Stop Saying the Movie Star Is Extinct

I suppose one of the drawbacks of being the “editorial director” of a big site like Variety is that it might be hard to find an underling brave enough to give you proper editorial guidance. That’s the best explanation I can come up with for “Movies Stars are Endangered Species as Actors Struggle to Stay Relevant,” an aimless, toothless, and generally worthless op-ed from Peter Bart, the once-savvy Hollywood insider who these days pens the show-biz bible’s equivalent to those rambling, ellipsis-heavy nightmares Larry King used to write for USA Today. Bart, who was last heard weakly advising Jon Stewart not to direct movies because non-directors doing so never works out (Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and Orson Welles be damned), mostly just uses the “death of the movie star” canard as a weak peg for his incoherent ramblings about which actors he does and doesn’t like. But even if he’d bothered to mount a strong argument about the death of the movie star, he’d be wrong, and here’s why:

Tom Cruise Visits "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon"

The celebrity/entertainment journalism industrial complex.

The celebrities that grace your magazine covers, fill gossip columns, and dominate airtime on E! and Entertainment Tonight don’t emerge, fully formed, out of some sort of celeb molten lava somewhere on the edge of the San Fernando Valley. Many are, in fact, members of this “endangered species” known as movie stars. If anything, the multifold expansion of celebrity journalism has made the products they’re shilling irrelevant; they do so much press to promote their movies, their fans can get their fill of their favorite stars without actually having to go to the movies. This doesn’t mean they no longer matter; it means most movie stars doesn’t necessarily pre-sell their movies, and there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

But was there ever? Elizabeth Taylor was one of the biggest stars in the world when Cleopatra tanked. Likewise Bruce Willis and Hudson Hawk, or Travolta and Battlefield Earth, or Eddie Murphy and Pluto Nash. Even the movie stars of the golden age had a flop now and then — we just didn’t know about it, because they didn’t report box office grosses back then. Now, thanks the aforementioned proliferation of entertainment news, anyone with a passing interest and a Twitter feed knows by 5pm Friday if the movie our stars have been shilling for months is a hit or a flop. But even if they have one (or more) of the latter, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t movie stars anymore. Why?

Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in "Blended"

There are more choices — and people are broke.

In spite of the deluge of safe bets (sequels, remakes, reboots, adaptations), box office is down, and there are plenty of reasons. The most obvious is that we’re still mounting a seemingly endless climb out of a recession, and people are just more careful with their limited entertainment dollars, particularly with lower-cost options like video games, Netflix streaming, and really fucking good television available. The combination of those factors means that we, as a movie-going public, are maybe a little choosier, and thus not necessarily on board for every single Will Smith or Johnny Depp or Adam Sandler movie anymore; if it gets the kind of toxic buzz After Earth, Transcendence, or Blended did, maybe we’d rather stay home and binge Orange Is the New Black instead. Or maybe it’s less that we’re not into movie stars than that we’re not into those movie stars. You see…

Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock in "The Heat"

Tastes change quickly.

Here’s a name you won’t find anywhere in Bart’s “editorial”: Jennifer Lawrence, a widely (OK, mostly) beloved red-carpet and talk-show sensation whose last six films have, with one exception, all grossed over $100 million dollars. That, by any reasonable definition, is a movie star. Here’s another one: Melissa McCarthy, whose last five films (again, with one exception) all pulled in over $100 million. And then there’s Shailene Woodley, whose first film of 2014, Divergent, is creeping up on $150 million, and whose The Fault in Our Stars opened huge and is heading in the same direction. (What do these people all have in common? No Y chromosome. The only female movie star who seems to be on Bart’s radar is Angelina Jolie.)

Look, let’s not give Bart too much weight here — his piece is a first-draft LiveJournal entry at best, filled with no-kidding obviousness (“Warners may pour $200 million or so into Batman v Superman, but its potential success won’t depend on Ben Affleck’s chemistry with Henry Cavill”), snide condescension (of Seth Rogen, who is, yes, a movie star, Bart opines: “Neighbors is a big hit, but can’t Rogen recruit a sleek stunt double to do his sex scenes?” On behalf of all modestly chubby guys, go fuck yourself, Peter Bart), and full-on ignorance (he classifies Jon Favreau as one of the “stars who yearn to direct,” and writes as though Cowboys & Aliens was his first attempt to do so). But his general thesis is turning up more often, in spite of the fact that it’s so easy to shoot down. It’s not that there aren’t any movie stars anymore. It’s that out-of-touch commentators like Bart are watching the wrong ones.

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Film Biz 101 (for 2010s forward): if J.Law had decided to pass on "Hunger Games: Mockingjay," the protest would have been quick, fast and done with.  The replacement actress (insert anyone here) would not have affected the box office.  Studios know that, you should too.

"Movie" stars matter, yes.  But, not in the way the used to in this digital age.  The analogy to Elizabeth Taylor in the early 60s is so completely off-base.  Read up on Theories of Spectatorship and some Barthes.  They now matter as ubiquitous human "props" not known for performances that were the domain of larger than live movie screens, but for anything BUT their movies.  See?  Ask millenials today about particular stars and answers will show you that they know less about a star's movie work but more about the ancillary stuff in her/his life.  It's always been this way, sure - the difference is that the "movie image" doesn't matter as much.


@jasondashbailey @jeanvigo OK. So is J.Law's face an "idea" or "event?"  Or Seth Rogen for that matter?  They are representational/iconic.  In a much more over-saturated image world, (well pre-visioned by Baudrillard decades ago), we are now seeing that the myth of "movie star" - i.e. its very signification in societal consciousness - has been fragmented, spread thinly, and even - GOSH! - become smaller.  You see, Jason, the exponential ubiquity of presence and dissemination via social media/digital media and what not has rendered movie stars "disposable" as icons.  They are WITHIN our psychic reach, whereas in the past they were jus outside of it.  Audiences are not relating to the "star" as they used to.  Personally, I, too, am saddened by it.  But, a "star" was an invention of the studio system as part of the marketing plan for selling tickets as far back as the Post-TRUST Era (circa 1917). It worked well for nearly 90+ years.  It is changing because movies are not as dependably profitable on their lead actors as they used to be (see: Paranormal Activity and all that genre stuff, ad nauseam).  What IS growing is the "cult of the auteur" as we hear people flocking to the next Apatow movie, or Michael Bay or J.J Abrams or Joss Whedon and so on.   Adam Sandler continues to make movies - bad ones - because the profit margins are justifying the budget NOT because he still has some hold on our comedic consciousness.  He is a now serving a smaller fanboy or fangirl niche SUB-quadrant, not even a specific quadrant that the marketing strategists in the Hollywood so well calculate.  

And no, stars do NOT have to be good-looking, so don't take Bart's "fat guy" thing personally.  The numbers show that.  It's equally opportunistic: what happened to Clive Owen was Daniel Craig just like what happened to Jack Black was Zach Galifiniakis.

But, at the end of the day, and you should be smart enough to understand this: the material wins out, not the star or the director or even the VFX.  Bad story, bad movie, next…we got too many apps, viral vids, and streams to move on to…peace out.