Jack Nicholson once said, and I’m paraphrasing, here, that anyone who gets to be a lead in a Hollywood movie has something special. Why? Because too many people want it. If the star didn’t have some of that magic pixie dust that appeals to audiences, someone else would have gotten the gig. That shit doesn’t happen by accident.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that Hollywood doesn’t create and utilize stars like it used to. It’s rare that a name and a face can open a movie. Comedic performers are probably the last real movie stars, and even they struggle—consider recent bombs from Vince Vaughn and Adam Sandler. Last weekend the wildly popular Melissa McCarthy was in a movie that got stomped on by a “weak” showing by a big, dumb robot movie. It’s a brand, a special effect, or a high concept that get bums in seats these days.
I miss the impact of movie stars on the business of Hollywood. It’s why I get a little thrill when a movie gets made that has one actor in every scene, or just throws a bunch of big names together and rides on their considerable charm. George Clooney likes to do these kinds of projects. The new Robert Downey Jr movie is that kind of project.
People like Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise and John Travolta can waltz through bad press and bad movies and still seem larger than life, and that is at least partly due to their inexhaustible work ethic, but even more, people just like them and want to spend time with them again and again.
Then there are the actors that someone at the studio has decided are movie stars, but they’re really not. Most times it’s not their fault. It can be just a matter of bad luck. They may be talented performers whose appeal is obscure to the common denominator, and who can’t carry a movie, no matter what the money thinks.
There are those who get close but never quite make it into the upper echelon. Hard to know why. They can still have an ongoing career in movies.
And then there are actors who used to be movie stars and, for one reason or another, haven’t been able to sustain it. Maybe they’re pains in the ass and nobody wants to work with them. Maybe they’ve become box office poison. Or maybe they just don’t want to do it anymore. Sacrificing your privacy for years on end can be a hell, I’m sure.
And then there’s always some asshole commenting or blogging about your above-the-title status…ahem…
Here’s a broad look at the landscape right now.
Movie Star: Bryan Cranston
On The Bubble: Aaron Paul
Breaking Bad gave both these guys a broad cultural profile. Cranston’s career registered in movies when he starred in the Best Picture winner Argo and was clearly not Walter White in the modern classic Drive, and he will survive being kind of bad in Godzilla. People still like him. Aaron Paul, on the other hand, has a lot to prove. Need For Speed spun out, Hellion came and went. He’s got a bunch of other projects in the pipeline, but if nothing sparks in the next 12 months, he may be going back to TV. Here’s the first sign of that possibility.
Movie Star: Tom Hardy
Not A Movie Star: Sam Worthington or Taylor Kitsch
Hardy is dangerous, unpredictable, and a seriously committed guy. Superhero nerds know him largely as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, but I doubt John Q. Public could recognize him due to his having worn a mask throughout that hit movie’s running time, so maybe I’m being premature in my assertion that he’s a movie star. In May 2015 he’ll be Mad Max. If he hasn’t exploded before then, that should do it.
Worthington and Kitsch are in a weird spot. Worthington had Avatar, the biggest movie ever, and Kitsch was hot coming off the TV series Friday Night Lights. But everything Worthington did after Avatar no one went to see—even though he was the best thing in Terminator Salvation—and Kitsch decided to star in a trio of non-starters: John Carter and Battleship and Savages.
Worthington has his kids’ college money covered for years to come thanks to the three pending Avatar sequels, which is good news for him. The silver lining for Kitsch is he’s a genuinely likeable on-screen presence with some versatility, as he proved in the Canadian comedy The Grand Seduction. Not sure if anyone in Hollywood will see that. I hope he gets another shot at the brass ring, if that’s what he’s looking for.
Movie Star Resurrected: Angelina Jolie
Jolie proved she’s better than the tabloid ghetto by opening the Disney reboot Maleficent this summer. It’s great to have her back with her name above the title of a wide release and not just looking down from the magazine racks at my bread and produce. (And, no, I wasn’t really interested in seeing the movie, but I gather she’s the reason to go, if you’re into it. She’s also recently become a director.)
