The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

The Death (and Resurrection) of the Movie Star

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

Image In an attempt to embody cutting-edge schools of thought with a top 10 list, Time Magazine recently published an issue with the cover story "10 Ideas that are Changing the World." In an effort to include entertainment into the mix, there was an article by Time film critic Richard Corliss called, "The Post Movie Star Era" (found here) discussing how the movie industry was transforming into an era where stars are irrelevant. The article claims that since Charlie Wilson's War and Lions for Lambs did not do well that we are no longer in an age of stars and people gravitate towards story lines now.
I have to disagree with Corliss' notion that anything has changed much at all.

Take his examples: Lions for Lambs starred Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and Tom Cruise, which I don't consider a good combination of star power to begin with for the time the picture was released. Although I don't say this with any sense of joy, Cruise's popularity was already going downhill. Streep is in 3 to 4 films a year which dilutes her star power significantly. It's hard for the public to tell which of the many, many films she's in are worth going to whether it's Evening, Redacted, or Lions for Lambs. In 2004, Manchurian Candidate didn't do particularly well in the box office but Lemony Snicket did. In light of that, would one say that Lemony Snicket's success was due to Meryl Streep's star power or simply because it was a kid's movie released around Christmas Time? Lastly, Redford hasn't really been a big star since the 1970s and early '80s. Today's teens and 20-year-olds are going to have to practically be film historians to remember the heyday of Robert Redford and get all worked up about it.

As for Charlie Wilson's War, that film didn't do particularly poorly. It grossed a respectable $66 million dollars and is enjoying a surprisingly long run at the theater. My local 8-theater complex was still playing Charlie Wilson's War all the way into March, and that's what's really important: For your film to still be accessible to the public months after release. Charlie Wilson's War debuted in an incredibly crowded weekend where Tom Hanks' star power competed head-to-head with Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd and Nicholas Cage in National Treasure 2 anyway, so it's not like it was a battle of the best stories. As for the failure of Julia Roberts to secure box office clout, she's semi-retired, and like Redford hasn't appeared in many films in the last few years to keep her name hot.

There's no doubt that star power still is the controlling factor in Hollywood. It's what makes Will Smith, the trio of Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and Johnny Depp; and Nicholas Cage dominate the box office with mediocre material. More importantly, stars still capture the public attention. That's why in most Oscar pools, people are 10 times much more excited about the acting races than they are for the best screenwriting or best directing races. Whenever I suggest a movie to my parents, the first question they ask is, "Who's in it?"

The only difference between today and yesteryear? The public just has short-term memory. The Oscar races and the special edition end-of-the-year reviews that appear in most newspapers and magazines covering pop culture are eager to crown the stars of today and leave the stars of yesterday behind. How hot are the names Joaquin Pheonix, David Strathain, Reese Whitherspoon, Felicity Huffman, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman right now? How excited do you get about a film when you hear that one of those names is in it? Those were the leading contenders in the best actor and actress races at the 2006 Oscars, just two years ago. Two years ago, the public might have been far more excited about them which just goes to show how fast the trends move.

Not to worry, success can be achieved by catering to this trend. Case in point: Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill not only had the good fortune of being involved in the summer's surprise hit Knocked Up, but since their next film came out before the summer even ended, they benefited even more from being fresh in the minds of moviegoers. The result: Not only was Superbad a surprise hit as well, but Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill have become stars big enough to attract invites to host Saturday Night Live, and Judd Apatow was named the smartest man in Hollywood by Entertainment Weekly. Shia LeBouf, arguably the year's breakout star, has benefited from a double-dose of audience exposure as well, slowly building his familiarity with the movie going public with Disturbia before officially breaking out in Transformers, and this strategy has been going on for years. Would Ray have enjoyed the same level of hype if Jamie Foxx didn't start getting attention for Collateral earlier that summer? Of course being too prolific like Jude Law (the butt of an infamous Chris Rock joke during the Oscars), Will Ferrell, and Ben Stiller can tend to backfire.

So the trends have changed but the same formulas are still there. As long as people ask "Who's in it?" before they ask "What's the storyline?," stars will be the tools that drive the star system.