Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"A spectacle of fearsome acts."

When William Goldman repeatedly used the phrase "Nobody knows anything" about Hollywood in his memoir "Adventures In the Screen Trade" he was mainly referring to the way the entire industry really had no idea what would and would not work at the Box Office. The way a studio could spend tens of millions on a movie, hire the best writer, the most talented director, the most popular stars, and even, very occasionally, make a good film, and still end up with a flop. Studio executives are paid huge sums of money because they are supposed to understand exactly what will work, and which elements will combine to make a film a hit. But of course, they do not. Nobody does, in fact. Nobody knows anything.

The phrase refers to more than one cinematic intangible, however : take the x-factor, for example. The x-factor is that elusive quality some performers have which makes them a star. Its almost impossible to define or quantify, but it exists, and you can generally sense its presence or absence in an actor or actress. Hollywood is always looking for fresh movie star meat, with old certainties crumbling, old idols losing their attraction, and the fickleness of the public making itself plain. So newer, younger actors are promoted, risks are taken, young men and women given parts that in years past would have gone only to Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. You can't tell if somebody has the x-factor, has "It", until you see them in that big role, carrying a film alone.

Gerard Butler is the actor who got me started thinking about this. A studio took a chance on him recently - not for the first time - and put him front and centre in 300, in the can't-fail role of King Leonidas, where he gets to be buff and macho and heroic and shout most of the films memorable lines. 300 has been a massive commercial success, but that has little to do with Butler. The film would have worked just as well with most any other piece of handsome beefcake in the Leonidas role. Butler is good-looking but bland, competent but never inspiring. He plays macho and serious but never burns into the screen the way real Movie Stars do, which is fitting, since the real star of 300 is director Zack Snyder and his visuals. Indeed, Vincent Regan in the major supporting role of Leonidas' Captain is far more charismatic and magnetic than Butler ever is. But Butler will get some of the credit and his career will take off, at least temporarily, on the back of his performance. He's been around the block several times already, working mainly as Second Male lead to other, slightly more famous actors, like Christian Bale/Matthew McConnaughey in Reign of Fire and Paul Walker in Timeline. He was promoted somewhat to love interest for Angelina Jolie in the second Tomb Raider film, and finally given a lead in a big Hollywood film by Joel Schumacher for Phantom of the Opera. None of these films made any money, but Butler has also made a couple of sword & sandal epics - he played Attila the Hun in a tv movie in 2001, and Beowulf in Beowulf & Grendel last year - which must have stood him in good stead when he went for 300. American actors have difficulties with this particular genre, and with the uncomplicated, old-fashioned masculinity it demands from a leading man, and so the likes of Russell Crowe and Eric Bana have impressed in big sword-wielding parts over the last few years, while the likes of Brad Pitt have struggled. Butler can handle rugged masculinity, he just can't combine it with charisma and personality the way Crowe, for instance, can. He is destined to play second banana to Russell Crowe and even Brad Pitt. He just doesn't have "It".

But when Hollywood thinks somebody does have "It", or even may possibly develop "It" at some point in the future, then the industry will try over and over again to make that person the Movie Star it needs them to be. Butler is one good example, Colin Farrell another. Pretty, always in the press, seemingly talented, Farrell seemed born for Movie Stardom after his role in Tigerland. He showed up in Minority Report and more than held his own against Tom Cruise, established Hollywood royalty. It was hard to tell who was the Star in their scenes together, so agressive and rivetting was Farrell. So he was given a chance - the lead role in a big movie. Phone Booth did ok, didn't make billions, didn't quite flop. Try again. The Recruit did ok, didn't make billions, didn't flop. Farrell was the best thing in Daredevil, but then he had the best role. Try again. SWAT did ok, didn't make billions, didn't flop. He needed his breakout hit, the movie that confirmed him as the big new star in town. Alexander was meant to be it. But it didn't do ok. It flopped horrendously, and though Farrell has continued to work with some of America's best directors since then (Michael Mann, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick) his profile has never really been the same. Miami Vice flopped, but if its marketing and reception confirmed that Farrell is now a Movie Star, it also suggested that hes not at the level it was assumed he would reach, and he probably never will be. Hes more Val Kilmer than Tom Cruise. He just doesn't quite have "It". Yet, at any rate.

