Usually, the term "fearless," when applied to movie stars, means they're willing to bare their souls -- or their flesh -- in a mainstream film. We don't expect stars to display real-life physical courage off-screen, which is why we're so astonished when we hear that Ryan Gosling broke up a street fight, or that Kate Winslet saved a 90-year-old woman from a burning building.
We're so cynical that, when we hear of a story like these, our first instinct is to wonder if it's some kind of a publicity stunt. But what if these heroic acts are not only genuine, but tied somehow to what makes these people good actors? After all, Gosling and Winslet are two actors whom movie critics routinely call fearless in their performances.
It certainly seems to require some kind of courage to convey the painful truth of raw emotional experience without minding if you look foolish or hateful, the way Gosling has in movies from 'The Believer' to 'Half Nelson,' from 'Lars and the Real Girl' to 'Blue Valentine.' It may take even more courage to do all that while you're naked, as Winslet has been in movies from 'Jude' to 'Little Children' to 'The Reader.' (Could you make a movie where you're naked and peeing on yourself, like Winslet did in 'Holy Smoke'? I know I couldn't.)
Not that bravery in acting is any guarantee of bravery in real life, or we'd have read a lot more about Marlon Brando saving people's lives. Then again, you don't have to jump spontaneously into a dangerous situation to prove your boldness and altruism. Plenty of stars are philanthropists, and some, like Sean Penn or Angelina Jolie, go beyond writing checks or organizing fundraisers and actually travel to faraway danger zones and confront human misery in person. Sure, you could argue that it's easy to do those things when you have the bucks and bully pulpits that movie stars have. Then again, it would be even easier for wealthy and privileged stars to do nothing.
Besides, when there are so many incidents of real-life celebrity rescues, it's harder to dismiss them as publicity stunts. The Daily Beast has a rundown of several such incidents in recent years -- Arnold Schwarzenegger rescued a flagging boogie-boarder in Hawaii in 2004; Brad Pitt pulled to safety a teen fan who fell in the water at the 2008 Venice Film Festival; Matthew McConaughey gave mouth-to-mouth to a woman who fainted at a screening at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival; and in 2000, chopper pilot Harrison Ford used his helicopter to rescue an ailing hiker in Wyoming.
Tom Cruise effected three different rescues within five months in 1996. He took the victim of a hit-and-run in Santa Monica to the hospital and paid her emergency room bill; he pulled two boys out of a crowd that nearly crushed them against a barricade at a London movie premiere; and he brought aboard his yacht five people stranded on a raft in the waters of Capri after their sailboat caught fire and sank.
At the time, a lot of people thought these were publicity stunts. After all, they all happened near the premiere of Cruise's 'Mission: Impossible.' How better to publicize that film than to become a real-life action hero? Plus, three times? To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one such potential tragedy looks like a misfortune, but three looks like carelessness.
Still, I prefer to believe that these acts were genuine, and not just because to believe they were staged is to generate a credulity-defying conspiracy theory (one requiring the perpetual silence of many accomplices, not to mention no small personal expense and risk of safety to the star). Rather, I want to believe they were real because movie stars are a screen onto which we project our fantasies, and it's comforting to think that the people we trust to convince us of their heroism on screen are drawing from even a trace of that instinct in themselves.
Of course, while Cruise has played many heroes in movies, we don't think of his performances as fearless the way we do with the emotionally vulnerable work of Gosling and Winslet. (Though I'd make an exception for Cruise's Oscar-nominated performance in 'Magnolia,' where he really did strip himself emotionally bare and dared to be offensive and unlikable.) What Cruise usually does is show you how hard he's working, how much he's sweating and straining to entertain you. That's not a knock on Cruise; it's just who he is, part of his persona, and one reason fans appreciate him so much, since he's knocking himself out on our behalf.
But then, maybe that's all heroism really is: trying very, very hard to do the right thing in an extreme situation. I don't think I could do what Gosling or Winslet have done, on-screen and off, but it's reassuring to think that maybe it doesn't take any special skill to behave like a hero, only a willingness to try.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.
Photo credits: Getty Images (Winslet), AP (Gosling)