The Movie Star (1910–2012)

By  · Published on January 2nd, 2013

As if answering our wellestablished hypothesis about Hollywood shutting down the production of genuine movie stars, the industry offered a positively scientific blitz of testing this year to challenge that assertion and ultimately prove it correct.

The home version of the game is to try and name the last movie star minted by the studios, the last big name to emerge and become wildly popular because of their appearances in motion pictures, the last figure to be crafted by the system in order to help secure a bigger box office for it. However, filmmakers gave us something much more concrete this year in order to prove once and for all that – while a face or two still rises from the periphery to the forefront in movies – we should be mourning the concept of “The Movie Star.” They gave us Channing Tatum and Taylor Kitsch.

Let’s start with some magic.

2012 was theoretically a very good year for Tatum. The actor who first got notice (and derision) through films like Step Up and Dear John starred in three consecutive blockbusters: the romantic tearjerker The Vow, the irreverent and surprisingly hilarious adaptation of 21 Jump Street, and Soderbergh’s no-stakes summer drama about male strippers, Magic Mike. More than any other leading man in 2012, People’s “Sexiest man Alive” seems the most reliable seven-digit check to write if you want a guaranteed opening for your movie.

While Tatum has some promising prospects on the horizon for an actor with relatively little charisma (Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, Soderbergh’s Side Effects, and the much-delayed GI Joe sequel await audiences in 2013), the actor’s stand-up year is no guarantee of a lasting place in the $20m club (where actors command the largest of paychecks simply for having their name/face largest on the poster). So if he’s found so much success, why wouldn’t his involvement in a movie mean breezing to an easy $100m+ box office? He’s a household name, but does that mean that most people care to see the movies he’s in?

A Black Hole For Stars

The first true movie star was Florence Lawrence, the Canadian film actress who made 39 movies before her 22nd birthday and bloomed under D.W. Griffith’s direction at Biograph Studios. She and Mary Pickford became well loved by 1910, but Lawrence was the first to have her silent face connected with her full (stage) name. She became an icon that the studio could use as a sales tool to draw audiences. “You love Florence Lawrence? Well she’s in this one, so come see it!”

Oddly enough, silent film actors were barred from having their names publicized in the early days because producers were afraid their notability would lead to them asking for, you guessed it, more money. Those fears would be proven true throughout the next 9 decades to the delight of studios who realized those larger paychecks would be covered by the huge audience attendance brought on by the powerful gravity of the star. Evolving from a time when producers saw no need to give true credit to the people acting in the work, the reason for building an actor’s public persona was to have a powerful advertising tool in their arsenal. Thus, it’s not that difficult to understand why creating stars has become so difficult: one actor’s name is no longer the most expeditious way to draw an audience. In fact, it might not even be that effective at all anymore.

There are several possible reasons why the Hollywood movie star has gone out of commission, but it’s important to separate the symptoms from the causes. The effects of the star’s decline include the perceived bankability of untraditional leading men like those who came from the Apatow factory, or the fact that former megastars like Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt both released films this year (Cloud Atlas and Killing Them Softly) that were subjects of contentious debate in critical circles, but barely made a blip with audiences despite their wide releases.

On the newer side of the coin, the most evident effect is the illusion of stars trying to be born. The three leads of the Twilight series. Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner, and Robert Pattinson have no trouble riding the franchise to record openings and attendance, but they haven’t opened a blockbusting movie themselves without the aid of property-recognition. That Stewart was originally booted out of the Snow White and the Huntsman sequel after a tabloid controversy speaks to the lack of real faith that even the studios have in the necessity for above-title names to sell a movie. As further proof that execs have already known about the death of the Movie Star, Lautner was a part of the desperate omnibus Valentine’s Day that tried to pull an Expendables by having an insane amount of notable actors as its draw. If the math is to be believed, you now need 12 stars to do the work that 2 could have gotten done just 20 years ago.

Whether responsible for or because of this weakening of star power, properties have become the dominant sales point.

The Character or the Actor?

Robert Downey, Jr. can command quite the sum of money to appear in a film, due in part to his charisma but in even greater part to his carefully situating his career within successful franchises. This year, Daniel Craig threatened to leave the Bond franchise, but audiences weren’t exactly champing at the bit to see him last year as a cowboy or defending a Swedish cyberpunk. The lead and the franchise often go hand-in-hand, like the elevation of Jennifer Lawrence’s star image as a result of The Hunger Games’s massive success, but this doesn’t mean that the appeal translates, regardless of talent, when that tie is severed. And it’s not just any talent or any franchise. The formerly undefeatable Will Smith graced audiences with his presence after a four-year hiatus, but few seemed to miss his absence. This is a year in which movies starring Martin Freeman and Andrew Garfield are poised to outgross movies starring Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Tom Cruise. And when they do, Freeman and Garfield won’t be the driving forces.

