Death of The Movie Star…?

Marlon Brando giving his iconic performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Death of the movie star. There’s a statement that conjures up all kinds of images, ranging from the morbidly grim, to the downright amusing. Personally it brings to mind images of Brando circa The Freshman (1990), bloated and bumbling, far removed from the glory days of his magnificent career. This contrasted by the thought of any recent drama school grad upon hearing the statement tearing their hair out in a blood curling cry exclaiming “But what about me!?!?” This is a response to Scott Beggs and Landon Palmer’s brilliantly written article The Death of The Movie Star (The link for which is at the bottom of the page).

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Laurence Oliviers’ famous death scene in Richard III (1955)

Such is the power of the statement; it can keep you entertained for hours. Indeed it did to me and I’m guilty of being an actor though somewhat far removed from the movie star stratosphere. Whilst it raises many vital points and makes a good argument for the aforementioned demise I believe our lilies and chrysanthemums would better placed under another headstone.

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Immortal icon of the sliver screen Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962)

It’s true the movie industry is changing. Has changed even, and will forever be changing as is the nature of life itself.  Time passes and our appetites as the audience changes, some stories of the past seem no longer relevant; we grow bored in our diets and seek newer more exotic dishes to feast upon.  The iconography of yesterday is not the same as today, save for the rare few who seem to have bested time itself and obtained “immortality”.  Some of the names that spring to mind here include, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Steve McQueen, Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor, and yes I say him despite my former comments, Marlon Brando! Although these actors are from a completely different era, it shouldn’t be assumed they don’t have their contemporary equivalents. I will mention more on these later.

First to address the call presented in the previous article, “Name the last movie star minted by the studios, the last big name to emerge and become wildly popular because of their appearances in motion pictures, the last figure to be crafted by the system in order to help secure a bigger box office for it”. The answer lies within the question itself. Formerly movie stars were “crafted by the studios “as marketing tools. Today movie stars are made by us as we the audience dictates who we deem eligible for this revered status.

Heath Ledger gives a mesmerising performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight

Conversely, just as we still might be drawn to a film because of the star attached, we could just as easily be put off from a film for the same reason. I’ve been known to happily hop, skip, and jump over any obstacle to avoid watching a Shia LaBeouf movie (Incidentally his best work was in I Robot).Our criteria for elevation to this godlike level is dependent on a number of factors, including aesthetics, individuals we like seeing. By this I don’t just mean good-looking actors (although in our current era one could be forgiven for thinking they are watching a home catalogue come to life, given the number of classically perfect good-looking studio stars gracing our screens, many of whom are former models). Actors we like to see include Zach Galifianakis (of Hangover fame) as well as Samuel L Jackson.  We like them for their quirks, the way they talk and deliver a line, that funny expression they make. These are all star qualities; their individuality is what draws us to them. Granted nothing has changed in that respect from the definition of a star from yesterday, but today we celebrate the fact even more.  Charisma also forms part of our criteria. We want to see Sacha Baron-Cohen play….anything! Lastly but in no way least is an individuals acting ability. There’s almost a separate market for this in itself and I’m certain Hollywood really hasn’t picked up on it yet or utilized it as well as they could. There’s definitely an audience out there, myself included who are keen to see the maestro’s of the art at work.  Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Helen Mirren spring to mind. Ok sure they’re from an older generation, if you want some new blood there’s the Tom Hardy’s, Javier Bardem’s, Michael Fassbender’s, Carey Mulligan’s, and Heath Ledgers of the world. Each have a huge fan base and are loved by the critics and studios alike. They are certainly poised to be the new icons, carrying the torch from the previous immortals.  Indeed Heath if anyone has already reached this iconic movie star status. Due in part due to his untimely death and his legacy personified in the critically acclaimed Broke Back Mountain and of course his thrilling performance in The Dark Knight.