Movie Star Fading: Johnny Depp
This, I have to say, is Depp’s own fault. He chose to play Tonto in the wildly ill-advised Lone Ranger movie, a bomb that would have destroyed a less-talented, less popular performer’s career. He was the star of Transcendence, which I thought was OK, but I was in a minority. And he wasn’t so great in it—with the exception of The Rum Diary, it feels like he’s been sleepwalking for awhile. Maybe playing Whitey Bulger will lift him out of his slump. A sequel to the mediocre Alice In Wonderland and yet another pirate movie, both scheduled for 2016, will likely only dull his appeal further. I think he’s been going to the well too often and needs to steer clear of Tim Burton.
Not A Movie Star: Mila Kunis or Ashton Kutcher
Kunis may be a talented comedic actor, and had a moment in Black Swan where I thought she might forever shake off the sitcom associations (That ’70s Show and The Family Guy), but has failed to capitalize on it in movies like Ted and Oz: The Great And Powerful. She is a lead in the Wachowski late summer fantasy Jupiter Ascending. I hope the movie is worthy of the filmmaking siblings who gave us The Matrix and Cloud Atlas, and that Kunis is good in it.
As for Kutcher, Kunis’ costar back on That ’70s Show, his appeal has always eluded me. TV sitcoms and MTV are where people really like to see him, it seems. If Steve Jobs was still around, he might say the same thing.
On The Bubble: Chris Evans
This makes no sense, and I get that: He’s great as Captain America, but as soon as he takes off the star-spangled duds he’s suddenly less interesting. (Anyone remember him in Scott Pilgrim Versus The World? He was pretty good in The Losers, I’ll give you that.) See what his hammer-throwing colleague Chris Hemsworth has going on, ably starring in movies where he isn’t an interstellar Viking. There’s a movie star.
Maybe it’s because Evans is so resistant to playing the Hollywood game—and if that’s what he wants, good for him. But there aren’t a lot of Sean Penns out there, contrary types that keep getting Oscar nods and starring roles, no matter how much they call Hollywood on its bullshit. I note Evans is also in this summer’s sure-to-be-a-cult scifi Snowpiercer, but, based solely on the trailer, it looks like Tilda Swinton’s the real star of that picture. ( I have no opinion of Jamie Bell, for the record.)
On The Bubble: Rachel McAdams
McAdams has had every opportunity to be an A-List actor. Reviewing her choices I see—with the exception of occasionally playing to her core romdram audience in movies like The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Vow—she goes after work with stellar directors: Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Richard Curtis, and, coming soon, Anton Corbijn and Cameron Crowe. It’s a clever strategy, one that should give her career longevity. But something is amiss. Why don’t we see the kind of lead roles from her we get from her peers Jessica Chastain or Michelle Williams? Since Mean Girls and Red Eye I figured she’d find a signature part to make her into the next Julia Roberts or Renee Zellweger, and I don’t get why she hasn’t. I’ve had similar thoughts about Sam Rockwell.
But speaking of Renée…
Vanished Movie Star: Renée Zellweger
It’s a cliche: a woman in Hollywood hits 40 and the roles dry up. Is that what happened to Zellweger? I hope not. In 2007, 08, and 09 she had a host of movies, none of which did very well. She’s been entirely absent from the screen since My Own Love Song in 2010. Maybe she just needed a break. I don’t read enough of the celebrity press to know for sure.
The IMDB tells me she’s working again, doing a feature with Keanu Reeves—who’s also in need of some career resuscitation—called The Whole Truth. I hope it’s good. I’d like to see more of these folks.
A NOTE FOR REGULAR READERS: I don’t really spend a lot of time mulling over the particulars of something as mercurial as stardom, and probably won’t again anytime soon. This blog is about the movies, not the stars. But, to be frank, there’ve been so few new releases I’ve been interested in seeing in this summer stretch, my mind has wandered to unusual places. Thanks for indulging me the wandering.