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Sunday Morning on Film – Looking For Stars in a Cloudy Sky
June 24, 2012 By Michael Nazarewycz
In a recent Forbes.com column entitled 'Death of the Movie Star? Sandler and Cruise Flop at the Box Office', writer Dorothy Pomerantz points to the disappointing US box office tallies for Adam Sandler’s That’s My Boy and Tom Cruise’s Rock of Ages, and ponders if the era of the highly-paid star-driven movie is over. She makes several good points throughout her piece – some I agree with, others I don’t – but overall I think she is close to being onto something.
To me, the question isn’t about whether a movie star can still open a movie; the question is about how we define whether someone is a movie star as opposed to being just some garden-variety celebrity. And furthermore, once defined, what it actually means.
There have been movie stars for as long as there have been movies. I can recite a list of names of Hollywood luminaries from the 1930s and ‘40s and ‘50s whom we would instantly deem to have been movie stars, either in their prime or in their lives. This is only a small part of that list:
Cary Grant. Jimmy Stewart. Katharine Hepburn. John Wayne. Gene Kelly. Marilyn Monroe. James Dean.
And for every name I mention, there are probably two whom I’ve neglected to mention or who could at least be debated. But what made those celebrities movie stars is a difficult thing to quantify, because it goes beyond the traditional measuring devices – things like longevity or Oscar wins.
In the list above, Wayne’s career was 50+ years and Hepburn’s was 60 while Dean’s was two, yet they were all movie stars. In the list above, Hepburn won four Oscars while Monroe and Grant won none (!), yet they were all movie stars. The dichotomies go on with every new name added and every so-called measuring device applied.
And the same comparisons can be made today. For example, I agree with Pomerantz that Tom Cruise is a movie star. In my own opinion, so is George Clooney. Yet while both have been around for 25+ years, Cruise’s 31 films have grossed twice the amount of Clooney’s 29 films ($3.1B vs. $1.5B, according to boxofficemojo.com, but Clooney has one Oscar win and six additional nominations compared to Cruise’s three nominations and zero wins.
Do you see what I mean about quantification? And box office success AND longevity AND awards recognition still don’t necessarily add up to being enough for someone to be considered a movie star. If I said to you there is an actor who has been around for more than 20 years, and who has an Oscar nomination, and whose films have grossed more than everyone ever except for Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, and Harrison Ford, would you think that person a movie star? Probably.
If I asked if you considered Samuel L. Jackson a movie star, would you have the same opinion? I wouldn’t. And yet Jackson is the actor whose attributes I described above: 20-year acting veteran, Oscar nominee, and fourth all-time on the total-film-gross list.
And therein lies the nuance of defining a movie star; doing so is instinctive, which means it’s subjective, which means there are enough variances to allow for differences between your list and mine. Here is my list:
Cruise. Clooney. Julia Roberts. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Leonardo DiCaprio. Johnny Depp. Sandra Bullock. Tom Hanks. And in the cagey veterans column, Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.
Am I missing one or two? Probably. Is my list different than yours? Probably.
But ultimately, I would guess that our lists (if we remain entirely subjective and not insist that our fave-du-jour be included) are pretty close. And while I understand and agree that longevity is not a precursor to being a movie star, there are certain young actors I didn’t include because I think there is still time for them to prove themselves. People like Daniel Radcliffe and Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Hemsworth are on the verge, but they are still a bit unproven. (Hey, Tom Cruise was there once, too – somewhere between 1983’s Risky Business and 1986’s Top Gun, and that worked out just fine.)
So now we’ve (more or less) defined our movie stars, meaning that the rest of Hollywood’s denizens are relegated to being … perish the thought … ONLY celebrities. So what’s next? Well, there really isn’t a next. The exercise was the point.
Those Hollywood stars I mentioned from the Golden Age were easier to identify NOW because of the perfect vision that hindsight affords. But even then, movie stars were easily identified and far more so than today. Part of that had to do with the studio system and how stars were promoted. But more than that, because part of being a movie star has to do with popularity, celebrities had a better chance to become movie stars then because there were fewer so-called celebrities than there are today. Someone had a chance to be more popular because there were fewer options pulling the populace away.
Back in the Golden Age, there weren’t reality television series or singing contests or talent shows or even You Tube to take eyes away from movies’ headliners. Today, there is all of that to the nth degree. And to be considered a “celebrity,” all you pretty much need is the will to humiliate yourself in public. Thanks to that criteria, Snooki from MTV’s The Jersey Shore is a celebrity, but she is not now, and (probably) never will be, a movie star. Still, she is still promoting herself on television, the internet, and even in those old-fashioned methods of celebrity news delivery we call newspapers and magazines, and for every pic or pixel she inhabits, the Radcliffes of the world must wait for the next news cycle to get their chance, and that next news cycle just might be one news cycle too late.
Do I think the movie star is dying, as Pomerantz suggests? No, I don’t. But becoming a movie star is becoming more and more difficult not because movies are any harder to make, and not because there is any more or less real competition to be one, but because there are so many no-shot wannabes getting in the way of the real-chance oughtabes that the oughtabes are finding themselves lost in the cloud of fame instead of shining in the skies of movie stardom
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