Every year throws up a series of young actors and actresses that Hollywood hopes will become household names. Some want to devote themselves to their art, to be serious actors, and they turn away from the commercial spotlight (say Ryan Gosling, for example). Some embrace it and make trash, destroying their careers early (Freddie Prinze Jr?). Some just keep plugging away, working solidly, making good films and bad, doing supporting parts and leads, building their profiles and careers, hoping to make it the highest level someday. Who was the last star to reach the highest plain of stardom, where the face of that star on a poster is almost enough to sell the film worldwide? Russell Crowe perhaps, or George Clooney? Will Ferrell? Are any of those actors comparable to the Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks of ten years ago? Or even to Julia Roberts at her commercial peak?

It seems that the nature of Movie stardom itself is changing. Franchises now sell movies more than stars do. Johnny Depp, while incontestably a massive movie star and major selling point of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, is not the chief selling point. That is the films themselves, the spectacle and size of it all. Depp is not half as attractive a proposition in other roles - The Libertine or Secret Window, for instance. The Spiderman films do not depend on Tobey Maguire or Kirsten Dunst, and they will most likely both be replaced for the fourth film. Will that harm the commercial prospects of that film? Maybe minutely, but even that is doubtful. Christian Bale is a fine actor, but no movie star, and Batman Begins was not a hit because of him. Star Wars, the Lord of the RIngs, Harry Potter - none of these really rely on their stars to sell the films to audiences. It helps when an actor is well-cast and likeable - Daniel Craig in Casino Royale or Matt Damon in the Bourne films come to mind - but the audience is there for the experience, the thrill, the ride. This is less true of non-Blockbuster films, where the presence of a paticular star can carry more commercial weight, but the absence of any stars from arthouse hits of recent years such as Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine did not seem to harm the reception given to either of those films.

The questions of what makes a Movie Star and what exactly is this X-Factor are interesting ones. Take any truly big Movie Star of the last 20 years, and its hard to see that they have much in common. Kevin Costner, for all that he has a pretty abysmal profile today, was one of the biggest stars in the world in the late 80s and early 90s. Hes not that great an actor, not that great-looking, not that intuitive in his choice of scripts. So how and why did he get to be such a big star? Because he had "It". Its there in No Way Out and Silverado, and its become obvious by Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. He just possesses a certain quality onscreen, a watchability that is hard to understand. Costner played Robin Hood as if he were from Kansas - with a mullet, a pot-belly and a double-chin - and yet the film was a massive hit. Costner made a three hour Western about the Sioux and their harsh treatment at the hands of white settlers at a time when Westerns were utterly unfashionable. And yet the film was a massive hit and won several Oscars. Costner took a rejected 20 year-old script, written for Steve McQueen, cast a pop singer opposite himself in the lead, and turned it into a phenomenon.

Tom Hanks is less good-looking than Costner, even if he is a better actor. But he transformed his profile - from likeable star of knockabout comedies to serious American everyman actor. He did this by making the odd romantic comedy - exploiting his likeable, unthreatening quality - and then embarking on a series of prestige projects, issue films and dramas such as Philadelphia, Apollo 13 and Forrest Gump. Cast Away was marketed with a poster which was simply a massive closeup of Hanks' bearded, stressed face. No more information was needed then. This is a Tom Hanks movie, that poster said, and you need to see it. Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford have generally benefitted from similar poster treatment. This kind of Star-led marketing recalls the 1980s when the Mammoth Action stars of the era went by their surnames alone on the posters that bore their pictures. Frequently the name "Schwarzenegger" or "Stallone" was bigger than the title of the film. Neither of those gentlemen has much in the way of dramatic range, but they can both hold a screen, they both have - or had - "It."

