Jonathan Brandis: Continuing the Ideal of the Beautiful Boy

By Michael C. Walker, Oasis Science Editor

Film and television have throughout the late twentieth century continued many traditions established by the more long-standing art forms of the theater and the visual arts. However, as media of greater intensity and certainly greater immediacy than their predecessors, film and television have magnified and exploited these traditions to a point that they often glow and radiate with a near over-saturation of sorts. A prime example is how film -- especially in the past few decades -- has treated the tradition of the beautiful boy which has existed in the western arts since at least ancient Greek art. From the Greeks to Italy of the Renaissance and beyond, we see an idolization and exaltation of the physical form of the male youth, yet only in later art and especially in literature and drama do we begin to see such a representation of the persona and emotions of these boys as well as their physical characteristics. Contemporary film and television have taken this to another level: the showing of the beautiful boy as a soul with an intellect. Reflecting back to the idea of the "capable boy" as presented in the novels of such writers as Horatio Aliger, we are now in as diverse dramas as Star Trek: the Next Generation and Wild America presented with youth who field us their physical, emotive, and intellectual selves openly and decisively.

Young actors come and go, primarily because youth comes and passes quickly, leaving the adolescent heart-throb in a new territory, often without his established roles and his loyal audience waiting and watching his every move. Some young male actors do indeed triumph over this obstacle and progress to successful and lasting careers as adult stars, but many --too many, perhaps-- fall by the wayside. Time has not yet proven which of the above may be true for Jonathan Brandis, but I suspect despite a recent lull in his movie appearances, it will be the latter and not the former. At least this is my earnest hope in the matter, because Brandis has already contributed greatly to film and television as art forms and it would seem that these industries -- as industries -- owe him something in return. Brandis, though not as well-known as his contemporary, Leonardo DiCaprio, has given film and television something most unique for these media: androgyny and unrepentant youth well-tempered with high intelligence, but more than anything, the ability to let the dreamers dream.

Brandis is perhaps best known for his role as Lucas in the television series Sea Quest DSV, although he starred in a number of movies prior to being cast in that series. His character of Lucas was a child genius aboard the naval research vessel, Sea Quest; the only non-military character among those of the first season of the series. The notion of an adolescent prodigy --especially a computer-orient "whiz-kid" such as Brandis' Lucas-- was not new, but Brandis treated his character with both a realism and material strength absent from many such characters. Perhaps the closest character in comparison would have been Wil Wheaton's Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, although Wheaton's character lacked two essential traits displayed by Brandis: overt sexuality and close ties to the adolescent experience of present day America. Although Sea Quest was set in the future (instead of the early 1990s, when the show initially aired), it was not as far into the future as that future of Star Trek, allowing more reality into the script, thus more believability and probably a stronger rapport with viewers.

Jonathan Brandis' Lucas didn't (until the last season of the show, when many changes were made in NBC's desperate attempt to raise ratings) wear a uniform, but instead wore casual clothing non-descript enough to be plausible as garb of the future while also conforming to the oversized styles popular among teens in the early 1990s. He was a computer geek who was no kind of nerd, who had hair and blue eyes to die for instead of a buzz cut and Coke-bottle glasses. Brandis made science cool for his young audience; he made science sexy. Most importantly, he embodied a sense of wonder, a sense of untold possibility. He was the personification of the future: a youngster on the cusp of discovering all sorts of amazing new things, holding the technology and the know-how to get the most out of it right in his hands. Like Donatello's statue of David (and Michelangelo's more famous take on the same subject matter) Brandis also stood ready --figuratively, at least-- to strike a deft blow for humanity, for goodness, via the prowess of his youthfulness. This is not to say that Brandis appeared larger-than-life and in total control of every situation; on the contrary, his Lucas was often in perilous circumstances with little in the way of resolve, but much in the way of hope and ingenuity. His strength was never physical so much as mental, perhaps vocal and therefore emotional. When grabbed as captive by a villain, he yells "damn you" defiantly, rousing the attention of another crew-member of the Sea Quest. In this sense, in his typically non-violent but still confrontational response to adversity, Brandis embodied more the traits of classic film heroines than heroes, adding credence to his visual androgyny. 

