Miércoles 23 de Julio de 2008, Ip nº 239

Who killed the Movie Star?
Por Willa Paskin

The killer struck on a warm Wednesday night in June 2007, as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie strolled the red carpet outside New York City's Ziegfeld theater for the U.S. premiere of A Mighty Heart. Looking relaxed and radiant (she in $800 open-toe Louboutin pumps with a crystal heel, he in a snug Tom Ford suit), they nuzzled, laughed, whispered, and cheerfully posed, blissfully unaware that they—like all members of their esteemed species—were being stalked by a deadly foe.

Befitting stars of their caliber, their appearance was tightly controlled. Jolie's lawyer insisted that every reporter within earshot sign a document forbidding them to ask about the couple's relationship. To make up for this insult to freedom of the press (the film, after all, was the tale of a murdered journalist, and the premiere a benefit for Reporters Without Borders), Jolie offered up a sweet little tabloid tip: Her sleeveless, black velvet wrap dress was vintage, a mere $26 at Los Angeles boutique Wasteland. But for all Jolie's efforts, A Mighty Heart turned out to be a mighty dud, grossing just $9 million. And with that, another shot was fired into the bullet-ridden body of a once-formidable creature: the Movie Star.

Since 1907, when audiences first fell in love with the Biograph Girl, an anonymous silent-picture sensation, the film biz has been dependent on stars—a charmed circle of mythic beings, who, by virtue of their beauty and panache, charm and cheekbones (and, in some cases, talent), could be relied upon to pack movie houses. For most of the century since, having the right name on the marquee—be it Chaplin, Garbo, Grant, McQueen, Schwarzenegger, or Hanks—has been the most crucial predictor of a film's success.

No longer. The past year has seen more falling stars than the skies above Roswell. Since 2007, with the notable exception of Will Smith, whose upcoming tent-pole flick Hancock is enjoying some of the best prerelease buzz of any summer film, virtually every star of note has tanked at the box office, sending a collective shiver down the industry's spine. Tom Cruise, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Reese Witherspoon, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Ben Stiller, and Will Ferrell have all starred in movies that made less than $40 million domestically, far from the magic number—$100 million—that's become the standard measure of a successful release. Outside of their tried-and-true franchises, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Cameron Diaz, and Johnny Depp have fared little better, topping out, in some cases, at less than $70 million. Same thing for the presumably unbeatable duo of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, whose widely praised political romp, Charlie Wilson's War, took in a scant $66 million.

"We're in a cycle where stars aren't as important to a film's success as they used to be," says Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, echoing a May cover story in the Hollywood Reporter. Between 1990 and 2000, roughly two-thirds of the top 10 grossing films each year could chalk up their success to star power; since 2001, that number has declined by more than half. "There was a period of time when studio marketing departments could count on just hiring a movie star to open a movie," says producer Lynda Obst—casting, for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger in the absurd Kindergarten Cop, and Julia Roberts in the aggressively mediocre Runaway Bride. "It's not so easy anymore," she adds.

Accordingly, movie star paychecks aren't what they used to be. In 1995, the rubber-faced Jim Carrey was the first actor to be awarded a $20 million contract—for the ill-fated Cable Guy. (Soon after, Sandler, Smith, Cruise, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and others were commanding the same price.) At the time that Columbia Pictures made him the offer, the funnyman had never had a flop. Since then, he's had plenty. As a result, Warner Bros. just financed his next comedy, Yes Man, with a very different sort of deal: Carrey will receive zippo up front, but is entitled to 36.2 percent of the movie's profits ... should any materialize.

Face it: The movie star as we've come to know him—an actor who can reliably put butts in seats on opening weekend—is dead, finished off like one of those nubile young counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, devoured with fava beans and a fine Chianti (ssssllllurp!), gutted in the shower, blood swirling elegantly down the drain. And there's no shortage of possible culprits.

