A few months ago, I sat with three of the most popular actors of the past few decades Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise who were promoting their new film, Lions for Lambs. I posed to them an indelicate question: Are movie stars obsolete? Consternation erupted as the three quickly and forcefully dismissed the idea. And why shouldn't they? They had nearly a century of movie history on their side.
The notion of star quality, of the famous face and magnetic personality that get the mass audience into theaters, has been an article of film-industry faith ever since Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford became worldwide sensations in the infant medium back around 1914. Over the years, almost everything else about movies changed, but one tenet held firm: the name above the title sold tickets. That's why the top stars could earn $25 million a picture because they were the surest guarantee of a return on investment.
Except now they're not. Indeed, we may be in Hollywood's first poststar era. If you judge movie stardom by the actors who headline the biggest hits, then the top stars of 2007 include Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man 3), Shia LaBeouf (Transformers), Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and Gerard Butler (300). Each of these films took in more than $200 million at the domestic box office, or more than three times as much as the political comedy Charlie Wilson's War, with a cast headed by Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Among actresses in the year's releases, the big star was Ellen Page, whose low-budget Juno has made $138 million domestically. Doesn't she deserve an eight-figure contract for her next film? No, because even studio bosses know that, appealing as Page may have been, what drew crowds to Juno was story and attitude. Those are the lures of indie films, as surely as comic-book grandeur is the sine qua non for today's franchise blockbusters.
Meanwhile, star vehicles keep tanking. One reason is salutary: being in a string of hits no longer matters much to many stars. They have a taste for the off-Hollywood project that wouldn't be made if they weren't in it and that can stretch their talents even as it challenges their fans. Bravo for all this pro bono work. Still, you have to ask why The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, with Brad Pitt as the outlaw hero and Oscar-nominated Casey Affleck as his nemesis, should cadge a mere $4 million domestically or why The Good German, a spy thriller starring Maguire, Cate Blanchett and George Clooney "the last movie star" should earn a pitiful $1.3 million.
Every trend needs an exception, and Hollywood still has a guy whose movies are sure-shot smashes: Will Smith. (Matt Damon and Adam Sandler are also reliable hitmakers if they stick to their respective action and farce genres.) And yes, it's always possible that we're at the dawn of a new star era that LaBeouf and Page will be the Hanks and Roberts of the next decade.
But with Hollywood getting most of its revenue from no-name epics and nonstar animated features like Ratatouille and Alvin and the Chipmunks, the moguls will realize that big names no longer mean big grosses. Just ask Redford, Streep and Cruise (but not to their faces). The movie they starred in last fall earned only $15 million domestically. Which suggests that the industry should stop paying for the pricey lions and place their bets on a flock of fresh lambs.
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