By Jeff Labrecque
Updated February 18, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST
Bradley Cooper
Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
  • Movie

There’s a line in Nobody’s Fool, the 1994 Paul Newman movie based on Richard Russo’s comic novel, where Newman’s incorrigible coot Donald Sullivan finally wins the lottery, and a wry old friend says, “Intelligence, hard work, and good looks finally pay off.”

It’s a line that suits Bradley Cooper to a T, though the stunning success of American Sniper—$306 million and climbing—is more than just a lucky lottery ticket. It’s a validation and a vindication for an actor who struggled for years—relatively speaking—despite generous portions of intelligence, hard work, and not-exactly-hideous looks. Once upon a time, the former People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive couldn’t get cast because he was “not F-able,” or so he was told. Once upon a time, he pitifully put himself on home video to audition unsolicited for Hollywood blockbusters like The Patriot and Pearl Harbor. Currently, however, he’s the first actor to be nominated for Oscars in three consecutive years since Russell Crowe in 2001. (Renée Zellweger was the last actress to pull off that trifecta, in 2003.) And Sniper is the highest-grossing pure star-vehicle since Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. So whether he surprises the pundits and wins the Oscar for Best Actor this Sunday or not, Cooper is going home a winner because he just might be the hottest star working in Hollywood right now.

True fans will claim they boarded the Bradley bandwagon after Alias and Wet Hot American Summer, but Cooper’s ascent up the Hollywood ladder has been slow and steady. He was not a child-actor, like so many of his peers (Bale, DiCaprio, Gosling), nor did he do much acting at Georgetown, where he majored in English. But he found his calling when he was accepted to the famed Actors Studio in New York. Gradually, his diligence and persistence paid off. He was cast as Rachel McAdams’ doucheboat fiance in Wedding Crashers and one of Matthew McConaughey’s immature bro pals in the rom-com Failure to Launch before The Hangover finally elevated him to stardom in 2009. “For sure, I’ve been creatively stymied at periods and wanted to be a bigger part of the storytelling process,” Cooper told EW in 2012. “I’ve been in certain jobs from the time I’ve been able to make a living as an actor where I’ve been frustrated. But that said, I’ve also had the huge gift of very simple things please me, so I do really find a lot of joy in very little things.”

If The Hangover was his coming-out party, it was Limitless in 2011 that really turned heads. The thriller, about a slacker whose untapped intellectual potential is released by a secret stash of mysterious drugs, became a critical and box-office hit. Working with Robert De Niro proved to be a watershed acting experience, and the two quickly reunited for David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. His role as a bipolar man who gradually falls for a flaky Jennifer Lawrence earned him his first Oscar nomination and the film surpassed expectations with $132.1 million at the box-office. After a well-crafted but overlooked performance opposite Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines, he was nominated again for his role as a hot-headed FBI agent in Russell’s American Hustle, which grossed $150.1 million.

“People thought they understood who he was very quickly [in his career], and I knew that wasn’t who he was,” says David O. Russell, who directed Playbook, Hustle, and is currently working on Joy, which will also feature Cooper in a supporting role. “I knew that he had an unbelievable range, and I saw the sensitivity, the fearlessness, and just natural talent in terms of being able to inhabit a character.”

This was all prelude to American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the late Chris Kyle’s best-selling memoir. Obsessed with Vietnam war movies like The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now from an early age, Cooper had long been fascinated by the life of a soldier—as a young teen, he pleaded with his father to send him to military school, to no avail. Producing the film and undergoing the physical transformation to play Kyle, the famed Iraq War sniper who was murdered in Texas by a disturbed Marine in 2013, represented a major step up in weight class. Finally, he had the freedom and responsibility “to be a bigger part of the storytelling process.” Sniper was not a comedy or an ensemble drama, but the rare old-school star-driven vehicle in the modern age of movie franchises and the incredible-shrinking movie star. This was 100 percent Cooper’s movie, and its success or failure hinged primarily on his performance and the public’s reception to it. “As played stolidly and inwardly by Bradley Cooper, [Kyle] is a hero to everyone except himself,” wrote Ty Burr in his Boston Globe review. “He’ll say he was just doing his duty in that tight, polite Texas drawl, but his eyes reveal the immensity of damage he has done to others and to himself.”

