Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: The 21st Century Movie Star

For better or for worse, Hollywood works differently now, and a pretty face just doesn’t sell tickets anymore.
By  · Published on March 28th, 2009

How do we define a movie star? Is it a performer whose persona becomes correlated with a specific type of film (e.g., genre), thus creating a sense of dependability, consistency, and predictability by their very name (a la John Wayne and the western)? Is a movie star a carefully constructed persona that remains familiar through every type of film they’re in, thus enabling them to seem to only “play themselves” throughout each effort (a la Tom Cruise when he was popular)? Or is “movie star” simply a business term, referring to a performer who can “open” a movie by sheer force of their own appeal (a la Will Smith)?

This final definition is the only conception of a movie star that can be approached and tabulated mathematically. To assess the scope of a performer’s stardom (and, thus, financial worth), one simply needs to look at how much money their films have made, and how consistently they’ve raked in the tons. By this assessment, many have argued (and I, for the most part, agree) that Mr. Smith is the last closest thing Hollywood currently has to a real movie star, as he seems to satisfy all three categories laid out: his persona is largely associated with genre (the sci-fi king of July 4th weekend), yet he’s branched away into other types of films (Hitch, The Pursuit of Happyness, Hancock) and retained the same charismatic personality associated with his blockbuster image, and finally, his movies all but guarantee to make a shit-ton of cash. I knew the elasticity of Smith’s persona was going to be tested with Seven Pounds this past December, as the film’s contrived “twisty” plotline was kept largely in the shadows during its advertising campaign, thus hinging the entire film on the mere presence of its star. His appeal was certainly tested, as Seven Pounds was Smith’s lowest-grossing film since Ali (but that movie at least got him some critical clout with his Oscar nom, thus almost forgiving him for The Legend of Bagger Vance…almost).

To me, Cruise’s popularity decline in the second half of the 00s seemed to represent beyond him the demise of the traditional conception of the movie star as we know it. For example, around that same time, the Apatow-labeled films began to make a splash, and often used the not-quite-photogenic appearances of their untraditional leading men to sell the film as appealingly “starless” (e.g., the poster for Knocked Up–whoever thought Seth Rogen would become one of the industry’s most bankable actors?). Also, one of today’s most bankable comedic actors, Steve Carrell, is simultaneously a television star. And if you look at the top-grossing movies of the last five years, their appeal apparently lies in their status as successfully launched franchises (or, in the case of the Apatow line, comedies that actually deliver) rather than the presence specific actors associated with them, as studios seemed to have learned somewhere between Superbad and Twilight that you don’t need expensive name brand actors to make a bundle. Stars of the past few decades—Mel Gibson, Robin Williams, Kevin Costner—have receded into hiding or irrelevance. Others, like comedic actors Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, and Eddie Murphy, seem to be hanging on desperately to the last remaining threads of their appeal.

But it seems the recent definition of a movie star has little to do with the movies they make, but everything to do with their life outside of playing characters.

Fame is defined now more by how one performs off-screen then how they perform on-screen. The recent years have witnessed a culture obsessed with celebrities who remain famous despite having no productive role in the manufacture of popular entertainment. Celebrities like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton were followed incessantly by paparazzi and media, feeding the collective appetite for seeing people so misguided they make us feel better about ourselves, yet so rich that we’re allowed to feel bad about ourselves again. But what was interesting about our nation’s obsession with the Spears-Lohan-Hilton crowd is that these celebrities were not actually entertainers—at least, not in the traditional sense. The major focus on Spears had hardly had anything to do with her music, Lohan’s acting career is dead, if it ever existed in the first place, and Hilton has no definable job—or, for that matter, no useful role in society—whatsoever. The performance and celebrity status did not derive from their continued cultural production. Instead, the people themselves became the performance, and the addictive contents of their fucked-up lives became our source of narrative entertainment. These were indeed “stars” of some sort, but you couldn’t honestly call them movie or music stars. If this aspect of our culture wasn’t so pervasive, Joaquin Pheonix’s publicity “hoax” wouldn’t be gaining so much traction and threatening to overshadow his career. (Of course, the press has used movie stars as a source of dirty entertainment since the “Fatty Arbuckle scandal,” but that scandal destroyed Fatty’s career—nowadays, dirty press creates, revives, or enlivens careers.)

While this type of celeb-addiction seems to have waned a little bit (as the collective guilt set in as penance for watching young women fall apart before our eyes), the focus has turned instead to more healthy uber-celebs, most evidently Brangelina. While Brad and Angelina do have a healthy output of public products (whether it be movies or babies), and are undoubtedly performers, they still put the nature of 21st century movie stardom in question. Angelina Jolie, for instance, is an undeniably popular public figure. Many are fascinated with her narrative as one who grew from an erratic mess of a sexpot to the woman who stole Brad away from Jennifer and made him an honest man, turning herself in the meantime into a well-rounded (both in terms of her personality and her frequent pregnancies) woman, fighting for human rights along the way as a less douchey, female version of Bono, saving the children one by one. Every man wants her, and many women want to be her. Yet her popularity as a human being is hardly reflected in her appeal as an actress or a movie star. Changeling hardly made a dent in the box office, and in Wanted she was part of an acting ensemble that represented the oddest casting combination in recent Hollywood history. And while she has critical clout, Jolie’s star persona isn’t directly associated with a particular genre, unlike the stars of yesteryear.

Pitt, while arguably one of Hollywood’s few bona fide movie stars, doesn’t necessarily reflect his mass personal appeal in his box office performance. When one removes his contribution to powerhouse ensembles like Troy or the Oceans films, his only major hit in recent years was with Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Benjamin Button was Pitt’s only other ensemble-free hit this decade, and even that was out-grossed this winter by the star-free Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Slumdog Millionaire, and Taken (no, Liam Neeson is not a movie star). The beloved status of Pitt and Jolie does not represent an equation that translates to putting asses in seats.

Last weekend, a film called Duplicity puttered into number three at the box office behind the starless I Love You, Man, despite featuring one mega movie star (Julia Roberts) and one guy that looks like a movie star but isn’t (Clive Owen). Roberts’s waning appeal is simply a sign of the times, but it is Owen’s status that interests me here. Owen is part and parcel of what I call the “George Clooney syndrome”: that is, those groups of actors that look and act and talk like and by every right that is holy should be movie stars, but simply aren’t. Clooney and Owen both look like prototypical movie stars, echoing a suave and endearing persona this side of Cary Grant, and their movies frequently coast on this appeal. However, their track records simply don’t fit the persona. They can’t open a movie by themselves. New movie stars simply are not being made these days, and their familiar names never guarantee an audience’s desire to see them perform. Owen and Clooney join the ranks of the recent work of Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Eric Bana, Jamie Foxx, Hugh Jackman, and Jude Law in this regard—all of who have been overshadowed and out-grossed by Seth Rogen in the past two years.

For better or for worse, Hollywood works differently now, and a pretty face just doesn’t sell tickets anymore.

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