He has always been there somewhere of course, but for some reason I had to see the totally Ethan Hawke-less The Empeor’s Club to get the guy back on my radar. The comparison might be obvious to the point of seeming almost lazy, but in its portrayal of teacher/student dynamics, Michael Hoffman’s 2002 drama with Emile Hirsch has a thing or two in common with the film that introduced the world to Hawke, Peter Weir’s sentimentally inspirational Dead Poets Society. Most importantly in this particular instance, they both had young male leads who I fell for instantly.
But in our eagerness to find a plausible entrance into the world of Hawke, we nevertheless need to back up a little. Despite what the opening paragraph might seem to suggest, Dead Poets Society was by no means the film that made me fall for Hawke, although it did nothing to make me reconsider my crush. The honor of introduction instead went to Reality Bites, one of the very, very few Ben Stiller comedies I can still watch without instinctively wanting to kill myself. I watched it on television when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, and its romantic depictions of young adult life, coupled with a once fresh-seeming scruffy aesthetic proved absolutely irresistable to my young and impressionable mind. At the time, I would try to convince myself that the tingly feeling the movie left me with was courtesy of Winona Ryder, but of course the real cause was Ethan Hawke, taking his first trying steps toward mastering the young love earnestness of Before Sunset (1995).
Later, that very earnestness would ensure that my relationship with him transcended that of simply wanting to watch his movies. In 1999, at age fourteen, I read his debut novel The Hottest State, and was instantly blown away. This post has been in the making for about a year now, and when I re-read the book last year, planning to write something about its author, I was pleased to see that it hadn’t lost the unashamedly naked emotional drive that made me love it the first time around. The extra years may have made me a slightly more cynical reader, but in the greatest compliment I could think of, in a way it actually still made me want to be a little like its protagonist Vince, an actor, amateur poet and hopeless romantic. Back when I read it for the first time, not only did I feel that the book spoke directly to me. Even better, I felt like I was suddenly in on this exclusive secret, that Ethan Hawke, movie star, was also an accomplished writer. Also, it certainly didn’t hurt my reading experience that the novel’s cover was graced by a portrait of that same accomplished writer. It secured that my memories of reading it stayed with me long after I had turned the final page. (Partly because I wanted to protect my relatively favorable view of the book, I have yet to see Hawke’s own movie adaptation).
What I didn’t realize back then was that this was also to be the high point in my relationship with him, a culmination of what had been building for two years since I had gone to see Gattaca at least in part because I just wanted to see more of him. Our emotional bond wasn’t quite strong enough to survive the dreadful Training Day, and by the time he had redeemed himself with the excellent Before Sunset, my taste had simply changed. That said, my taste may actually have been broader back when I didn’t know that what I was feeling probably meant I was crushing on a guy. Today, my distaste for facial hair might have disqualified him straight out of the gate in Reality Bites. I’m glad I didn’t.