Suspect #1: The tabloids

Call it death by a thousand crotch shots. The incredible success of the weekly tabs, an innovation credited to Bonnie Fuller, the former Us Weekly editrix (who went on to bring her dark magic to Star before stepping down in May), has reduced the movie star to someone who's "just like us!" And if they are mere mortals—as we're forever being reminded, one Starbucks run at a time—who needs them? By chronicling an actor's every bad hair day, sartorial screwup, and debased love life, the tabs—joined by TMZ with its nightly curbside ambushes and Perez with his doodled penises—have ripped the veneer of glamour from one matinee idol after another, exposing the sad, unbalanced, attention-starved creatures underneath. As a result, we've adopted what Hollywood historian David Thomson calls "a bitter, acidic, vengeful attitude toward the stars."

To see the carnage Fuller has wrought, look no further than former box-office golden boy—now perpetual superfreak—Tom Cruise. Or recall the horrifying fate of the original Bennifer, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, who were poised to become Hollywood royalty and instead watched helplessly as their careers were shredded by the tabloids (granted, the couple all but invited the harpies into their bedroom, but still). In 2001, the year before they began dating, Lopez was the first star ever to have the country's No. 1 album (J.Lo) and top-grossing film (The Wedding Planner) simultaneously. That same year, Affleck starred in the blockbuster Pearl Harbor, which grossed a gargantuan $198 million. In 2002, the duo hooked up and proceeded to hijack the media, flaunting their relationship in music videos, magazines, and a prime-time television special. After their breakup in 2004, blamed on "media scrutiny," both went into virtual hiding for years. Now he's bleeping Jimmy Kimmel, and she's bleeping Marc Anthony. Ouch.

Suspect #2: The F/X

Behind his many disguises—a great white shark, a robotic-alien life-form, a
web-slinging superhero—this villain appears rather tame: a pasty-faced keyboard jockey, armed with powerful modeling software and an endless supply of Red Bull and Skittles. Ever since the mid-'70s, when the studios began plying us with films like Jaws and Star Wars, living, breathing movie stars have been moving onto the critical list. Recently they went on life support, as special-effects houses ventured beyond merely creating big-screen monsters for real actors to wrestle and actually managed to engineer ones that could replace humans altogether. The turning point came in 2003, when the best, most moving performance in the year's highest-grossing film, the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was delivered by a bunch of sun-deprived Kiwi code monkeys.

After all, a generation weaned on video games, reality television, and star-free "event" movies doesn't care who's in the motion-capture suit, so long as the explosions are huge, the action sequences righteous, and the fight scenes mind-blowing. "As big blockbusters have become more effects-oriented," notes Neal Gabler, author of biographies of Walt Disney and Walter Winchell, "technology has become the star."

Suspect #3: The acting bug

This fearsome virus has been known to reduce the most powerful movie stars to pale shadows of their former selves. Telltale symptoms include a tendency to speak in bizarre accents, intense weight fluctuation, a morbid fear of the spotlight, and, in extreme cases, a deeply passionate desire to direct. Scary stuff.

Consider Leonardo DiCaprio, whose bravura performance in Titanic was so beloved by teenage girls they turned out for The Man in the Iron Mask, even though Leo's perfect punim was obscured for half the picture. But instead of accepting his apparent fate as a heartthrob, the "king of the world" up and abdicated the throne, taking two years off before landing in the creepy thriller The Beach, which grossed just $40 million. By then, Leo-lust was over. "Now he's variously seen as either an aging pretty boy or quite a good actor," offers Thomson. "Sometimes you see his movies and sometimes you don't."

The next generation of would-be A-listers has largely followed DiCaprio's example, selecting projects that allow them to "stretch" but have no chance whatsoever of launching them into the Hollywood stratosphere. Rachel McAdams, frequently identified as the actress-most-likely-to-become-the-next-Julia Roberts after her schmaltzfest The Notebook and thriller Red Eye both performed well, has appeared in just two films in the three years since. Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Ryan Gosling, and Amy Adams, among others, all swing between big-ticket Hollywood movies and thoughtful independent projects, always keeping their profiles just low enough to maintain some semblance of a private life.

