by: Phil Siegel
Rachel McAdams and Denzel Washington are cleaning up at the box office with The Vow and Safe House, respectively – movies where they play firmly in their wheelhouse. Neither film is based on a pre-existing property, making their success even more impressive. Both movies succeed because they acknowledge the sad truth of Hollywood today: there are no more movie stars.
Not too long ago, audiences flocked to the movies because of movie stars. It didn’t matter the genre; the movie star was guaranteed to put butts in seats. Tom Cruise starred in five consecutive $100 million blockbusters in the 90s. Tom Hanks had polar opposite smashes You’ve Got Mail and Saving Private Ryan in the same year. Will Smith went on a tear in the mid-2000s, conquering sci-fi (I, Robot), rom-com (Hitch), drama (Pursuit of Happyness), thriller (I Am Legend), and action-comedy (Hancock). However, with the corporatization of movie studios, the expansion of the international market, and the blockbuster success of franchises like Harry Potter and Spider-Man, having a star in your movie isn’t as important. It’s costly and a shaky investment. Think of it this way: Titanic became the biggest movie in the world thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio; twelve years later, Avatar took the crown thanks to special effects. Any actor could’ve played Sam Worthington’s role.
Nowadays, few movies are star dependent. Brand recognition trumps star power. The biggest-grossing films of 2011 were either continuing franchises (Harry Potter 7, Transformers 3), starting them (Thor, Captain America), or reviving them (Mission Impossible 4, Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Even The Help was based on a best-selling book. Franchise movies don’t require stars. Emma Watson, Shia Labeouf, and Taylor Lautner are merely actors in popular movies. They suffer from Orlando Bloom syndrome: interchangeable cogs in blockbusters with zero box office pull on their own; Eric Bana and Daniel Craig also are examples of this. Because of the shrinking amount of available non-franchise roles, actors are learning that the only way to survive is to pick one genre and excel. Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller rule the comedy world, but their forays into drama have been ignored by audiences. Angelina Jolie kicks butt in the action genre but can’t sell tickets in anything else.
For Rachel McAdams, romantic dramas are her bread and butter. She burst onto the scene in 2004 and had a hot streak that lasted a year and a half. She co-starred in five movies of completely different genres that all made bank: Mean Girls, The Notebook, Wedding Crashers, Red Eye and The Family Stone. The media hailed her, as they do whenever a woman stars in a film that makes money, as the next Julia Roberts. Unfortunately, McAdams failed to capitalize on her newfound celebrity. Her post-2005 projects included little-seen indies, supporting turns, and the Sherlock Holmes movies (a total Orlando Bloom role). Only 2009’s The Time Traveler’s Wife proved successful. In 2010, she put her star power to the test in Morning Glory. The film bombed.
Leading roles for actors not requiring green screens are dwindling, and those for women are nearly extinct if your name isn’t Meryl Streep. An actress on the rise only gets so many chances before her moment passes. Kristin Bell tried to become a star following Forgetting Sarah Marshall. She toplined When in Rome and You Again in 2010. Both failed with critics and audiences, and she now co-stars on a cable series.
McAdams has the chops to be an A-list actress. Her upcoming roles in Terence Malick and Brian DePalma films show that she wants that trajectory. But she isn’t yet at the level of a Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman where she can star in flops and still get offered juicy roles. McAdams’ only successes as a lead actress have been The Notebook, Red Eye, and The Time Traveler’s Wife. She has a strong pull on young, female audiences. She won three MTV Movie Awards in one night, after all. To stay relevant in moviegoers’ minds, she had to return to her most profitable genre: romance.
Denzel Washington is slightly more complicated. He is very much a movie star. Twelve of his last fifteen movies have debuted north of $20 million. He won two Oscars. Women and men flock to his movies in nearly equal numbers. He has everything audiences and Hollywood executives love, as long as he stays in the action-drama genre.
Nearly all of Washington’s hit films from this century fall into that category, whether he’s playing the good guy (Book of Eli, Inside Man, Déjà Vu), bad guy (American Gangster, Training Day), good guy acting like the bad guy (Man on Fire, John Q, Manchurian Candidate), or good guy trying to stop a train (Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable). If he ever decided to star in a comedy or serious drama, audiences probably would still go, just out of habit. However, it seems Washington won’t risk his star power, as he has a good thing going. In today’s film industry, when stars are losing their power quickly, why chance it?
The actor to watch in 2012 is McAdams’ co-star, Channing Tatum. He’s attempting to make the leap to movie star with four wildly different projects. The Vow, comedy 21 Jump Street, stripping drama Magic Mike, and action extravaganza G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Tatum’s already helped propel The Vow into $100 million territory. If he can do the same for 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike, then we may have an old-fashioned movie star on our hands.
Philip Siegel grew up in New Jersey, just down the block from a veritable Real Housewife. He graduated from Northwestern University and promptly moved out to Los Angeles, where he became an NBC page. Phil likes to think that the character of Kenneth on 30 Rock is loosely based on his life rights. Currently, he works at a major Chicago advertising agency by day while he writes novels at night and during his commute sandwiched in between colorful characters on the El. His plays have been performed on stage and radio, and he has published articles about gay line dancing bars and the French box office, among other fundamental topics. Read his blog at philipsiegelwrites.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter at @FillupSeagull