Everyone has an actor or two whose name on a film increases the chances of attending said film—or possibly even demands it. That’s natural enough, though it’s often incomprehensible to the outsider. But more and more, it seems to me that I encounter the opposite outlook—folks who wouldn’t see a movie on a dare because some performer has so alienated them that the very idea of looking at them on the screen is a deal-breaker.
I was reminded of this in myself on Friday morning when I bumped into some movie on TCM (an obvious B picture I didn’t recognize) and saw that it starred Gene Raymond. The name probably means nothing to most of you. If he’s remembered at all, it’s likely more for him having married—at the insistence of MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer—Jeanette MacDonald than for his acting appearances. Something about Raymond has always seemed kind of smarmy to me and I just don’t like watching him. It’s largely avoidable, since the only of his movies I’m prone to watching with any regularity is Flying Down to Rio (1933)—and that’s a case of Fred and Ginger plus Etta Moten singing “Carioca” cancelling out the Raymond factor.
Gene Raymond is a pretty specialized case for me with classic era movies. There are a few performers I don’t much care for. Walter Pidgeon ranks up there with the most boring actors of all time, but I don’t hate him. I’m not wild about Greer Garson or Lana Turner either, but the latter only becomes a deal-breaker in the 1950s, while the former has to paired with Walter Pidgeon (a fairly common occurence) to keep me at bay. The only name that comes to mind as being in the Raymond league is June Allyson, who isn’t in anything I’m likely to want to watch anyway.
What slightly surprises me, though, is the rancor with which so many current stars are attacked by readers. It’s not quite weekly, but it’s also far from rare that I hear from someone who categorically refuses to see a movie based on the presence of an actor. Setting aside those who object to a performer based on said performer’s politics—Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand and Sean Penn rank high on this list—I’ve seen certain names with frequency. I’m not certain that there’s a clear winner—or loser, if you prefer—to be found, but my guess is that Julia Roberts is near the top of the list. Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz, Tom Cruise and Robert Downey, Jr. are also fairly often cited. I don’t see a very clear connection with these names.
Perhaps I’m mellowing with the years—though this seems unlikely to me—or perhaps it’s a case of greater exposure to these folks in the past ten years, but apart from Sarah Jessica Parker and Tom Cruise, I don’t see the reason for the vitriol. Now, there was a time when I would have agreed on Julia Roberts, but that’s from her Pretty Woman (1990), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), Dying Young (1991) phase. I’m ambivalent about most of her films up to Ocean’s Eleven (2001), but after that—along with some clunkers, sure—she made Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Closer (2004), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) and Duplicity (2009). I have no issue with those movies, nor with her in them. To me, they more than offset her early movies. I don’t even blame her for the problems with the current Eat Pray Love. Those belong to the material.
Much the same is true with Leonardo DiCaprio. Once he hooked up with Martin Scorsese for Gangs of New York (2002), I’ve tended to appreciate his work—even if his 2008 choices, Body of Lies and Revolutionary Road, left a lot to be desired. I have the sense that a lot of people are simply still holding Titanic (1997) against him—or maybe it’s Critters 3 (1991). I don’t know, but I don’t get the antipathy. I finally saw Danny Boyle’s The Beach (2000) not that long ago and while it’s one of two Danny Boyle pictures I’d call a failure—the other being A Life Less Ordinary (1997)—there’s nothing wrong with DiCaprio in it.
Jennifer Lopez has been in some awful movies, but I don’t find her to be the problem with any of them—apart, of course, from deciding to be in them. Somewhere at some time someone actually thought Gigli (2003) was a good idea. My own belief is that letting Martin Brest direct anything is unwise. Meet Joe Black (1998) should have settled that. I’d put Cameron Diaz in the same category. She can be good—Gangs of New York (2002), In Her Shoes (2005)—but her career choices (or maybe options) are another matter.
Sarah Jessica Parker is another matter. I understand the antipathy there. I don’t always mind her, however, unless the film is built mostly around her. Yes, I do mean Sex and the City (2008) and its dismal sequel, but I’d also throw in Failure to Launch (2006) and Did You Hear About the Morgans (2009). I think she’s fine in The Family Stone (2005). And her turn in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) as Dolores Fuller perfectly suits the film. Granted, it didn’t suit the real Dolores Fuller—who kept calling her “Sarah Jurassic Parker” when I talked to her (starting a habit I find hard to break)—all that well
Having taken a dislike to Tom Cruise from the very beginning, I definitely understand the deal-breaker factor there. That said, I do like Magnolia (1999), Vanilla Sky (2001) and Minority Report (2002). I also think his performance in Lions for Lambs (2007) is very good, but that the movie is simply a well-intentioned mess. At the same time, my problems with most of the other films he’s in do not rest on him, and I don’t find him a reason to try to avoid a movie—even when that option is open to me. He probably does come closest, however, to an actor I just plain don’t like.
There’s a certain perception that Robert Downey, Jr. is smug and full of himself that some people find off-putting. I grasp that, but I don’t exactly understand it because he doesn’t seem unduly that way to me. I find him an engaging performer who almost always brings something to a role that makes it worth watching. And I’ve seen him elevate movies I otherwise didn’t much care for by his presence. The prospect of even sitting through The Soloist without Downey in it is a grim one indeed—no matter how hard the movie tried to be high-minded and artistic.
Is there a common factor with this set? The only one I can see is that they’re all high-profile and they’ve all—DiCaprio not so much—lived pretty public private lives that have been tabloid and TV entertainment (which is a lot like the tabloids) fodder as a result. That’s probably on the unfair side. I certainly can’t say I find LindsayLohan’s private life admirable or even verging on rational. That doesn’t mean I like Mean Girls (2004) or A Prairie Home Companion (2006) any less—or her performances in them. I don’t see her name and groan. I know people who do. On the other hand, I prefer seeing Jennifer Aniston on a tabloid cover than on a movie screen. I don’t dislike her, but I find her a dull, uninteresting performer. I’d probably like her better if I could work up the enthusiasm to dislike her.
There’s a perception that I don’t like today’s crop of comedians—especially, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell. Actually, I’ve liked both of them on occasion, but mostly when they’re acting and not when they’re being funny in their traditional roles. To a degree, I thought Ferrell successfully bridged the gap with his latest film The Other Guys. The same might be said of Jim Carrey and Jack Black. At the same time, I think Chris Rock is immensely talented, but most of his movies just aren’t very good—and sometimes they’re worse. I always go to one of them hoping it’ll be worth his talent, though.
So what do you say? Whose presence in a movie is likely to be the deciding factor for spurning the film sight unseen?