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:

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?

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…

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.