Saturday, September 22, 2007

Keep Reaching for the Stars

Lately there have been a lot of articles spotlighting hot young actors as a new Hollywood movement. Shia LaBeouf is the next Tom Hanks! Zac Efron is the new Tom Cruise! Seth Rogen is the next...Steve Martin? And so on and so on. I don't know what motivates these rashes of articles; they seem to populate every few years or so. But the media seems intent on convincing us both that we need a new Hollywood star system and that there are clearly people we don't quite like yet who will step into the exact same roles that are currently being played by people we like.

You know what? I'm going to go out on a limb and say no homo. Not that my opinion holds any more weight than those smokey eyes or highlights. No homo on "on a limb" or "hold weight." (This is getting ridiculous.)

What the media is ignoring, in this race to find out which stars will anchor the movies that will shape our lives for the next decade or two, is that stars don't anchor movies anymore.

Increasingly, it seems as if that's not the way things work. In the last year or so, how many movies have been marketed through the talent behind the camera instead of in front of it? This summer alone, two of the biggest hits were sold, not on the backs of Seth Rogen and Michael Cera, but on the reputation of "The Director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin." 300 had no stars. Neither did Wild Hogs (Super Lol).

More profitable still are the big budget franchises, which are also sold by name or concept instead of starpower, unless you consider Daniel Craig, Daniel Radcliffe, or Mike Myers a reputable star. And Mike Myers hasn't been culturally relevant since the moment "Oh behave!" escaped his mouth.

This was the third result on a Google image search for "people who are no longer funny and, upon further review, cause you to question whether or not they ever were."

Even the people who are supposedly our biggest stars aren't quite as popular as you would think. Take Brad Pitt, for instance. He's on the short list of male superstars, and his face is on the cover of about three tabloids a week. But if you look at his track record, excluding the Ocean's movies, only four of the twenty-six movies he has starred in have grossed over $100 million (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Troy, Seven, Interview with the Vampire). For all the hoopla, he's basically only four times more famous than Nia Vardolos.

Obviously, the cultural tide is changing, and this is a healthy development. Movie stars are still around, it's just that the definition is changing, and the movies will change to accomodate the actors we want to see. In the '40s, Everymen like Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and Gregory Peck were the marquee stars, so there were a lot of movies about average, middle-aged men. Similarly, since Matt Damon and Matthew McConaughey are the only bankable stars in their mid-thirties right now, there aren't a lot of films about men in their mid-thirties. If you look at box office consistency, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell are probably the biggest movie stars around, and they basically play variations of themselves each time out. So there are a lot of movies about variations of Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell. Ten years from now, there will not be scripts that call for a young Tom Cruise, there will be scripts that call for Zac Efron.

Huge star. Very famous.

What's exciting is that the insitution of Hollywood doesn't decide this. We do. Sunset Boulevard, a film specifically about that progression I just explained, has a line that goes something like, "Most people don't even know there are writers. They think the stars of the movie spit out the lines off the top of their head." As I was growing up and growing into a film snob, familiarizing myself with the best writers and directors, I often wondered why stars existed in the first place. If you like one Ben Stiller movie, why would you like another? He's actually trying, with each new role, to do something unlike what he has done before. It's much more logical that you would be a fan of a writer or director or genre than any particular actor. Yet stars continue to be born, and this progression happens again and again.

Another one of those big stories magazines love to write is when a new payday plateau has been reached. "OMG, Julia Roberts and Will Smith make $20 million a picture!" And you're supposed to be outraged by this, that, for two months of completely glamorous, un-stressful work, people make twenty times more than you'll earn in your whole life. But anyone who would become angry about something like that lacks any understanding of economics. People are paid a lot, whether it's because they are brain surgeons, CEOs, or the main character of The Number 23, not because of their education or skill, but because there are few people on earth who can do what they do. There are few people on earth who can persuade Americans to spend their money to see a movie on its opening weekend, and that's what a movie star's talent is. If I understood it in any more of a tangible way than that, I'd be one too.

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