Fading Stars

November 03, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

Hollywood was built on a foundation of star culture. From the beginning of the commercial industry, people were fascinated by the men and women who appeared on-screen. Names like Chaplin, Keaton, Valentino, Arbuckle, and Fairbanks gained worldwide fame and became the fodder for gossip rags and the target of unbridled ardor. The salacious held no less appeal in the early 1900s than it does today and scandals became part and parcel of the mystique of the early Hollywood legends.

When the movie business converted from silent cinema to talkies, many of the matinee idols lost their luster. Even Chaplin, arguably the mightiest of the silent titans, took a hit. He made the transition but none of his later films came close to the popularity of his Tramp comedies. The next generation of stars shone more brightly than their predecessors. With larger-than-life personalities, they strode like gods through the ‘40s and ‘50s: Bogart, Bacall, Wayne, Peck, Hepburn (both of them), Grant, Stewart, Brando, Bergman, Taylor, Kelly (Gene and Grace). Their on-screen performances became reasons to see a movie and their off-screen lives sold papers and magazines.

Throughout the 1900s, if there was one principal that Hollywood adhered to, it was that movie stars sold movies. This was as true in the 1990s as it was in the 1920s. Stallone and Schwarzenegger may have replaced Chaplin and Keaton, but the principal was no different. Put a popular icon in a movie and people would flock to see it. Yet, it the space of less than two decades, that has gone away. Hollywood is still trying to cope with the shift and only now are the studios beginning to recognize that paying for a “name” may no longer be worth the number of digits to the left of the decimal point.

Who were the biggest stars in the turn-of-the-millennium crop and what has happened to them during the last 18 years to diminish their box office power? Let’s consider ten names: Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon. All were at one time or another among the highest-paid men and women in the business. They were capable of “opening” a movie. The tabloids loved them and paparazzi pictures of them and their families sold for high prices. (Of these biggest of big stars, only Johnny Depp had a fractious relationship with photographers. The others generally got along well with them.)

The biggest star at the time was Cruise. His multimillion-dollar smile and winning personality made him a celebrity’s celebrity. I have never gotten within 500 feet of the man but I have heard stories from others that, once you get past his overzealous handlers, he’s a genial, funny guy. The worn cliché applied: men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him. In 2000, having Cruise in a movie was a guarantee of box office success. Nearly every one of his early-2000s films hit at least $100 million and a couple (Mission: Impossible 2 and War of the Worlds) soared above $200M – a huge number in those days (both were among the Top 5 grossing films of their respective years).

Fast-forward to today and it’s a different story. Although Cruise’s signature franchise, the Mission: Impossible series, continues to be profitable (with installments #4 and #5 making $209M and $195M, respectively), his filmography is littered with mediocre performing movies and outright bombs. Oblivion settled under $90M. The first Jack Reacher movie barely got to $80M and the sequel topped out at less than three-quarters of that. His 2017 features, The Mummy and American Made, accrued $80M and $51M. The performance of The Mummy (originally expected to be in the $200M range before anyone saw what a mess it was) was so poor that it killed Universal’s concept of a “Dark Universe” umbrella for its rebooted classic monsters.

What nixed Cruise’s box office mystique? What transformed him from a bona fide star into an also-ran? Several factors contributed. In the first place, it’s almost impossible for a star to retain his/her shine under the intense spotlight of today’s media. It’s not like in the Golden Age when, beyond the output of a few wayward photographers and newspaper gossip columnists, a famous person’s image was crafted entirely by publicists. Cruise’s association with Scientology, a “religion” whose best press is negative, has hurt his image, as has the debacle of his romance with Katie Holmes. Most of his wounds are self-inflicted but they have led to a growing disinterest in some quarters and a distaste in others. He’s not yet at the Woody Allen level but the gap is narrowing.

What about the others on that 2000s list? A few of them, like Cruise, have suffered from too much negative publicity. The Scientology problem also plagued the Fresh Prince. Scandals and a string of awful movies sunk Johnny Depp. (Arguably, of all the members of this Top 10 club, his star has fallen the farthest.) The others have simply faded of their own volition. George Clooney got married and stepped back, doing fewer movies and ceding the spotlight to younger stars. Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Brad Pitt have similarly moved away from big, splashy roles to pursue productions they find more interesting and creatively rewarding. Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, and Reese Witherspoon have prioritized motherhood over superstardom, reserving their acting for “worthy” projects.

