The multiplex in the age of brands—an era of sequels and prequels, of movies derived from comic books and board games, of repackaged and repurposed “intellectual property” that comes with “high pre-awareness” and appeals to “all four quadrants”—isn’t the friendliest place for movie stars.
With very few exceptions, actors in these productions are more or less disposable. The star of the Transformers series was neither Shia LaBeouf nor Megan Fox but the digital effects; when director Michael Bay grew tired of the humans that were in front of the camera, he simply moved on to Mark Wahlberg and a lingerie model, respectively. The Chinese audiences for whom those films are actually made couldn’t care less about who is reading the script aloud.
Over a span of less than a decade, Marvel has employed three different actors to play the Incredible Hulk in three different movies, and the gambit has paid off: Each film featuring the Hulk has grossed more than the last. Despite turning in a trio of huge hits as Jason Bourne, Matt Damon was replaced by Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Legacy. It didn’t matter that Renner’s character was of no relation to Jason Bourne; all that mattered was having “Bourne,” a word audiences recognized, in the title.
If we define movie stars as those who can open a film on their own—the sort that audiences see and say, “Yeah, I’ll give that a shot,” regardless of what the picture is about—then there are very few left. Sandra Bullock, certainly. Channing Tatum, perhaps. Jennifer Lawrence, maybe. Robert Downey Jr., of course. But the list is vanishingly small and only likely to get smaller as the years go on and brands grow in importance.
Great acting and huge stardom are not exactly linked. The recently deceased Philip Seymour Hoffman, arguably one of the great actors of the last 20 years, didn’t put audiences in seats. His last, and possibly best, film, A Most Wanted Man, will earn less in its entire run than a movie about a talking tree and a snarky raccoon earned in its opening 24 hours. As compelling as he was, Hoffman wasn’t a star, at least not in the classic sense. Not in the sense that James Harvey means in his Watching Them Be. Not in the sense of John Wayne.
“Nobody thought much about his acting . . . any more than they thought about Errol Flynn’s,” writes Harvey about Wayne. “As with Flynn, the charm and masculinity were more than enough.” It helped that Wayne had a mythmaker in the form of director John Ford to introduce him to the public in Stagecoach (1939):
A rifle report rings out, the coach slows—so does the cavalry escort behind—and comes to a halt. The rifleman (Wayne, as “the Ringo Kid”) looms in full-length close shot . . . in a white hat and black shirt, saddle and blanket under one arm, the other outstretched and gripping the rifle by the trigger guard: “Hold it!” he commands—twirling the rifle in his hand, looking straight ahead as the camera moves swiftly in on him until his close-up fills the screen, his neckerchief lifting in the wind.
This sudden camera move (very un-Fordian) is like a nudge in the ribs: Look at this, will you? It not only rhymes with and takes up the stopped movement of the stagecoach, it seems meant to be starmaking.
Star power is hard to define but obvious when on display: I know it when I see it. As does Harvey, writing here about Greta Garbo: “Her close-ups become like arias, they can negotiate so many meanings. The ground of all of them, of course . . . is her extraordinary beauty.” The classic Hollywood stars were all beautiful in their own way: ruggedly masculine like Wayne or Clark Gable, innocently radiant like Ingrid Bergman, oddly but appealingly overemphasized like Bette Davis.
Working in a collaborative medium, film stars usually need a great director to wring out their best work. There was Wayne and Ford, of course, but also Bette Davis and William Wyler, and Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg. In the modern era, few pairings have been as successful as Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, who first worked together in Mean Streets (1973). Harvey recounts:
Earl[y] on [in Mean Streets] there’s a frenetic but dreamlike montage, to a percussive rock beat on the soundtrack, of Johnny Boy [De Niro], after one of his royal screwups, careering on foot through the nighttime Village streets, bumping into another guy going by, punching and mauling him almost in passing, then rocking on and appearing on a tenement rooftop next, raising his arms against the New York skyline first in a victory gesture, then a f— you one—before jumping down and leaving the frame.