When, in the final season, Lucas is commissioned as a naval officer and wears a uniform in accordance with his new rank, he seems expectedly older, more manly. Yet this was something of an anti-climax, not what many fans probably wanted to see as his persona. Like Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack in Titanic, much of Brandis' appeal rested on his being more boy than man yet functioning effectively (and in dire circumstances) in a man's world. As the only teenager routinely featured on Sea Quest, Brandis occupied an unique spot in the gender and age-based hierarchy of the submarine he inhabited. Not a fully grown man, not a woman, he was boy but the only boy and therefore a separate sex of sorts from his fellow cast-members. Though always portrayed as heterosexual, there is no doubt that many of the implications of Lucas' status on-board a naval/research submarine would suggest homosexuality. Aside from all the long-standing jokes about sailors and the cramped quarters of submarines, there was the radiance of Brandis himself, and his somewhat feminine appearance and demeanor. The legions of teenage girls who may well have made up Sea Quest's largest single demographic audience were probably just as attracted to the fact that they could see some of themselves in Brandis as they were in viewing him as dream date material. No one could blame them for this, Brandis was a positive role model and one who showed the real perils of teen life, who displayed teen angst with a daring and conviction that was at the same time both over-the-top and still very true to reality. The character of Lucas was a little too far removed from everyday life to view as a real person expect for the fact that the show itself encouraged a most willing suspension of disbelief. I would dare say that Brandis --as Lucas-- did something that only the rarest of all celebrities manages to accomplish: he became a living mythical being because his aura and physical appearance were enough to seem larger than life; maybe even outside or aside from our expectations of real life.

Critics of Sea Quest DSV have often cited the show's redundancy and reliance on high-tech special effects over innovative plot material as its main failings, and to some extent these critics may well have been right in their appraisal of the show. Brandis, however, served the show well and was praised by many of the same critics who denounced the overall execution of the show. The same can be said of Brandis' film roles in the movies Lady Bugs and Sidekicks. Unfortunately, following Sea Quest's cancellation, Brandis seemed to receive second-rate movie roles, falling short of the caliber of roles through which he could have achieved greater critical and popular acclaim. Just why such is the case may be a secret forever locked in the minds of Brandis and his agents. Immediately after leaving Sea Quest, Brandis also changed his physical appearance to some degree, cutting his mane of dark blond hair short, changing its color to a reddish-brown, and growing a subtle beard. Brandis' desire to move on to more serious, adult, roles is admirable, but the flip side of this coin is that he would no longer be able to play the roles he had made famous as a teen actor and would not carry such as immense star appeal, with his teen audience who were moving on to younger heart-throbs such as Devon Sawa, the constantly everywhere DiCaprio, or fresh faces the likes of James Van Der Beek.

Yet as much of an impresario as DiCaprio may have become, Brandis seems to hold an elusive quality that Leonardo may never possess. As I stated before, Brandis always seemed so accessible while still being so far from our reach not because of who he was but because of the tinge of "difference" --even of artifice-- that accompanied his genuineness. In Ladybugs he played a boy with an amazing skill in soccer who was recruited to play --in drag-- on an all-girls team. A teen heart-throb in drag, even in a comedic role? By the nature of this role, he was separated, made inaccessible, unable to completely participate in all the activities of the other characters --such as when he (under the assumption he is a she) is invited to a girl's slumber party. In Sea Quest DSV, Lucas' intellect and difference in age from the other crew members aboard the submarine set Brandis apart. The amazing thing is Brandis' acting, even his very persona, which allows a viewer to enjoy him and feel at ease with him no matter how ludicrous the role he is playing may seem. We appreciate Brandis as Brandis and not Brandis for becoming a believable facsimile of someone else. Certainly other actors are capable of this, but few of Brandis' young age.

Jonathan Brandis has expressed a serious interest in directing and writing for film, even to the point of possibly devoting his career to these pursuits over acting. He wrote one episode for Sea Quest, which actually was one of the best and most intriguing shows of the entire series. In Brandis, I believe we do find as much an originator as an interpreter, and therefore, as much --or more-- of a director than an actor. Brandis brings exuberance, youth, in fact even something best described as health to the world of the silver screen; he makes television or the film new and wonderful again because he is so charming and enchanting to watch. He is over the top in his performance --some critics claim that his acting seems forced and that he "tries too hard"-- yet he is subtle --even sublime-- in his presence; there is always something slightly more than real while less than imagined about Brandis. Instead of being larger than life, he is simply out of the scope of our expectations for life, or at least what we have learned to expect from film. His beauty is enough to sate us when buttressed with his earnestness, his energy and emotivness. This sort of beauty, and the extension of beauty from being a purely physical form to something experienced as a totality, can only be found in the performing arts or in literature, and only when there is sufficient repertoire (in this case, Brandis' movie appearances and the continuum of Sea Quest DSV) to establish the persona of the beauty over a sequential --and thus realistic-- period of time. Brandis did this, and when allowed, his work as an actor and cultural icon can continue to do this for us.

©1998 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.