But because so much of a star's success depends on his or her onscreen persona—we like Kate Hepburn when she banters, Cruise when he's cocky, Julia when she smiles—and "seldom has to do with an actor's ability," as Thomson observes, regularly abandoning that shtick can leave fans cold. Portraying a freak-loving photographer one month and a Stepford wife another may be creatively satisfying for Nicole Kidman, but not for her audience. "You have to match the movie star to the world her audience wants her to be in," Obst explains. "You can't just put her in anything and expect it to work. That's too large a burden for the movie star to bear."

Suspect #4: The movie geek

In the dark ages before the Internet, the only thing potential audiences knew about a flick was who was in it; if they liked the star, they turned out in droves. Then the Movie Geek got wired. Like the F/X wizards whose work they so often champion, these Peeping Toms rarely see the light of day; instead they perform their dastardly deeds from the comfort of a futon. On a mission to unearth the dirty secrets burdening every film production, the Geek (think Ain't It Cool News troll Harry Knowles) ferrets out the production details studios used to keep to themselves—gossip, scripts, casting calls, outtakes—posting his opinion of each on the Web for all to see, and thereby creating the ultimate star-leveler: buzz.

"Nobody is word-of-mouth proof," declares Obst. If the buzz is bad, the biggest star in the world will see his movie fail (to watch such a takedown happen in real time, follow the ongoing saga of Cruise's plagued comeback film, Valkyrie). And if the buzz is good, celeb-free sleepers can become blockbusters (which explains how the star-studded Oceans 13 was felled by the stoner-studded Knocked Up last summer).

Suspect #5: The Doppelganger

In the beginning, it's all but unnoticeable, attaching itself to the host and quietly beginning to feed. Day by day it grows, gaining strength as the organism sustaining it gradually withers away. Before you know it, the movie star is gone—nothing but an empty husk—and in its place is an entirely new creature, nearly identical in appearance but with a fundamentally different set of DNA: the celebrity.

The tabloid press can do more than just dent a star's image—it can also co-opt it, creating a long-running narrative arc about an actor more compelling than any movie. Take Brad Pitt, for instance, who despite his fame has failed to connect with audiences not only in a small, dark movie like The Assassination of Jesse James, but also in a pure Hollywood spectacle like Troy. If the audience doesn't want to see Brad playing a beefy, long-haired blond Greek Adonis, what the hell do they want?

As it turns out, they want to see Brad Pitt playing himself, or the version of himself that turns up in the tabloids every week. His recent hits have been Mr. & Mrs. Smith (which gave us the one thing the tabloids have been, as yet, unable to deliver: the sight of Brangelina screwing) and the Ocean's movies, wherein Brad and his real-life actor buds Clooney and Damon swan around in well-cut suits. In other words, movies that jibe perfectly with the story line of Pitt's off-screen life.

In this case, the tabloids haven't torn Pitt down, but they have written his ultimate role. For the first time, "stars are essentially in competition with the movies, not serving them," says Gabler. "The nimbus around their lives is much more interesting than anything they do onscreen." While audiences were ignoring Jesse James, which made just $4 million, they were getting their Pitt-fix from the tabloids: From May 2007 to May 2008, Angelina or Brad appeared on the cover of at least one of the five weekly celebrity glossies in 44 out of the 48 possible weeks.

Young starlets like Lindsay Lohan, who seem less interested in "the craft" than in fame itself, have absorbed the obvious lesson: Why bother with movies at all? Lord knows Lauren Conrad doesn't. Especially when a shopping jaunt to Kitson gets you more attention with less effort. As for a paycheck? That's what club appearances and fashion lines are for.

  Julio de 2008. Radar Magazine.