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Time and time again, they’ve made us swoon, sigh, and occasionally swear at their romantic foibles—and that’s exactly why these fictional heroes remain our favorite men in the movies. Gentlemen and rogues of all makes and models have consistently captured our hearts in over a century of recorded film: from the charismatic rascal who can sweep the most willful woman off her feet, to the high school hunk you will always look to as the standard of male perfection, to the altogether nice guy who (surprisingly) gets the girl. To illustrate the fact, here’s a list of 10 unforgettable characters whose everlasting legacy in motion pictures have made them worthy of the term “leading men.”
Famous portrayal: Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind, 1939)
Why we love him: Aside from delivering the most memorable movie line of all time, Rhett Butler stays etched in our memories for being the man you love to hate, but can’t. His complicated relationship with the spirited Scarlett O’Hara is more a game of tug-of-war than a stroll under the moonlight, but the complexity is precisely where his charm lies. So what if he’s a bit of a manipulative scoundrel? Frankly, my dear, we don’t give a damn.
(Photo courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Famous portrayals: Laurence Olivier (Pride and Prejudice, 1940), Colin Firth (Pride and Prejudice BBC miniseries, 1995), Matthew MacFadyen (Pride and Prejudice, 2005)
Why we love him: The role that gave us Colin Firth left a big pair of shoes to fill, but 2005’s Pride and Prejudice made the world fall in love with the arrogant Mr. Darcy all over again. He is proud, disdainful, conceited, and, of course, completely misunderstood—most of all by Elizabeth Bennet, the woman he fervently loves. Once you realize that Darcy isn’t anything like his first impression paints him to be—and is actually making all the Bennet family troubles disappear—you’ll be only too willing to give the man your heart.
(Photo courtesy of Focus Features)
Famous portrayal: Gregory Peck (Roman Holiday, 1953)
Why we love him: Joe Bradley made us all wish we could meet a handsome, spontaneous stranger who would orchestrate everything we ever wanted to do on vacation—even if we aren’t princesses in disguise. Joe, a reporter looking for a scoop, treats the runaway Princess Anne to a day of fun and adventure, filled with cones of gelato, wild Vespa rides, and personal tours around breathtaking Rome. The fact that he keeps her secret—and lets her go, no strings attached—makes him probably the best fling ever in film history.
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)
Famous portrayals: Robert Taylor (Knights of the Round Table, 1953), Franco Nero (Camelot, 1967), Nicholas Clay (Excalibur, 1981) Richard Gere (First Knight, 1995)
Why we love him: Who wouldn’t want their very own knight in shining armor? Lancelot is an extraordinary swordsman, an honored member of the Knights of the Round Table, and a favorite of the king’s. The woman of his dreams even loves him back—the only problem is, she’s married. Noted for being Guinevere’s faithful lover (Richard Gere’s portrayal is still our favorite), Lancelot struggles with his loyalty to King Arthur and his passion for the queen. The difficulties of his taboo love draw us to him all the more—after all, what tastes better than the forbidden fruit?
(Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)
Famous portrayals: Sean Connery (From Russia With Love, 1963), George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969), Roger Moore (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977), Timothy Dalton (Licence to Kill, 1989), Pierce Brosnan (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997), Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, 2006)
Why we love him: The guy knows how to make an introduction (read: “Bond, James Bond”). But Agent 007 is much more to us than a cool cat with a catchphrase—he singlehandedly made danger debonair. With his amazing gadgets, fast cars, and lavish lifestyle, James Bond is the fantasy catch for any woman who wants a little excitement in her life (and have we mentioned he’s gorgeous?). It seems people just can’t get enough of this sexy spy—a character who makes it through four decades of successful franchising is certainly nothing to sniff at!
(Photo courtesy of United Artists)
Famous portrayal: Michael Schoeffling (Sixteen Candles, 1984)
Why we love him: Remember when, as a teenager, you pined away for the most popular boy at school? In Sixteen Candles, average adolescent girls (now grown) got all their wishes granted when geeky Samantha Baker bagged the above-mentioned popular boy, Jake Ryan (a senior—can you imagine?). Since then, the character has become a cultural definition for the ideal and often unattainable man (see this iconic Washington Post article on the subject). Jake plays on the varsity team, hangs with the in-crowd, dates the hottest girl in his grade—and he’s surprisingly nice! You can understand why he is immortalized as the perfect childhood crush none of us can ever forget.
(Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)
Famous portrayal: Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle, 1993)
Why we love him: So far, a couple of characters on this list are loveable not because of their inherent qualities (some are jerks), but rather, because of how they are portrayed. This is certainly not the case for Sleepless in Seattle’s leading man. If Sam Baldwin is anything, it’s a decent guy. A soft-spoken widower raising an adorable son, Sam is thrust back into the world of dating after single women all over America hear his tear-jerking story on the radio. Sam is uncomfortable with the idea, since he still loves his dead wife (how sweet!) but eventually finds his way to the right lady. For his commitment to his child, his steadfastness to his first love, and the general cuteness he and Annie (the “right lady,” played by Meg Ryan) generate, we give this single father an A+.
(Photo courtesy of TriStar Pictures)
Famous portrayal: Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall, 1994)
Why we love him: Can you say sexy beast? With the smoldering good looks of Brad Pitt and the attitude of a Civil War–era James Dean, Tristan Ludlow is the wild child every girl wants to tame. He is also off-limits, since the girl who desires him most is married at different points to his two brothers. This, and the many personal demons that plague him severely, are enough to make you want to take the bad boy in your arms until the eye of the storm has passed.
(Photo courtesy of Columbia TriStar)
Famous portrayal: Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire, 1996)
Why we love him: “You had me at hello.” Rarely does a man redeem himself so remarkably that we forgive him even before he apologizes. Then again, Jerry Maguire is a remarkable kind of character. We started out hating him for being so smug, then began to root for him when he was forced to start from scratch, and then went back to hating him again when he took the devoted Dorothy completely for granted. But it all worked out in the end, seeing as the film was such a smash hit. Moral of the story is this: any man, even the self-assured salesman type, can be saved from his own destruction by the love of a good woman.
(Photo courtesy of TriStar Pictures)
Famous portrayal: Robert Pattinson (Twilight, 2008; New Moon, 2009)
Why we love him: He’s pale white, ice-cold, and capable of drinking the life right out of you—but boy, is he romantic. The 21st century’s most celebrated vampire, Edward Cullen, gave bloodsuckers a new image with his sparkly skin and lack of a coffin—plus, he’s a “vegetarian,” so love interest Bella is safe from getting her veins sucked. What women love the most about Edward is his intense devotion to a fragile human girl—he stops cars from crushing her (with one hand), shadows her in dangerous places, and refuses to kiss her for long periods of time to keep his vampiric urges at bay. And the things he says! We don’t dare include them here for fear of giving you a sugar rush.
(Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment)