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From ‘Alias’ To ‘American Sniper’: How Bradley Cooper Became One Of Hollywood’s Biggest Stars

From 'Alias' To 'American Sniper': How Bradley Cooper Became One Of Hollywood's Biggest Stars

In the summer of 2011 in an alternate universe, Bradley Cooper retires to his trailer on the set of his new movie and wearily checks his email. His latest movie Green Lantern has just opened. Opening weekend wasn’t so bad —the film grossed over $50 million— but it was a $200 million picture, and with poisonous reviews and word of mouth, even among the undiscerning geek crowd, signs are that the film will drop off fast (indeed, it would eventually take barely half its opening weekend number in the U.S, and make a little over $200 million worldwide).

Bradley hadn’t been sure about taking the part: the script was ropey and unfinished, and it had meant passing on a smart sci-fi drama called “Limitless” and dropping out of the surefire hit sequel to “The Hangover” (he’d been replaced by a cheaper actor from the cast of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia”). But his management had assured him that a superhero movie was the best way to capitalize on his recent heat and would catapult him into the A-list. Instead, his brand was now tainted. Sighing almost inaudibly, he pours himself a stiff drink and crosses his fingers in the hope that the ghost cop movie he’s currently shooting with Jeff Bridges proves more successful.

We don’t live in this universe, as you might have noticed, but we came close to it: Cooper, along with Justin Timberlake and Ryan Reynolds, was up for Warner Bros’ “Green Lantern” movie —Reynolds landed the part. However, Cooper likely doesn’t regret the decisions made in this reality too much, given that the past week has just confirmed him as one of the biggest stars in the world.

Cooper picked up his third acting Oscar nomination in as many years for “American Sniper” (he has a total of four, including a producer nod) only a day before the film went to wide release to spectacular box office, taking $90 million in three days, more than “Skyfall,” “Avatar” and “The Hobbit” did in the same timeframe, all the while winning rave reviews as “The Elephant Man” on Broadway. So where did it all go right?

Cooper has certainly had a more unusual and winding path to the top than most of his A-list contemporaries. Though he made his debut screen appearance in a 1998 episode of Sex & The City,” and had a part in cult comedy “Wet Hot American Summer,” Cooper first came to widespread attention in J.J. Abrams’ spy series “Alias” in 2001, as Will, the best friend in deeply unrequited love with Jennifer Garner’s lead. The character ran his course quickly and was written out of the show after two seasons, and Cooper mostly appeared in recurring gigs on TV over the next few years, such as the grim Vera Farmiga police procedural “Touching Evil,” the oddball coming-of-age drama “Jack & Bobby,” a couple of obligatory “Law & Order” spots, and eventually a lead role in the short-lived sitcom adaptation of Anthony Bourdain’s cooking memoir “Kitchen Confidential.

By the time the latter had aired, Cooper had finally made an impression on the big screen as the no-good boyfriend of Rachel McAdams in that summer’s comedy smash “Wedding Crashers.” It proved to be a mixed blessing: Cooper was typecast as weaselly boyfriends or best friends in mainstream comedies like “Failure To Launch,” “The Rocker” and “He’s Just Not That Into You.” But then came “The Hangover,” which allowed Cooper to play a more refined version of that type: a little edgy, a little untrustworthy, a little douchey, but with more of a leading man vibe. Thus, doors began to open for the actor.

Some of the post-”Hangover” projects didn’t work out all that well (the much-delayed “Case 39,” “All About Steve,” “The A-Team”), but Cooper wasn’t damaged and had another good year in 2011, when “Hangover Part II” was paired with surprise hit “Limitless.” The latter was Cooper’s first success as a solo leading man and he’s rarely looked back since, earning further dramatic cred alongside Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond The Pines,” two Oscar nods for two big David O. Russell hits films “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” and even got to have his gonzo space-set comic book movie cake by voicing Rocket Raccoon in “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” culminating in the current enormous success of ‘Sniper’ (which Cooper also produced). 

It’s an impressive turnaround: little-known TV actor to comedy villain to A-list leading man in less than a decade. As you might imagine, there are several keys to Cooper’s success, some of which is circumstantial. Cooper was at various points attached to a reboot of The Crow,” to troubled Western Jane Got A Gun,” and to a mega-budget adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which he would have played Lucifer and which Warner Bros pulled the plug only weeks before shooting was scheduled to start. Perhaps each project might have turned out to be a huge success, but each would have been very different from the kind of films that Cooper would build his brand on (less so “Blue Jasmine:” the actor had to drop out of Woody Allen’s film for “The Hangover Part III”).

