Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Cult of the Film Star

The old studio system that created the idea of the film star died a half century ago, but the idea of the star has remained, and film industry-watchers continue to view the scene through its particular lens. Actors continue to be thought of as bankable or not bankable, the theory being that this or that individual's presence can guarantee some minimum level of initial success--a "good" opening weekend.

Audiences certainly have their likes and dislikes among actors, which make them more or less likely to buy a ticket, but this is all awfully simple-minded--like the business press's cult of the CEO. Just as in the case of the CEO, what happens is that the most visible, and to the public, most prestigious, member of a large corporate enterprise, gets all the credit (or all the blame) for its doings, as if they were all his or her own. Further removing the tendency from reality is the fact that in today's most successful productions the actors are typically overshadowed by technical spectacle, while cultural flux and the ever-more intrusive tabloid/paparazzi culture make old-fashioned stardom (the identification of an actor with a well-defined, larger-than-life, saleable image) an impossibility.

It seems more accurate, then, to say that stars acquire the image of bankability from their having been in commercially successful films, much more than their having made films commercially successful (just as CEOs derive their prestige from the corporate achievements of their companies). Those who have good, long runs of success owe that success to having been in films with many other selling points (concept, spectacle, the built-in audience brand names bring, a well-timed and heavily promoted release), which went on to do well. That commercial success, however, disproportionately enhanced the auras of the actors involved (especially if their publicists are doing their jobs), and gave them more chances to appear in such films, in a positive feedback loop that culminated in star status.

Especially given the fact that there are just not that many leading roles in major productions to go around, that there are fewer still roles in the kinds of films with a reasonable chance of bringing an actor that kind of attention, that one can suffer only so many failures in a row and still be considered a star, genuine stardom of the kind associated with media ubiquity and seven and eight-figure paydays is elusive, and precarious when one does achieve it. This makes the visibility and stability that a successful franchise can bring to one's career critical to establishing and sustaining star status--while making themselves appear indispensable to a franchise is by far the most obvious way in which an actor can strengthen the idea that they are a draw.

The career of Harrison Ford is an excellent example of this. Picture his list of credits without the Star Wars (1977, 1980, 1983), Indiana Jones (1981, 1983, 1989, 2008) and Jack Ryan (1992, 1994) films (with 1997's Air Force One perhaps best thought of as an "honorary" Jack Ryan movie).1 He had some other successes, to be sure--Witness (1985), Working Girl (1988), The Fugitive (1993), What Lies Beneath (2000)--but if these were all he had to show for his time as an actor he would be a comparatively obscure figure today. And to the extent that his appearance in them helped make them commercial successes, this was doubtless helped by the boost to his standing from his recently playing Han Solo, Indy, and to a lesser extent, Jack--one reason why he experienced so little success after 2000.

And the importance of having a franchise would seem to have only grown since he came onto the scene, to go by the careers of many of today's stars. (Where would Hugh Jackman be without Wolverine? Matt Damon without Jason Bourne? Shia LaBeouf without the Transformers, or the boost he got playing Henry Jones III?) Indeed, the most sensible career paths now seems to be not an actor's moving from one franchise to the next (as Harrison Ford did, getting into Indiana Jones just as Star Wars was running its course, then moving onto Jack Ryan next), but an actor's having multiple franchises going at once. Vin Diesel and Halle Berry, for instance, each came close to having three franchises at the same time--Diesel with the Fast and Furious, XXX and Riddick, Berry with the X-Men, Catwoman and Jinx. Neither actually realized those opportunities, however.2 The only actor who has really flourished to that extent is Robert Downey Jr., with Iron Man, The Avengers and Sherlock Holmes producing megahits year in, year out.

Those who think of Downey as Hollywood's most overrated A-lister, and a grating screen presence who has already had infinitely more than his share of luck in not just continuing to work but becoming a megastar after his earlier Charlie Sheen-like self-destructiveness; and find Iron Man the most insufferable comic book character on the big screen today; can only wonder where the justice is in that.

1. After all, he played an American President in that movie who has facing a techno-thriller-style international crisis--which was exactly what Jack Ryan had become by the novels of the mid-1990s. However, it is worth remembering that the Jack Ryan films are also a reminder of the limits to any one actor's indispensability. Ford was already the second Ryan, just two years after Alec Baldwin's appearance in the role in 1990's The Hunt for Red October, while there was little fuss over Ford's replacement by Ben Affleck in 2002's The Sum of All Fears. Affleck in his turn has been replaced by Chris Pines in the series' second reboot, the upcoming Jack Ryan, which will make for four different actors in the role in a mere five films.
2. Of course, Diesel walked away from Fast and Furious and XXX to stick with Riddick, which was wrecked when 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick underperformed. Halle Berry, meanwhile, saw the projected Jinx series canceled in 2003 after Hollywood became less bullish about female-driven action movie, Catwoman's flopping insured there would be no sequel, and then she was left out of the X-Men series after 2006's The Last Stand. The result has been a long period of lowered profiles for each, with Diesel only recovering after returning to the Fast and Furious franchise in 2009, and Berry's recovery considerably slower than that.

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