But traditional Hollywood movie stars weren’t only economic properties used to guarantee a profit (even Cary Grant and Mel Gibson had their flops during their respective heydays), but they were cultural phenomena as well. That’s changed with our switch from a star culture to a celebrity culture. Formerly, tabloid coverage and journalistic gossip about Hollywood’s famous and fashionable were directly tied to the media the stars were involved in, be it film, television, or music. After all, even subsequent to the first major celebrity scandal – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s affair on the set of Cleopatra – enough people actually went out to see the movie for it to do more than break even.

Formerly, the public persona was an extension of the star image. Now, it’s the public persona at the center of our experience of famous media figures, and this type of fame has no direct effect on who sees the actual work they do. In fact, some of today’s biggest celebrities have no cultural output at all. But fame seems to have lost any direct relationship to power over audiences in the world of entertainment. In other words, you can be famous and still be unable to entice people to come see you.

Taylor Kitsch’s Failure to Launch

This year should have belonged to Kitsch. Poised with both John Carter and Battleship, he was going to power jump and torpedo his way into the hearts, minds and loins of ticket buyers everywhere. Savages was the indie cherry on top. Unfortunately, none of it worked. For a moment, let’s try to see both bombs in a different light. Yes, they lost money for their respective studios, but they were still big enough events that millions of people saw them, but surviving their downfall is still probably the best that Kitsch can hope for. But even if they had been huge successes, would that have solidified Kitsch as a go-to moneymaker?

Consider Sam Worthington. In the span of a single year, he was the new face of The Terminator franchise, led Avatar and battled Gods in Clash of the Titans. It was a bit bizarre. Here was a young talent who had earned the headlining jobs without first earning the stardom, but even after those hits, his status didn’t get upgraded to bona fide movie star. His next projects (Last Night, The Debt, Texas Killing Fields and Man on a Ledge) were indie movies to be sure, but they didn’t break big on the back of his fame. His next best hope for giant blockbusting, Wrath of the Titans, failed to even cross $100m domestically.

There’s also Jeremy Renner – an actor’s actor who emerged from Oscar nominations to take his double mainstream bow in 2012. Bounding from sidekick status in Mission: Impossible 4, he appeared as part of the ensemble in The Avengers and as the lead in The Bourne Legacy, but the franchises still overshadowed the famous people appearing in them.

There are a lot of factors here. A reliance on franchises means making a name for yourself means contending with the fame of the source material of the movie you’re in. There’s also the ever-present pull of other entertainment options and the stratification of our interests. Still, no matter the cause, can anyone realistically deny that the Era of the Movie Star isn’t completely over?

Why This is a Great Thing

Of course, the death of the movie star isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s pretty amazing. The last generation of movie stars are still able to use what power they have to get interesting projects off the ground. Sure, very few people saw Killing Them Softly or Cloud Atlas – two films that don’t fit at all within the current franchise-centric economic model of mainstream filmmaking – but would these films have been made at all, much less opened wide, had Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks (and others) not starred in them?

Even though it ruins their ability to demand a ridiculous pay day, it frees actors up to try different things. To be experimental without ruining an image. If we reach a point where actors (and more importantly, publicists) are keenly aware of that image freedom, they could make all sorts of different movies (within reason) while maintaing the same level of success and notability (such as it is) that they’d find by playing it safe. If prospective stars hitch their wagon to a popular franchise, they can branch out in all kinds of creative directions.

Which leads us back to the Twilight crew. As Lautner tried and failed to establish himself as a major action star, Pattinson and Stewart have both breathed in the indie art air until their lungs gave out. There have been some strange casting choices throughout the last century, but it still seems slightly shocking that an emerging young heartthrob could appear in something so dangerous and amoral as Cosmopolis or that the brown-eyed ingenue could do double handwork while topless in a free-wheeling, beat generation ode in the same year she completes the famously chaste (until married) franchise that launched her.

In the beginning, movie stars existed because they were the natural human connection between a film and its audience. They were the faces to relate to while a producer might just be a handful of letters in a credit roll. It’s no wonder that actors are the ones who got famous, but now it’s the art itself that’s become dominant. Is there any doubt James Cameron’s technology was the star of Avatar? Or that “The Hunger Games” was the star of The Hunger Games?

Fortunately, the younger generation truly seems to see the glass ceiling that’s been put in place over the heads of those who want to be superstars, and most of them seem to actively view it as an opportunity instead of as a roadblock. The Movie Star is dead. Long live the movie stars.

Editor’s Note: Finally combining forces on this front, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs co-wrote this piece.

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