“I thought he completely disappeared into that role, and I was not comfortable knowing him during that time because he grew into this unrecognizable person,” says Russell. “He was that guy, all that time. He was a great big heart of compassion, because he loved that guy and his family and understood their world. I walked out of that movie weirdly wanting to talk like Chris Kyle. You saw how much he inhaled that guy. It was eerie.”

American Sniper shattered January box-office records when it opened wide and will likely outgross Mockingjay and Guardians of the Galaxy to become 2014’s biggest box-office hit. Though there is more to its widespread appeal than its star, Cooper’s contributions to its success are undeniable. “Clint directed an amazing movie, and people trusted Bradley in the movie and believed him,” says The Weinstein Company president David Glasser, who worked with Cooper on Silver Linings and the upcoming chef movie, Adam Jones. “There was no star baggage. You felt the character. You felt the emotion. You felt that you could relate to that guy because of the performance that Bradley gave you.”

Sniper is by far the most important credit on his resume, but it’s the overall collection of recent work that stands out even more as a signal that he’s emerged from the Hollywood pack. In fact, this evolution is further punctuated by the recently released trailer for his next big movie, Cameron Crowe’s Aloha. Note his shades, the singing-while-driving, the workaholic, cynical lone-wolf who had greatness before it all fell apart who gets a second chance at love and life. The trailer explicitly name-checks Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, but even without that not-so-subtle messaging, it vibrates like an in-his-prime Tom Cruise movie.

The professional comparison might be apt. It’s not hard to imagine Cooper as a great Daniel Kaffee or Mitch McDeere, and if Aloha is his Jerry Maguire, then perhaps American Sniper is his Born on the Fourth of July, American Hustle is his Color of Money, and Silver Linings in his Rain Man.

But if Cooper is poised to fill a Cruise-sized Hollywood void that almost seems extinct in 2015—the four-quadrant capital S star who can open a drama, comedy, romance, or action/war film—it’s tempered by a philosophical and measured opinion of fame and success that more closely evokes George Clooney. Both men apprenticed in television, weathered several false starts, and had to pay their dues before they finally made the leap to superstardom. It speaks volumes that Cooper put a thriving movie career on hold so he could tackle 16 weeks of Broadway performing The Elephant Man just as Sniper was opening in theaters. Here is an actor who, at age 40, believes in challenging himself, who believes in constant self-improvement—because he’s always had to. He’s bringing The Elephant Man to London in May, he’s partnering with his Hangover director Todd Phillips to produce Arms and the Dudes, and he’ll likely direct his first feature sooner rather than later. What kind of director will he make? “The kind of director I could end up competing against come awards season,” says Russell, with a chuckle. “So I’m just going to keep him busy acting as much as possible.”

The sheer mass of American Sniper‘s success officially anoints him an elite movie star, and Aloha and Adam Jones—in which he plays a prize-winning chef who has to rebuild his life and career after bouts with drugs and gambling—seem like the kind of roles that only a handful of actors can deliver. “We saw where Bradley was going,” says Glasser. “He kept upping the game, and I think what [Sniper] does is it just catapults him to that next level even faster. He’s now playing in that position that’s limited to five or seven actors who can do what he’s doing.”

Cooper said that he’s blessed with “the huge gift [that] very simple things please me,” and everything he’s experienced—good and bad—on the path to Sunday night’s Oscars indicate that he’s in this for the long haul. After all, he’s nobody’s fool.

American Sniper

  • Movie
  • R
  • 132 minutes
  • Clint Eastwood