I’m sitting here nursing a cold—one that (despite Bold Life movie critic Marcianne Miller’s best efforts of dosing me with tincture of elderberry) has me expecting to see visions of buzzards with fingerbowls at any moment. This is an evening (Thursday) I wouldn’t normally be at home, but owing to the onslaught of this ague, here I am in the company of Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place (1950) on TCM. It’s not a favorite of mine, but it’s not an inapt choice simply because if anyone ever had star power Bogie qualifies, and star power is what I’m thinking about today. The question in my mind is whether or not it actually still exists—at least in anything like the form it once did.
Now, I know there are people who still follow the careers of certain actors and actresses. A few of them are even what you might call morbid about it. I know one person who will go see anything that Johnny Depp is in, for example. I know another who has a similar attitude about Tom Cruise. (I understand the former, but the latter baffles me.) But these are merely two people. It almost certainly says something about the kind of people I know, but I simply don’t encounter the mindset that once prevailed where people went to the movies based entirely on the presence of a star. The days of going to see “that new Cary Grant movie” seem to have largely gone by the wayside.
I’m guessing that there are people who flock to see anything with, say, Shia LaBeouf or Robert Pattinson in them, though the latter has yet to be tested much outside the realm of playing a certain pasty-faced, sparkly vampire. In his case, it may be the character who is the draw more than he is. Certainly that’s the case so far with Daniel Radcliffe, whose one non-Harry Potter effort, December Boys (2007), sank without getting much past the poster and trailer stage.
There are certainly stars who command fabulous salaries—though nearly all of them have taken a hit in recent years, except for Will Smith and, to a slightly lesser extent, Denzel Washington. At the same time, “let’s go see that new Will Smith movie” certainly didn’t apply to Seven Pounds (2008). And Washington’s presence didn’t boost The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) into the must-see realm.
What of the supposedly safely bankable Tom Hanks? Of late, unless tied to a pre-sold franchise—The Da Vinci Code (2006), Angels & Demons (2009)—Hanks isn’t a shoo-in either. Brad Pitt and all the Oscar nominations in the world couldn’t get The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) to even gross back its cost. The ladies aren’t faring any better. Julia Roberts couldn’t hoist Duplicity (2009) into the stratosphere, and Sandra Bullock didn’t make Premonition (2006) a hit. Angelina Jolie and an Oscar nomination didn’t make Changeling (2008) a winner, either.
I’m the wrong person to go to on the question of what happened to star power for two reasons. In the first place, I’m from the era and the mindset that thinks of movies more in terms of who made them than who’s in them. But more, there’s the simple fact that I don’t get to be an active participant in the question of seeing a movie because of who’s in it, since I have to see just about everything that comes along. Believe me, it’s not from any personal desire that I’ve seen nearly every movie Shia LaBeouf’s been in. No, that most assuredly is about as far from the truth as you are likely to get,
If I was in a position to be more choosy about what I went to see I’m not at all sure that there’s anyone on the screen today whose presence would absolutely insure my presence in the theater. Filmmakers, yes. You trot out a new movie by Pedro Almodovar, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Afonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, Neil Jordan, Tim Burton, Danny Boyle, Michel Gondry, etc. and I’m there. Actors and actresses are not so much of a given.
This isn’t to say that I think there’s anything like a dearth of talent in front of the camera these days. There are any number of performers whose work has consistently pleased me or intrigued me. Johnny Depp comes immediately to mind, but Depp’s presence isn’t enough to get me to sit through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) again—nor Secret Window (2004), nor Nick of Time (1995)—and it didn’t get me through The Brave (1997) even once. For that matter, I don’t particularly envision a need or desire in the immediate future to re-visit Blow (2001) or Finding Neverland (2004).
Ever since I first saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002) I’ve been sold on him as one of the most fascinating—possibly the most fascinating—actors around. That was cemented by his performances in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (2004), John Singleton’s Four Brothers (2005) Josh Whedon’s Serenity (2005), Julian Jarrold’s Kinky Boots (2005), Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006), Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006), Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me (2007), Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) and David Mamet’s Redbelt (2008). That doesn’t mean that I’ve rushed right out to buy Four Brothers, Serenity, American Gangster or Redbelt on DVD. Does it mean I’m straining at the leash to see Roland Emmerich’s impending 2012? I think not. The best thing I can say there is that I hope he bought himself something really nice with the paycheck.
