Pop of King

Cool and the Gang

Stephen King sizes up who's cool...and who's not

CLOONEY, NOT COOL?!? Our columnist says George isn't the cool one in Michael Clayton — his costar Tom Wilkinson (background) is
Image credit: Myles Aronowitz
CLOONEY, NOT COOL?!? Our columnist says George isn't the cool one in Michael Clayton — his costar Tom Wilkinson (background) is

Stephen King on who's cool (and who's not)

After exhaustive research — 20 minutes, at least — I can only find two adjectives in the English language that cannot be modified. One is unique. You can't say something is totally unique or even very unique; either a thing is unique or it isn't. Like the Farmer in the Dell's cheese, unique stands alone.

This is also true of cool. It's one of our longest-running slang terms. Wikipedia says the concept may date back to Aristotle. Could be, but today's usage seems to have originated with the rhythm & blues hipsters who learned their chops in the 1930s and '40s. You can find definitions in various slang dictionaries, but the meaning of cool is beyond definition. And, as I said, beyond modification. It just is, man.

Lots of people don't understand that, because they're not cool. Your Uncle Stevie is cool, however (he says it with all appropriate modesty), and has been since he ditched his first pair of school corduroys (Husky Boys size, from the Sears catalog...and, oh God, how square, with cuffs) for pegged jeans, a leather jacket, and a scuffed pair of boots with elastic sides and pointed toes. (Note: Many kinds of boots come with square toes, but they are not cool; boots with square toes are and always will be ''country s---kickers.'')

Now, look. We all read EW religiously, and we know about hot — male hotties, female hotties, who's hot and who's not — but I'm here to tell you that hot doesn't matter. Hot is for square bears weighted down with earthly cares. What matters is cool. You know, like Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven. Or Natalie Wood starting the hot-rod race in Rebel Without a Cause.

Take, for instance, Bruce Springsteen's new album, Magic. It's good, but not cool. Then there's John Fogerty's latest. It's not as good as Springsteen's disc, but it is cool, especially ''Creedence Song.'' It might have something to do with the way Fogerty says ''Creedence'' — it's some strange and exotic pronunciation, as if he learned the word in Lithuanian.

Here's another example: Michael Clayton. Great film, but not cool...although Tom Wilkinson, who plays the so-crazy-he's-sane lawyer, is cool in it. George Clooney gives a heckuva performance in the movie, but he's not a bit cool. Not square, I won't go that far, but cool? No. Sorry.

On the other hand, Jodie Foster is cool in The Brave One; her defining moment of cool comes late in the film, when she snarls, ''I want my dog back!'' In this year's other vigilante movie, the wonderfully bloodthirsty Death Sentence, Kevin Bacon isn't cool, but John Goodman — as a sleazy gun dealer — is. In this case I know exactly why. It's his glasses.

In 3:10 to Yuma, it's the hat. Russell Crowe is cool because of the hat. But here's the thing — you or I could wear that hat and not be cool. It's Russell Crowe under the hat that makes it cool, just as it's John Goodman's face behind the glasses.

Are any actors always cool? Even in bad movies? I'd say there are at least four: Jack Nicholson, Holly Hunter, Morgan Freeman, and the late John Cassavetes. It's worth noting that Cassavetes directed many films and none were cool.

Best consistently noncool male actor? Tom Hanks. Best consistently noncool female actor? Charlize Theron.

On TV, Prison Break isn't very good, but it has stayed cool. And the just-concluded season of Damages was one bad refrigerator. Friday Night Lights? Good, but not cool. Because it tries too hard to be cool. Battlestar Galactica? Was cool; last season started out cool, then warmed up. It may regain its coolness factor, but probably not; that rarely happens. Lost has stayed cool because it's so weird. American Idol was never cool. It says sad things about the coolness quotient of our young people that any of them like this warmed-over Las Vegas meatloaf.

Mystery-suspense writer Michael Connelly is cool. So is George Pelecanos. Elmore Leonard, the true Daddy Cool of American letters, is chillier than your freezer's ice-cube dispenser. Robert Parker used to be cool but isn't anymore. Ditto Patricia Cornwell. James Patterson never was, never will be.

Gotta say it: Nora Roberts is cool. I don't make the news, honey, I just report it.

There's no rhyme or reason to the coolness thing. Look at politicians, the ultimate entertainers. Barack Obama is cool. Hillary Clinton, who will probably win the Democratic Party's nomination to run for president, is not. On the other side — well, it's hard to be a Republican and be cool, it's almost an oxymoron, but John McCain is cool. And, of course, Bob Dole. Very cool. Hence the Viagra ads.

Remember, cool is not a way of life; it's a state of being. Like your height. I can't help being 6'3", and I can't help being cool. Same way Michael Crichton can't help being 6'9''...and not cool. It doesn't have anything to do with whether or not you're a good person, either. Some of us just have to be Fred Rogers.

Oops, my bad. I just remembered: Fred Rogers was cool. I think it was the sweater.

Agree or disagree with King's list of cool? Weigh in at PopWatch, or make your own list.

Originally posted Nov 07, 2007 Published in issue #964 Nov 16, 2007 Order article reprints
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