That obsessive self-destructiveness is in all the Scorsese-De Niro characters.
In the meticulously researched and compellingly written Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor, Glenn Kenny drills down into that relationship at much greater length. A quote from De Niro seems to sum up his early alienated outsiders, his Travis Bickles and Rupert Pupkins and Johnny Boys: “You know how a crab sort of walks sideways and has a gawky awkward movement?”
“Not straightforward?” the interviewer queries.
“No. Not devious in that sense. Crabs are very straightforward, but straightforward to them is going to the left and to the right. They turn sideways; that’s the way they’re built.”
De Niro, especially in his earlier years, always seemed to be looking for the right crab walk to emulate. It’s why, for a long time, he was a great actor but not a huge star. Audiences are put off by sideways-movements; they need someone coming straight ahead. It’s no real surprise, then, that Kenny’s handsome volume—which features hundreds of full-color photos and 10 essays, each centered on one film from the great actor’s career—focuses more tightly on De Niro’s early years. Seven of its 10 essays focus on films that were released between 1973 and 1988; his most recent quarter--century of work merits just three.
Kenny writes, gently:
In the movies of this period [the 1990s] in which De Niro’s performances have had the most effect, the critical viewer can detect something different from the absolute immersion that characterized his work in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The emphasis seems less on the idea of “becoming” the character than on identifying and nailing defining or transformative moments for the character.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that these more commercial works—many of which (Goodfellas, Heat, Casino, Ronin) are quite good—are also characterized by a De Niro who is digging slightly less deeply into the roles he has chosen. As his stardom grew, his acting—well, “declined” would be the wrong word, but the absolute immersion was definitely gone.
Tom Cruise, by contrast, has never wavered in his intensity, the quality for which he is best known. Amy Nicholson’s Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor catalogues the ways in which Cruise managed to become not just the biggest movie star in the world, but also one of the most interesting. Nicholson “tracks the superstar’s smartest and most perilous choices, the roles that could have derailed his career but instead defined it. It’s a study of craft and calculation, of Hollywood’s most powerful underdog still chasing the respect he’s more than earned.”
Tom Cruise has always been considered a “star” rather than a great actor, a distinction Nicholson believes to be unfair. She catalogues Cruise’s career choices, noting that for almost 20 years he refused to do a sequel—turning down millions to do Top Gun 2, for instance—opting instead for the riskier, less commercial Born on the Fourth of July (1989) or a run-of-the-mill action film (Mission: Impossible, 1996). And yet everyone reacts with surprise when he hands in a head-turning performance, as he did as the pick-up artist T. J. Mackey in Magnolia (1999) or the outrageous studio head Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder (2008).
Cruise’s status is occasionally a bit confounding. “The oddity of Cruise’s career is that his good looks don’t translate into sex appeal,” Nicholson writes. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder if that odd asexuality is a reason Cruise—inarguably one of the five biggest icons of the 1980s and ’90s—is omitted entirely from James Harvey’s book. Cruise’s intensity works against him. He’s too driven to be believable as a lover; there’s something missing just behind the eyes. Instead there’s a calculating coldness that never quite disappears. It’s hard to think of another megastar from Hollywood’s past or present for whom this is true.
Robert De Niro and Tom Cruise have both suffered in our modern age. As the clout of movie stars declines, they seem a bit lost. This summer’s Edge of Tomorrow was Cruise’s first nonfranchise picture to top $100 million domestically in almost a decade—and it barely scraped past that mark. And with the exception of 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook—not exactly marketed as a “Robert De Niro picture”—De Niro hasn’t had a real breakout hit (that wasn’t tied to the Meet the Parents series) since 1999’s Analyze This.
We live in a post-movie-star age. Their presence on the big screen ain’t what it used to be, and it never will
Sonny Bunch is managing editor of the Washington Free Beacon.