Also somewhat circumstantial is his team up with David O. Russell: Mark Wahlberg was originally attached to play the lead in “Silver Linings Playbook” but was replaced by Cooper when a contractual issue that would have seen Wahlberg receive a bigger paycheck came up. The director and the “Ted” star have since patched things up, but it’s Russell’s relationship with Cooper that endured, with the actor returning for “American Hustle” and having a role written for him in this year’s “Joy” —the pair proved to be a consistent box-office draw and awards magnet.

But it would be a mistake to deny Cooper agency in his success, because he’s been making very smart choices since he gained the power to in fact make choices. Once “Limitless” and the second ‘Hangover’ cemented his draw, Cooper made a trio of indies. Sundance pic “The Words” didn’t do so well, but “Silver Linings Playbook” paid off big-time, and the darker, more morally compromised role in “The Place Beyond The Pines” (which premiered at the same Toronto International Film Festival as Russell’s film) won him critical kudos even from the critics sniffier about his rom-com team-up with Jennifer Lawrence.

A third, presumably contractually-obligated ‘Hangover’ saw diminishing returns and stinking reviews, but the ensemble nature of the film insulated Cooper and the success of “American Hustle” soon washed it away. He’s become part of the lucrative and profile-raising Marvel machine, voicing a character who, Tony Stark aside, is rapidly becoming the one of franchises’ most beloved but only has to sacrifice a few days in a recording booth every few years, versus the six-month-shoot every eighteen-months that Chris Evans or Scarlett Johansson must endure.

And then there’s “American Sniper,” which simply wouldn’t exist without the star: Cooper acquired the rights to Chris Kyle’s memoir back in 2012, setting the project up at his production company 22nd & Indiana. Russell was set to direct at first, then Steven Spielberg was attached for some time, before Clint Eastwood (who’d courted Cooper for his “A Star Is Born” remake until Beyonce’s pregnancy saw the project fall away) was brought on board. The result? Six Oscar nominations and the biggest non-franchise opening of all time.

Pursuing “American Sniper” is the latest in a series of smart decisions, and it’s also worth noting that Cooper has risen to fame off mid-budget, grown-up, somewhat old-fashioned movies, the kind that are actually star-driven. But it’s particularly clever because it helps to broaden his appeal.

Once he shook off that “Wedding Crashers” persona, Cooper has proven to be surprisingly appealing. He’s very good looking, but with the roguish charm that captures the old men-want-to-be-him-women-want-to-be-with-him cliché. He’s sincere but isn’t precious about his image, playing a gay character in “Valentine’s Day” and raging in a perm in “American Hustle.” He has an urbane quality that something like “Limitless” capitalized on, but he’s also carefully played played blue-collar characters, as in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Place Beyond The Pines,” just as often, helping him to land the red-state audience that in large part has helped to make “American Sniper” such a phenomenon.

It’ll be interesting to see what Cooper’s next move will turn out to be. A number of movies are already in the can, one of which will be his first real misfire in a while, Susanna Bier’s long-delayed (and rightly so) “Serena,” a bad movie which Cooper isn’t very good in. If you believe the buzz from the Sony hack, Cameron Crowe’s next film might not necessarily be a home-run, but Russell’s “Joy” (which Cooper likely only has a small role in) will be. He has another passion project, the Untitled Chef Project, a long-buzzed-about script that Cooper’s producing and which could be a hit in the “Silver Linings Playbook” mold.  There’s other projects brewing: a crime thriller called American Blood and a possible reteam with “Hangover” director Todd Phillips on pulpy franchise Mack Bolan.” 

But Cooper’s ambitions clearly lie elsewhere: he’s been talking about directing for a while and recently lined up one-time Jonathan Demme project Honeymoon With Harry with Robert De Niro as a potential directorial debut. He and Phillips have also started a production company together, where he’ll back projects both that he stars in and that he doesn’t, like Phillips’ upcoming “Arms & The Dudes” with Jonah Hill and Miles Teller. He’s clearly aiming for the breadth and longevity of someone like George Clooney, and if he keeps his eye on the ball, few would bet against him.

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