Ryan Gosling is more than just a pretty face

Julie Rene Tran

Editor's Note: The Life & Arts senior staff combed through this year's pop culture and selected the artists, albums, books and movements that they think, in one way or another, helped define 2011. This is the first in a two-day series.

Ryan Gosling. With that slicked-back hair, glossy grey-eyed death stare and defined abs — Emma Stone called them “Photoshopped” in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” — there’s no denial that the hunky actor has been a serious heartthrob since his career breakout as the hopeless romantic Noah from the all-time chick flick “The Notebook.”

Admiration for the actor, however, rocketed into mania this year. From Tumblrs teasingly mocking the actor’s debonair comportment, to the paparazzi’s obsession with Gosling walking his furry sidekick George, to the viral video of Gosling lifting anchorman Al Roker in a reenactment of “Dirty Dancing” on the “Today” show, the actor struck some kind of chord this year that changed what it means to be the new It Man.

The Gosling bandwagon even made its way to Austin. The buzz of Gosling on the grounds of this year’s Fun Fun Fun Fest quickly went viral, rendering Austin, which normally ignores celebrities, a blushing, obsessive fan. Within hours a Tumblr (ryangoslingatfunfunfunfest) launched for festivalgoers to send in pictures of their sighting — or stalking — of the blond hunk. The Daily Texan’s own photographer Trent Lesikar snapped a shot of Gosling enjoying a fudge pop at the fest.

New York Magazine called it: In their Year In Culture last year, Gosling was noted as pack leader of a “band of similarly arty, polymathic weirdos [who] are leading a revolt against the plastic leading man,” — which included an all dark-and-handsome crew of James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy. While the magazine’s scoop was on point with Gosling’s defiance of Hollywood typecasting — reigning the indie film world with quality performances and commercializing it with his bankable affability.

Gosling’s highlight reel of dramatic range includes his role as a drug-addicted teacher in “Half Nelson,” a man who falls in love with a blow-up doll in “Lars and The Real Girl” and as a love-broken half of a couple in “Blue Valentine.” Gosling’s magnetic energy and poignant performance in “Blue Valentine” in counterbalance to Michelle William’s beautifully vulnerable character won over critics and fused the audience’s interest for this year’s Gosling movies.

Veering away from his indie film streak, Gosling’s three releases this year were more mainstream and centered more on his looks. There was “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” where he played the womanizer opposite the Steve Carell’s cuckold and “Ides of March,” George Clooney’s presidential campaign drama starring Clooney himself and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

What ultimately defines Gosling this year though, and perhaps what will be his biggest pop cultural impact, is his subtle, yet screen-commanding role as the mysterious stuntman driver in the neo-noir drama, “Drive.” With a nod to B-movies, an ’80s inspired electronic soundtrack and an exhibition of comedic gore, the film is the pulse of today’s culture. It inhibits today’s obsession with nostalgia and Gosling’s sellable looks and acting only made it easier for the audience to feed into it.

Aloof, reticent, but cutting, when he gives his love interest in “Drive,” played by Carey Mulligan, one final kiss goodbye in an elevator, you feel the crushing weight of a love forever lost in his broken, stoic stare into the stainless steel door. That moment was when Ryan Gosling became more than a pretty actor — he became a great one.