George Clooney—and to a slightly lesser extent, Clive Owen—strike me as the closest thing we have today to old-fashioned movie stars. This does not translate into a desire to festoon my shelves with Batman and Robin (1997), Solaris (2002), Ocean’s 12 (2004), The Good German (2006), King Arthur (2004) or Derailed (2005). The prospect of wanting to see Solaris again is something that I can only imagine involving a battle with insomnia. A desire to see Derailed wouldn’t even be explained by that. That anyone should feel the need to own Batman and Robin is hard to imagine.
I might have made an exception in the case of Amy Adams. Once she truly “made it” with Enchanted (2007) and followed that up with Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008), Doubt (2008) and Sunshine Cleaning (2009), I’d have thought it a possibility. Then came Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and it went straight to hell. OK, so she redeemed herself with Julie & Julia, but the completist urge is still gone.
There are others who could be brought into play on such a roster, sure, but in every case I come up against the same thing—an ultimate inability to be so loyal to a performer that his or her presence guarantees my desire to see absolutely everything that comes along.
It wasn’t always this way. I can walk over to the DVD shelves and find not just the expected blocks of films grouped by directors—Ken Russell, Richard Lester, James Whale, Rouben Mamoulian, Ernst Lubitsch, Woody Allen, Josef von Sternberg, Pedro Almodovar, Preston Sturges, et al, all have their spaces—but there are shelves devoted to performers as well. Without checking, I know I have groupings consisting of movies with George Arliss, John Barrymore, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, Eddie Cantor and Bela Lugosi—along with specialized teamings like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. There would be others—Maurice Chevalier, Marlene Dietrich, for instance—but they’re included in the groups of specific filmmakers. These others are performers whose work has an appeal that transcends the actual quality of the films that contain them.
What makes the difference? Why am I OK with the most outrageous rubbish as long as it has Bela Lugosi in it—even if he’s relegated to playing one of any number of utterly thankless butler roles? It can have been made for $1.95 and make no sense whatever and I’m still going to watch it. That’s more than can be said for some of the Bob Hope titles on those shelves. Those are merely the expression of the completist mindset. God knows, it’s unlikely that I’m ever actually going to watch How to Commit Marriage (1969), but it’s there. (Whether it would be there if it weren’t found in the Wal-Mart dump bin for five bucks is another matter, but I wouldn’t shell out five bucks for King Arthur, I can tell you.)
To some degree, the answer is simply that these are old friends made in childhood and I cling to them on that basis. I’d be the last person to deny that, but if that was all it took, I’d have shelves packed with Martin and Lewis, the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello, too. And on that score, it’s one set of Three Stooges shorts, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (because Bela Lugosi’s in it), and zero for Dean and Jerry. (I realize that last might be hard to believe for some folks, but it is nonetheless true.) So there’s something else at work here—call it star power or whatever you like.
I recognize it in other iconic performers who don’t quite happen to suit my tastes so well—Bogart, who was mentioned at the beginning of this is, one. And there are Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant. All of these find places on my shelves—just not in the completist sense—but I’m not sure I’ve ever turned off one of their movies if they came on TV. Down the road, will I be saying that about Chiwetel Ejiofor and 2012? Will his presence be sufficient to offset the inaninity of a Roland Emmerich end-of-the-world saga? Somehow I doubt it.
Something has definitely changed. It may be that people are more drawn to who made a film than to who’s in it. Our more movie savvy society has seen to that. Or it may be that people are more prone to seeing a type of movie than a star. It’s also possible that it’s strictly the result of a change in the approach with which films are made. With the exception of certain comedians, there are very few movies today that are actually designed as vehicles meant to showcase a star or to showcase what that star “does so well.” In many respects, that’s probably a good thing. It prevents us having such weak tea as, say, My Favorite Wife (1940) fobbed off on us for no very good reason other than the fact that it stars Cary Grant in a pale imitation of the kind of thing he “does so well.” But I can’t help feel that something is lost in the process.