All of the legendary screen icons of the Golden Age did. John Wayne, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and a few dozen others are remembered today because of it. Perhaps its as simple as having a strong, attractive screen persona. All of the actors I've listed above do. Is it any surprise that Tom Cruise's star has begun to dwindle somewhat since hes started to really stretch himself and appear in films where he doesn't play to the character strengths that made him a star in the first place? In his youth Cruise played a series of strutting, grinning, cocky braggarts, who were invariably shocked somewhat out of that cockiness. Audiences responded to this character, and Cruise was excellent in his portrayal of it. Perhaps the definitive Cruise performance is in Jerry Maguire, the apex of this particular theme in his career. Since then hes done much more interesting work and his films make less and less money. Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Vanilla Sky, Collateral and even the Last Samurai are too far removed from the Cruise of old to hold the same appeal. He makes the Mission Impossible films as a kind of sop to his earlier career, as if to pacify his old fans. Then he goes and makes the darkest, rawest most violent Spielberg blockbuster imaginable. Its like hes engaged in a struggle with his own x-Factor, testing its limits, trying to figure out exactly how and why it works. Meanwhile his star slowly descends and he gets older and older, his core audience getting younger and younger. Sooner or later somebody new and pretty will come along and fill the gap the old Tom Cruise has left while Cruise himself is off trying to fill the gap left by Paul Newman.

The appeal or persona of most of the major stars of the last few decades can be summed up in a soundbite. Its simple and easy to define, which may be the root of the x-factor they possess. Harrison Ford - a formidable everyman, capable of action or humour; Jim Carrey - cartoon character with some hidden vulnerability; Sandra Bullock - screwball clown in the body of a Prom Queen; Bruce WIllis - cocky wisecracking man of the people; Mel Gibson - hyper-intense hunk with a self-destructive streak, Meg Ryan - girl next door, etc. They establish a persona relatively early on and are fixed in the public consciousness. Whether they like it or not, that is how they will be remembered, just the way most people instantly picture Bogart in a fedora and trench-coat, biting off hard-boiled dialogue. Their x-Factor is their immortality.

"Actors" complicate this whole area interestingly. The likes of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis and Anthony Hopkins all obviously have "It". They're all magnetic performers, they can all carry films effortlessly. But they only briefly play the Hollywood star game, turning it on in the right roles at the right times when it suits them. Daniel Day Lewis looked like the only real star in Gangs of New York, playing opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, and making both of them look like novices. But he has no real persona, he's the best example of that old critical cliche, the chameleon. He makes relatively few films, too, and may never establish such a persona. Which leaves only the excellence of most of his work, which probably suits him fine. Pacino, DeNiro and Hopkins have all been around enough to have long ago established themselves securely enough that they can do what they wish. Pacino and DeNiro have both made too many Iconoclastic Crime films to ever be remembered in popular consciousness as anything but Gangsters, and Hopkins will probably have a quotation about fava beans and chianti as his epitaph, but the solidity of their images means that all three are greeted with relative affection in just about any role. Ironically, the pursuit of their art as actors has made all three more important and visible as movie stars. Pacino's presence as villain in the forthcoming Oceans 13 seems to make it more attractive a proposition, as if he has given it his blessing. Audiences know he will probably be hammy and scenery-chewing, and audiences like him that way. DeNiro turns up in movies nowadays as "Robert DeNiro", rarely delivering an actual, convincing performance as a human being, but running through his range of leers and squints, like an old rock band on tour playing its greatest hits. But it doesn't matter. This is what he is paid for. Hopkins' next film, Fracture, looks like the perfect example of all this - in the trailer he plays a sort of Lecter-lite, all playful intellect and barely-repressed malevolence, his face passive, his syllables plump and perfect. That is what made him a star, and though he still wanders away from it to do some acting occasionally, he knows enough to stick to type.