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Image from the film Battleship (2012). Despite flashy effects and a star cast it failed to make a mark with critics

Now turning my critical eye to the mentioned recent studio creations, Channing Tatum, and Taylor Kitsch. I’m going to push aside political correctness for honesty here. How can I even mention these two actors on the same page as the masters of my earlier paragraph? These are actors falling way short of the charisma and skill of the greats. They lack the quirks and individuality that makes one a star. We can tell they are studio generated almost factory made leads. One only needs to glimpse at the filmography of each to get an idea of the level of actor we are dealing with here. Lets take a gander shall we; so we have Dear John, The Vow, John Carter, and Battleship. Bad film, very bad film, incredibly bad film, Oh my God you’re a shockingly bad film. Before I’m berated by the fans of these two actors let me say this, the key here lies in the story told. In the case of The Vow though I regret seeing it and confess to trying to perform the ancient ritual of seppuku with my ice cream spoon whilst watching it, I have to admit the producers really knew their market. It wasn’t trying to win any Oscars or provide a tent pole visual spectacle, it was designed for a certain audience’s appetite and it satisfied that. I can’t knock it in that respect. Perhaps the reason for the recent demise of these actors being linked to the terrible movies (and therefore stories) they have taken on as well as their lack of any real defining star attributes.

Hitchcock famously said, “You need three things to make a great film, the script, the script, and the script”.  I agree that properties have become the new dominant sales point, but in saying this I’m not advocating the franchise. What ultimately draws us to a film is the story, be it a large franchise (Harry Potter, Bourne Ultimatum, or Avengers) or an independent (Beasts of The Southern Wild). This is why movies were made in the first place right? In order to tell great stories.  After the story comes the talent, which today includes the Director as well as the old school movie star. We want to see projects by J.J Abrams, Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow, and the brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson.

It’s not enough to tag along a few star names to a mediocre story. We won’t fall for such feeble studio trickery, we want quality stories and we don’t care whether they’re franchises or not.  A great story cannot be mindlessly replicated, as is the present industry approach. This is very heavy-handed, I mean they aren’t even trying anymore (Saw VI and then Saw 3D. Really guys?). But then it’s worth noting that these films have taken in staggering numbers at the box office so we must by virtue of this alone have a demand for these franchise recyclables. Which leads me to the question of just how we’re determining the “success “of a movie star? Is it in how big their paycheck is? The numbers on the opening weekend? The accolades, or the fan adoration. Perhaps it’s all these things however a box office star doesn’t necessarily make a critically acclaimed sensation.  The two are not synonymous in any way. A recent example being the film Jack Reacher, there are your Tom Cruises’ and there are your Werner Herzogs’, both stars in their own right but for very different reasons.

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Movie Stars Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in Guy Ritchies fabulous Sherlock Holmes franchise

Today just as I had desperately tried to commit seppuku upon seeing The Vow, Hollywood seems to be doing the same but in a much more glorious fashion. The mentality is if we have a hit do exactly the same again, and again, and again, and again. They either take a brilliant idea and repeat it to infinitum (Saw franchise) weakening the impact each time. Or they desperately try to conjure up any franchise they can get their paws on, most recently turning to board games. Games I might add that were never cool and know one ever liked! (Battleship).  I’m not deriding the concept of the franchise, there are those that I truly enjoy and have made phenomenal films (Lord of the Rings, Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes). What I’m saying is Hollywood is saturating the market, feeding us the same thing and in doing so ultimately destroying itself. It’s only a matter of time before we become bored with these never ending sequels and show it by avoiding the cinemas altogether. What we are seeing is the death of the industry rather than the death of the movie star.  I don’t deny our current obsession with celebrity and how this has translated into our idea of what being a “star” is. But it’s much more concerning to watch the industry massacre itself in this way rather than promoting original and engaging stories. The movie stars will be made so long as they have the great stories in which to act.  I think its fair to say you wont find any Oscar winner who performed using a poorly written script. That being said perhaps I judged Mr Tatum and Kitsch too harshly. Maybe if given a quality script to sink their teeth into their true potential might yet be seen.

It’s impossible to conclude this article; the statement is too great, the outcome too vast for any meaningful summary. I would just say that what we have come to realize is the fate of the movie star and indeed the industry as a whole lies with us. We have the power to decide. Stars are made and broken by us and our appetites for what they have to offer. The industry can assist us with this by providing plentiful choices. A rich variety of films and actors to satiate our ever-changing desires (Sometimes I need to see a Saw film, and sometimes I could really do with re-watching Haneke’s White Ribbon!), however ultimate power sits with us.

The original Film School Rejects article can be found on: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/opinions/the-movie-star-1910-2012-lpalm.php/2

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