When Teen Heartthrobs Go Serious

Ashley Clark

These are heady times for our generation’s erstwhile teen heartthrobs. In Lee Daniels’ sweaty hodgepodge The Paperboy (out now), one-time High School Musical poppet Zac Efron well and truly graduates to big school, spending the majority of the film half-naked, and even getting urinated on by Nicole Kidman for his troubles. Meanwhile, Efron’s former HSM co-star Vanessa Hudgens gets up to all sorts of X-rated, parent-terrifying activities in the upcoming Spring Breakers, the latest cinematic provocation from indie cinema’s irrepressible bad boy Harmony Korine. To celebrate such bad behaviour from these formerly clean-cut sweethearts, we’ve picked out our top 10 instances of teen heartthrobs going to the dark side.

Macaulay Culkin as Michael Alig in Party Monster (Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, 2003) 

Man, don’t it choke you up to think of the prolonged downfall of the cute blond kid from Home Alone and Richie Rich? At least he was well cast (at the age of 23) in this sleazy, indie dramatisation of the messy life of psychotic New York club kid Michael Alig.

Lindsay Lohan as Aubrey Fleming/Dakota Moss in I Know Who Killed Me (Chris Sivertson, 2007) 

Known now primarily for her issues with substance abuse and run-ins with the law, the actress began her career as a perky starlet in upbeat films like The Parent Trap, in which she played twins. A few years later, she was at the twin thing again in a dual role in this horror/thriller flop. Lohan will soon be seen starring alongside porn star James Deen in The Canyons, a collaboration between Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader and Twitter addict/sometime author Bret Easton Ellis. How dark do you want to go?

Tom Cruise as Joel Goodsen in Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983) 

It wasn’t quite the first time Cruise had appeared in serious-minded drama (try Francis Ford Coppola’s existential teen fest The Outsiders), but Brickman’s racy black comedy was the first time the charismatic star had flirted with truly adult content. Still surprisingly dark, even today, Risky Business shocked parents with its mix of prostitutes, pimps and after-hours salaciousness.

James van der Beek as Sean Bateman in The Rules of Attraction (Roger Avary, 2003) 

I guess it’s pushing it a bit to label van der Beek a ‘teen hearthrob’, given that he already looked like he was in his mid-40s when he charmed/relentlessly pursued the ladies of Capeside in TV’s Dawson’s Creek (he was 19 when it started). Nevertheless, he raised some serious eyebrows in Roger Avary’s underrated adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, playing a venal, drug-dealing love rat.

Jodie Foster as Iris Steensma in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) 

Perhaps more of a teen idol than a heartthrob, Foster nevertheless started early as a child actor, and graduated to the world of dark adult drama very quickly indeed. Her role as teen prostitute Iris – who draws the fiercely protective attention of Robert De Niro’s unstable Travis Bickle – is as memorable as they come.

Robert Pattinson as Eric Packer in Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2011) 

R-Patz knocked around the film world in his teens before making it big as hunky vamp Edward in the wildly successful Twilight series. But the rangy actor took a serious leap into the dark side when he took the starring role in Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s chilly stew of sex, drugs and high finance.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil McCormick in Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2005) 

Ladykilling polymath JG-L made his name playing cute-as-a-button Tommy Solomon in TV sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, but truly became a man playing an emotionally damaged male prostitute in Gregg Araki’s heartbreaking drama.

Angelina Jolie as Gia Carangi in Gia (Michael Cristofer, 1998) 

Jon Voight’s daughter had spent a few years knocking around in undemanding roles as a teen, and it was with this searing portrayal of tragic model Gia Carangi that she really made a name for herself. She soon went on to win an Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, and then adopted lots of children with husband Brad Pitt.

Billy Warlock as Bill Whitney in Society (Brian Yuzna, 1989) 

Handsome, clean-cut Warlock had spent much of the 1980s popping up in various happy-go-lucky US TV shows (Happy Days, Days of Our Lives), so little could have prepared his fanbase for his leading role in horror helmer Yuzna’s psychotic and genuinely disgusting horror film Society. In the interests of taste, I won’t go into details about the movie here.

Elijah Wood as Matt Buckner in Green Street Hooligans (Lexi Alexander, 2005) 

2005 was something of a watershed year for clean-cut 24-year-old Wood. After a career of playing nice guys that you could take home to your parents, he popped up in Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City as a silent killer, and laughable soccer movie Green Street Hooligans as an American student learning how to be a soccer thug in England. He’s at it again now in Franck Khalfoun’s deeply nasty first person horror, Maniac.

Follow Ashley on Twitter: @_Ash_Clark   

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