Ancestors of the 'Iron Mask' star
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THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK will have girls fainting before their VCRs, and not because its buckles are so swash. Shot before Titanic propelled Leonardo DiCaprio into the hearts of girls everywhere, this retelling of Alexandre Dumas’ tale underscores what we now know of the newly anointed star. With his flat delivery of period dialogue, DiCaprio won’t threaten the reputations of Olivier or even Branagh, but the dual role of evil king Louis XIV and his saintly twin Philippe suits his schizoid temperament, and his smoldering presence confirms his status as young seducer and power player among his older rivals.

Romantic idols didn’t play teens until the ’50s, when James Dean became an icon of vulnerably angry sex appeal. Up until then, the screen Romeos women swooned over were men, or at least acted like it. But one must take one’s idols as they come. Herewith, seven of Leo’s forebears on the heartthrob family tree — actors often underrated because they reduced women to squeals — and the films that crystallized their romantic reputations.

RUDOLPH VALENTINO (1895-1926) With his molten eyes and androgynous beauty, the matinee idol type went from wholesome to erotically suggestive. A bit player with a criminal past until starring in THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921, Nostalgia Family, unrated, $14.99), he made the tango a sensation and women hysterical at his funeral.

CHARLES BOYER (1897-1978) Love was his business and passion. He could stare women into submission with a melancholic concern. A versatile actor in France, he was typecast in Hollywood as a continental lover until his star-making ALGIERS (1937, Hollywood Select, unrated, $14.95), in which he was an underworld Casanova who lures women to the Casbah.

CLARK GABLE (1901-1960) Manly without menace, sexy in a laid-back way, he never took himself too seriously, and he never lost the naughty little-boy quality of his puckish grin. In A FREE SOUL (1931, MGM, unrated, $19.99) he is Norma Shearer’s seductive gangster sweetheart, who gets killed off but not before he’d quickened female pulses across America.

JAMES DEAN (1931-1955) Dead after three star turns, he was the patron saint of emotionally orphaned teens. In EAST OF EDEN (1955, Warner, unrated, $19.98) and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955, Warner, unrated, $19.98), he had Leo’s outsider draw. More pleasing than his idol Brando, Dean brought out the maternal in women and a yearning identification in girls.

PAUL NEWMAN, 73; ROBERT REDFORD, 61. Both blue-eyed blonds with crinkly smiles, one shy (Redford), one sardonic (Newman). Each had his sexy star turns, but BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969, Fox, PG, $9.98) worked as a two-for-the-price-of-one turn-on. Serious and slightly pompous individually, together they were playful and romantic.

BRAD PITT, 34. In THELMA & LOUISE (1991, MGM, R, $14.95) he came out of nowhere playing a drifter-rascal in what should have been an unsympathetic role, but he managed to turn the heartless seducer into a genuine charmer. His sensual lips and supplicant’s eyes make him, like most screen lovers, more face than body.

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