishment unsure what the other half was so excited about. He is one of the few stars who hold dual nationality as a teen idol and film actor for adults.
At 28, he is now emerging into an arena where his performance, rather than his personal attributes, is on trial. Those who have seen him only as the dismal Jonathan Harker in Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, or for that matter as the ingenu lover in Dangerous Liaisons, may doubt whether there is that much to try. He is best known for playing small parts in large movies, and large parts in less respected but lavishly commercial flicks, such as Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Point Break.
Much Ado About Nothing won't change that. Reeves plays Don John, villainous bastard brother to Denzel Washington's prince, and is perfectly adequate in a two-dimensional role. Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, to be released next year, in which he plays Prince Siddhartha, the pre-enlightenment Buddha, sounds more promising. But it is the striking smaller pictures - River's Edge, which gave him his first break, and Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho - which make the most worthwhile claim on our attention.
In Private Idaho, he played a cross between Henry IV's Prince Hal and a contemporary gay hooker. The film was something of a succes de scandale, as well as being a critical success. The Lavender Panthers, a Canadian gay activist group, even named a dance after him: the 'Keanu'. But Reeves is dismissive of the reaction: 'I'm surprised that people became indignant or outraged unless it's at the despair in the world the film comments upon. That it should be considered pornographic I don't understand at all.'
He handles the difficult role of being a sex symbol to both sexes with a certain passive grace - the fact that he knows how not to do too much on screen may yet prove to be his strength. At the moment, directors are more inclined to frame him in their pictures like an icon than to use him as an actor. Indeed, it is at least arguable that his part as the daughter's dopey boyfriend in Steve Martin's Parenthood was his most significant role to date: in so far as it was possible to watch that film without thinking of him as good-looking.
To readers of youth magazines, the colourful trivia on Reeves is already part of the lexicon. The background: Hawaiian/Chinese father, English mother, born in Beirut, raised in Canada; the 'folk trash' band and the bikes - vintage Nortons ridden without a helmet ('I work to pay my motor insurance') at 130mph.
Conventional wisdom says that he's an airhead - but, then, any man whose name means 'cool breeze over the mountains' is batting on a sticky wicket from the start. His globe-trotting parents divorced when he was very young, and he was raised by his mother and her new husband in suburban Toronto. He picked up his first pay-packet from Coke commercials, then took a dip into drug culture ('I'm so glad I have hallucinated in my life').
At 21, he moved to LA and lives there now, alone. Though his name has been linked with several actresses, and with the singer Paula Abdul, his affairs have always been in a minor key. To meet him would be anticlimactic - so determinedly does he dissociate himself from the surly stereotype of the young American star - if it weren't for his looks.
He's done some 15 films so far, including Gus Van Sant's new one, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues - a prolific record. Although he'll do an ultra-commercial film like Point Break, he says his heart is with the small movie. 'Sometimes, with the big bad studio projects, you can see the hired guns in the writing. The independents come from a well-spring of passion, and I like that.' Currently, he is balancing the offer of playing a Swat operative in an action story with that of appearing in a friend's film where he would play 'Apollo, Dionysus and Bacchus.' (The encyclopaedia suggests the last two are synonymous, but that's what he says.)
In Hollywood terms, it's a testament to his flexibility that he agreed to Much Ado: playing Shakespeare, working for scale, sharing a Tuscan villa, even cooking his own food. But he is faintly insulted by the surprise. He points out that it was he who approached Kenneth Branagh ('a friendly, energetic man') to offer his services. And - please - he has played Shakespeare before. He did Trinculo in The Tempest on stage in Massachusetts: a surprising piece of casting, but now he'd like to play Romeo and Macbeth. Don John to him is a malcontent with a spin: 'There's sex in the air but his desires are frustrated.'
It's true his speech is confusing enough to prompt the 'Planet Earth calling Keanu' tone of most published interviews with him. But it's not quite accurate to call Reeves inarticulate. It's more that he moves from the monosyllabic to the convoluted with hardly a pause in the regular registers in between. He has an affection for Sixties slang, some odd surfing-derived adjectives ('gnarly', 'kickback') and an occasional caricature naivete. On reading Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus: 'I'm like, 'Wow, fuck'.'
But then again, the questions he's asked don't always make for good communication. 'Do you prefer sex to Shakespeare?' one journalist asked him at Cannes. Not a pause, not a flicker. 'Yes,' he said.
'Much Ado' (PG) opens at the Empire Leicester Sq and across the country on Friday.
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