Big Movie Stars Are Beginning To Twinkle Out

‘I’ On Culture

We no longer have many stars… movie stars, that is. Years ago, there was a whole group of actors who “everyone” knew were stars. If they were in a picture, people would flock to the theaters. Now, it is far more that the films are the stars and the “biggest box office draws” are the ones who are in the big movies.

Of course, this has been going on for a long time, but it is getting far more noticeable. My dad managed a movie theater back in 1957, and I went with him for the opening of The Pride and the Passion, a big movie starring Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren. He thought I might help at the candy stand if things got really crowded. The theater was empty that day; people stayed away because the movie was essentially a stinker.

There have always been films that haven’t measured up to expectations, but these days most of the big films take in money because people want to be there. Last week’s The Fate of the Furious is a great example. Vin Diesel has been in a series of flops (with the exception of his voice-over role in Guardians of the Galaxy) since the last movie in the car chase grouping. Two more of those films have already been approved.

A glaring example was last year’s The Passengers, heavily touted as a space-going romance between everyone’s favorite actress of the past few years, the adorable Jennifer Lawrence, and Chris Pratt, a huge star as shown by Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World and The Magnificent Seven. How could it fail? Well, it did because a) it basically used a “bait and switch” by having its trailer focus on fun romance and the challenges of space, instead of what actually happened, and b) even without that knowledge, people were simply not interested.

Matt Damon was the lead in The Great Wall and it lost $75 million, and Scarlett Johannson was in The Ghost in the Shell, and it is projected to lose $60 million. And they were brought in to boost the box office! Johnny Depp is doing another Pirates of the Caribbean movie, out soon, because with the exception of his strange turn in Alice in Wonderland, his other films for years have been duds.

On the other hand, Beauty and the Beast’s lead was Emma Watson, who has not done much in the way of major films since being Hermione in the Harry Potter films. The biggest names were people who were represented for almost the entire film by computer-generated effects. But people poured into the theaters.

That is one reason why the studios want franchise films. People who liked a movie are far more likely to come for a sequel. At least they get a really good first weekend. So we’ve had a lot of sequels. If they are good, well, they lead to more sequels. And, in general, even for the really big-budget ones, they keep things amusing. The last Captain America actually had some laughs, and there were some amusing moments even in the ultimate sequel film Rogue One.

The only actor at the moment who seems beyond all of these petty things is Duane “The Rock” Johnson. Much of this has to do with his personality: He is a huge man who can be a brute but comes across as someone who doesn’t take himself seriously. He had a great funny moment in last week’s Fate film when he leads his young daughter and her soccer teammates in a Samoan war chant that clearly terrified the other team. He projects the same leading manhood characteristics of John Wayne while carefully choosing his projects and letting himself be mocked.

Why has all of this happened? The simple answer is that in our celebrity culture, we have “stars” who are really not stars. We know who they are but would not put down the $10 a seat to see them unless we like the movie they are in. None of the Oscar nominations went to the performers in the big movies or the movies themselves. Even more to the point: Most TV shows make “stars” of their actors, but that seldom translates to the big screen.

With luck, this means that maybe producers will make more good movies and not worry about stars. More real acting, fewer stars!

But that will take a lot of luck. Don’t hold your breath.