Every year, Forbes releases its lists of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors and actresses, presumably to give schoolteachers and cops and social workers an opportunity to think a little harder about their choices. This week saw the release of the ten highest-paid actresses list, topped by Angelina Jolie at $33 million a year. Putting aside the rather glaring issues of gender pay — that top $33 million paycheck would barely land Jolie in the top ten of male actors — here’s a question: Angelina Jolie? Seriously? Angelina Jolie hasn’t appeared in a movie since 2010. (The year, not the forgotten 2001 sequel.) That film, The Tourist, is mostly remembered these days as the punchline for Golden Globes stories. It made a little bit of money, but certainly not enough that its leading lady should still be coasting on it. Yet this year’s Forbes lists are mostly interesting as confirmation of what we’ve been suspecting for a while: that movie stars don’t matter anymore.
At least, they don’t matter in terms of what people go to the movies to see. Jolie’s a good place to start. In the decade between her Oscar win for Girl, Interrupted and The Tourist, she did plenty of work — but had precious few hits. The original Tomb Raider made money, as did Wanted and Salt. But for each of those, there’s two or three Beyond Borders or A Mighty Hearts or Life or Something Like Its. Her biggest non-animated hit (and three of her four biggest grossers are animated) is Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a picture that was propelled by not just her star power, but that of Brad Pitt and (most importantly) the considerable tabloid attention given to their off-screen attraction during that film’s production.
And that’s the point: that an astonishing number of those on these lists (Jolie, Julia Roberts, Charlize Theron, Hugh Jackman, etc.) aren’t actually a good investment — they don’t draw moviegoers to the theaters, yet they’re paid as if they do, because that’s the way it works. Jennifer Aniston is #4 on the Forbes list, even though she has a long list of box-office failures, and her two most recent high grossers (Horrible Bosses and Just Go With It) are those in which she plays decidedly supporting roles.
But Jennifer Aniston is a celebrity, and if the Age of the Movie Star is over, the Age of the Celebrity isn’t going anywhere. The numbers on these lists almost seem like mathematical proof of William Goldman’s oft-quoted adage that, in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything”; if there’s no such thing as a sure bet, then let’s keep making the same bets we’ve been placing for years, writing giant checks to Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise like it’s 1998 or something.
Or over-betting on the next big thing, mistranslating Middle America’s urgent desire to see Channing Tatum in his underwear to paying him $60 million for the year (#2 on the Forbes list, second only to Robert Downey Jr.), only to watch their money go up in flames when White House Down tanked — in the same season when presumably “sure thing” actors like Johnny Depp and Will Smith were brutally notified that their names couldn’t open a movie either.
So if movie stars are irrelevant, what does make a movie a success these days? The answer is elsewhere on the Forbes countdowns: with Kristen Stewart (#3 on the actress list), Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (#5 on the actor list), and Robert Downey Jr. (#1 on the actor list). None of them are foolproof “movie stars,” and if you don’t believe me, ask the producers of Adventureland, Snitch, and The Soloist. But they were smart (or lucky) enough to attach themselves to franchises, and that’s what’s reflected in those numbers — not loyalty to Stewart, Johnson, and Downey, but to Twilight and The Fast and the Furious and Iron Man. As the movie star fades, the “brand” will become that much more of a driver of what movies are financed. And that may be even more depressing.