Younger, “hotter” prospects have failed to ignite. Chris Hemsworth, viewed by many as an obvious choice to take the place of a Pitt or even Cruise, has proven vulnerable when not protected by the Marvel label. When dressed as a superhero, Hemsworth has brought in big bucks. But when left on his own? 12 Strong made about $45M and In the Heart of the Sea (directed by Ron Howard and also featuring upcoming Spider-Man Tom Holland) made $25M. It appears to be Thor, not Hemsworth, who is the draw.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson hit it big with Jumanji and, although that was an ensemble film, many people pointed to him as the driving force behind its success. Yet, although Jumanji accrued an impressive box office total of $404M (yes – it really made that much!), Rampage couldn't qutite top $100M and last year’s Baywatch bombed ($58M). That kills the idea that all a filmmaker needs to do is add The Rock to the cast and the movie will roll.

What about Chris Evans? Gifted made $25M. Snowpiercer made $4M. Something called Before We Go made less than $50K. Take away Captain America’s shield and Evans has zero box office clout. Chris Pratt? His franchise films have made billions. But, without the Gurardians ensemble and with no dinosaurs in sight, how have his movies done? Passengers made it all the way to $100M. The Magnificent 7 got to $93M. Those are pretty good numbers but they may be deceiving insofar as Pratt’s clout is concerned. Magnificent 7 was an ensemble film headlined by Denzel Washington. And Passengers co-starred Jennifer Lawrence. Speaking of Lawrence, she’s among today’s highest-paid actresses. How has she done at the box office? Obviously, The Hunger Games series was huge. Ditto X-Men (although those appear to be fading). Beyond that, Joy made $56M and Red Sparrow came in at $46M. And the divisive mother! grossed $17M. As referendums on her drawing capacity, these argue that she is overvalued as a star (if not as an actress). Finally, if you’re thinking of Scarlett Johansson, Ghost in the Shell made $40M and Under the Skin made a mere $2M.  (Some might argue that the $2M was because of limited distribution and mediocre reviews. But a legitimate star should be able to pull in much more even for a bad film. $2M, even as a “floor”, is not an indicator of star power.)

The bottom line is that movie stars don’t rate as highly in pop culture as they once did. Publicity whores (those who are “famous for being famous”) and music stars have stolen away the spotlight. The days are long gone when an actor can justify an enormous salary because their name on the marquee would guarantee a big turnout for even a bad-to-mediocre film. Although it would be inaccurate to say that the participation of a big-name actor has no influence over a production’s box office clout, that impact is minimized. Characters are more important than actors. Peter Parkers and Bruce Waynes are interchangeable as long as, when all is said and done, Spider-Man and Batman are mostly the same with the costume on.

This creates the problem I mentioned earlier. For a century, actor salaries have been based on the concept that a big name would be a big draw. If that’s no longer the case, then how is it possible to justify paying a Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Lawrence, or Tom Cruise 10x or 20x what their co-stars earn? Wouldn’t it be better to find a “lesser” name (with equal or, in some cases, better talent) to fill the role? One reason why some seemingly “small” movies have surprisingly large budgets is because an inordinate amount of money is spent on the cast. Meryl Streep will always cost top dollar – she has an unparalleled pedigree and brings instant respectability. (She’s especially important to “prestige” films.) But some of the others…? For every Dwayne Johnson, there’s a Rock in Waiting. And, as the last ten years have shown, being a “known quantity” doesn’t necessarily translate at the box office.

But moving on will be difficult. The entire financial structure of the movie industry is still built on the star culture foundation. Tear that down and the unintended consequences may be felt far and wide.

(Note: As a counter-argument, some stars still have overseas box office clout. Cruise, for example, is a big draw in Asia as are some of the other big American action stars. That will likely change as the novelty associated with Hollywood’s globalization runs off. Already, the 3-D craze that has died in the United States is beginning to fade across the international market. But, at least today if a movie is being produced primarily for international consumption, like The Great Wall with Matt Damon, it’s possible to justify a “star’s salary” for a name actor.)