But sticking to type can damage an actor. Burt Reynolds was perhaps the biggest male Movie star in the world for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s. But he knew what he liked, and what he thought his audience liked. So he made lots of good ole boy action comedys, full of car chases and stuntmen and with Burt playing the same character in virtually all of them. He would stretch himself very infrequently, in films like Semi-Tough and The End, but even then he stuck pretty close to his established persona. His popularity ebbed away and by the late-80s he was making TV movies. Gerard Butler be warned. But then thats exactly the problem with Butler, I think. I've seen him in a few things by now, and he never really leaves any impression. For much of 300 he wears a helmet which makes him barely distinguishable from 299 other actors, and his preformance doesn't suffer any in terms of impact. What does he offer that a thousand other young actors do not? At least Burt Reynolds played a cocky hillbilly with a tache better than anybody else. But then again, what do I know? I don't know anything. Nobody knows anything.



Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I still think Butler did a good job in 300, well, a decent job.

An adequate job?

A job?

All that was required was to shout and to not look too much like a greased up stripper about to teabag a persian orc. Job done.

He's may or may not be a big name for a while but he's not going to look anywhere near as good without the beard. I reckon he's eyeing up Bond for when Craig gets bored of it and goes off to do the 'Our Friends in the North' sequel.

I have some kind of pavlovian response to avoiding films with stars in wherever possible, I was extremely reluctant to go see MI3, and anything with that Farrell chap in is pretty much a no go area. He does lead a pretty snazzy life apart from that a tom-cat made man, just shagging and sleeping and looking pleased with himself inbetween.

Next wave of movie stars?


I would like to see Sam Rockwell get pushed too far and go on a buck-toothed southerner psycho rampage.

Maybe he could kill DiCaprio.

10:29 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Yeah. Butler did a job. Sort of Nicky Butt-like.

Sam Rockwell is a decent actor, I've liked him in most things. He'll never ever be a star. Ever.

Why avoid stars? I don't get that. I understand why nearly every really massive star is so massive - Tom Cruise, Costner, even Richard Gere, the really despised ones. They all have something. Some sort of inverse cultural snobbery? Jim Carrey is in your favourite film ever, no? There is a certain refined pleasure in watching any star in a movie, even a bad movie. Because of their stardom.

11:55 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

I don't like knee-jerk reactions against stars. And I don't like how they are seen as lesser beings than character actors and supporting roles. I think Michael Douglas is great, in a bunch of really good movies. Ditto Tom Cruise. It's not always the case. Sometimes their movies suck. But I generally have more complaint with project or script than with their involvement in it. Because a guy like Kurt Russel got top-billing in a few movies, doesn't mean he's less deserving of recognition as a performer than William H. Macy.

Though, I tend to leave Sandra Bullock films well alone. Can't much stand to see Halle Berry in anything either. But if Halle Berry got cast in a David Fincher adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel, I wouldn't avoid it. The project is what gets me in the cinema.

This is the first thing I've written today. Which is why it sounds so bad.

10:40 am  
Blogger Ross said...

So do you see a distinction between stars with presence, and those that are manufactured?
Did DiCaprio ever have that something?

Butler really was all beard and shouting. Which sumns up 300. But it was good beard and shouting.

9:42 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I don't think a Star can be manufactured, really. The machine can make somebody famous, can report the details of their personal life, can act as if they are a Star, but it cannot give anybody star quality.

For me DiCaprio has never had it. He can be a good actor, and the phenomenon of Titanic meant that he was teeny-bopper megastar for a while, and hes going to have an interesting career and make some quality films, but he just lacks something. Maybe in middle age it might happen, when age and experience seep into that baby face and give it some character. Thats what happened to John Travolta. But not for now.

11:42 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

It didn't happen to Travolta for very long.

2:14 pm  

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