Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Everyone has one. Or is one.

Just got through looking at this piece of Onion A.V. snark and reminding myself why I don't read stuff like this more often. Internet lists are the lowest form of life. The title is the sole setup ("Unbreakable: 18 film stars impervious to box-office flops") and the rest of the article goes on to name actors that one presumes one or more of the five writers feels isn't worthy of their ongoing successes.

It switches seamlessly between criticizing the actors for being in flops, to being in movies the article writers just didn't like, to not following career paths the writers feel they should, to never deserving success in the first place. This allows them to keep up an unrelenting stream of disdain without ever having to say anything of merit.

For example, it might be interesting to ask if any screen actor had an unbroken string of successes through their whole career. Certainly not Jimmy Stewart. (It's A Wonderful Life, his first post-War film, was a flop. Maybe he should have just crawled into a hole.) Cary Grant? He made some real stinkers in between Hitch films, and he retired twice. John Wayne? Inconceivable.

They also get to make unfounded suppositions. Like, the success of the film The Break-Up was due to Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn's romance at the time. Apparently they had access to the moviegoers' exit polls where people admitted going to see the movie just because they'd read something in the tabloids about Aniston and Vaughn. (That must be why Gigli flopped: Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez were never in the tabloids when that movie came out.)

For sheer sloppiness, they throw around "bankable" and "big box-office attraction"--both of which refer to an ability to draw tickets--not what sort of salaries they command. And yet the whole premise of the article is that these people aren't bankable and are (presumably) overpaid.

Forbes did a similar article bang-for-the-buck stars which, while stupid for a number of reasons, at least backed up its premise with some solid facts. Not surprisingly, they came up with different and contradictory results. Brad Pitt movies return $24 for each dollar he is paid. Jennifer Aniston, $17. Angelina Jolie, $15. Sandra Bullock, $13. Nicole Kidman, $8 (before Golden Compass, ouch).

So about the only one they agree on is Nicole Kidman. And, frankly, an $8-to-$1 return would be considered pretty good in most businesses. Except of course there are all the other production costs, but that just reveals the stupidity of the whole premise: Popular actors can ignite good movies that might not otherwise be seen, or push so-so movies into profitability, and they can power home rentals/sales even for bad movies. They can't save a movie that no one wants to see (and that's independent of quality).

I've never seen Angelina Jolie in a good movie. She won me over as an actress with her portrayal of Lara Croft--I can't think of a modern (or maybe any) actress who could pull off the insouciant adventurer without seeming ditzy, plastic or otherwise as lifeless as the computer character is. (Well, okay, Helen Mirren or Judi Dench could do it, but I don't think they'd fit into the costume, and that's high company to be associated with anyway.)

Just because I'm not lining up to see The Good Shepherd doesn't mean that's her fault. I'd like to see her in a good movie, really! I'm sure if I did see Shepherd, I wouldn't think, "Man, Jolie is awful." But you know, if I did think that, I'd probably know how I felt going in, and would just avoid the movie in the first place.

Keanu Reeves, for example. People hate this guy, apparently. But he was perfect for The Matrix movies, and adequate in a lot of his other roles, and most people concede that while simultaneously arguing that it doesn't take much talent. Let's accept that premise; the follow-up has to be something like "So what?" Don't like it? Don't go see it. But don't go see him--don't give the guy your money, for crying out loud, while simultaneously bemoaning the taste of those who go see him.

For myself, I have a low tolerance of Nicholas Cage. I don't begrudge him his success, and I enjoyed him in Peggy Sue Got Married and Moonstruck. Odd films he was appropriately odd in. And, hell, Raising Arizona! Great! But somewhere in the early '90s, it wore thin. So I've seen only a few of his movies since, mostly on cable.

Actors do what they do. A great many have one character they use for all their roles, like John Wayne or Owen Wilson. Some have a little more range. Some have a lot of range. But except for the occasional star who's just phoning it in--something that doesn't happen all that often, and certainly not very frequently for any particular star, given how fast bankability declines--most of them acquit themselves in fairly predictable fashions.

If big-budget big-star movies are tanking today, it's really not the actors' fault. But just as most people are probably not all that aware of the the producer, director and writer's impact on a film, most internet articles on the subject are going to be predictably shallow.


  1. I must beg to differ. The Duke had more than one character. Although in his later career, he played "John Wayne" in every movie, that was a function of the fact that he was selling his persona in deals he put together so he went the safe route. But if you look at his work with great directors such as Ford, Walsh and Hawks, you will see a range of characters from the unrelenting harshness of Ethan Edwards and Tom Dunston, to the courtly demeanor of Nathan Brittles and Col. Kirby Yorke, to the wounded soul of Shawn Thorton. There was a lot of color in his palate, if you just look beyond his later roles.

  2. On a superficial level, every big star plays the same persona more or less. The great "actors" who stretch are really hams. Robert Deniro is almost the same in every movie as is Pacino. They repeat themselves as we all do. Physical limitations and mental blocks keep them in the same box most of the time. Who is the guy who is such a great actor? Daniel Day Lewis? There will be blood, vs. Gangs of New York, same guy chewing the scenery. Marlon Brando? Closer to a guy who stretched himself, but that was because he got too fat to play Stanley or the Wild One. SO I guess he just stretched himself out so to speak. Bruce Dern? Batshit crazy in every role. Tough to find someone who legitimately has a broad range.

  3. Of course there was one actress who had a great financial success in every role she attempted in her entire career. Seka. She definitely stretched herself. In several parts of her body. Just sayn'.

  4. Actually, not only do I agree with you about Wayne, I think that can be applied to most of the other "persona" stars. Jack Nicholson is always Jack Nicholson, but his character in About Schmidt versus the opening scenes of Wolf versus The Departed are all different shades of the Nicholson palette.

    It's not just their limitations but ours. Henry Fonda as a villain in Once Upon A Time In The West? Great! But nobody wanted to see it.

    Character actors always have more range--check out Stephen Root, e.g., or someone like Gary Cole who can do a lead or vanish into a smaller role.

  5. Hey, Seka was one of those porn actresses who didn't seem to herald a bunch of girls named after her. You don't see a lot of Sekas running around.

    Not like Jennas or Madisons or Teras.

  6. Seka was unique. A tall blond Scandi who was a triple threat if you know what I mean. But the 70's porn stars looked like real woman. Especially my favorite Kay Parker.

  7. I saw your post on the old Idol thread about the Idol on Althouse. I simul-blogged the auditions and it was fun. I think I will keep posting on that paticular thread to see if anyone picks up on it. But remain silent on the newer threads unless she picks up the Idol. Keep it under your hat, just you, me and a million other people who read the internets will know anything about it.

  8. It'll be our secret. (You, me and the 300,000 hits she get in a month. And maybe we'll let Kay Parker in on it, too....)


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