Where Have All the Movie Stars Gone?


Jack Nicholson at the 2007 Oscars

When I was watching the Academy Awards last year one subject seemed to come up over and over again. Where the heck was Jack Nicholson? Long a fixture of the front row at the Kodak Theater, last year Jack was M.I.A. The Oscars just didn’t seem the same without him. Hollywood didn’t seem the same without him.

It wasn’t just Jack either. There just aren’t a lot of movie stars in Hollywood these days. They’re just not producing any right now. Colin Firth, Jeremy Renner and Carey Mulligan? What gives?

Okay, let me back up. I should start out by giving you my definition of an A-List movie star. An A-Lister is someone known all over the world. By name and face. An actor just as recognizable in blue states like New York and California as they are in red states like Kansas and Alabama. They’re international, too. A man or woman who gets hearts pounding in Chicago, Paris and Dhaka.

But that’s not all. Lindsay Lohan is recognizable around the world but she isn’t a movie star. She was on her way at one time before she was derailed by her personal life. She doesn’t qualify now.

That’s because a movie star has to put fannies in the seats at your local cinema. That’s where the men are separated from the boys as they say. The women from the girls. That’s where Hollywood is falling down. Very few current stars can accomplish that most important part of the job.

Not too long ago, Hollywood was teaming with movie stars. Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Douglas, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler and even Meg Ryan could guarantee the studios a strong opening weekend throughout the nineties. That’s not even counting the likes of Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Robert DiNero and Al Pacino who could still open a film under the right circumstances.

Today the list of people who can open a movie without good reviews, other stars or a big time director can probably be counted on two hands and even this list is debatable. I count Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Sandra Bullock, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington and Vince Vaughn. Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller in the right comedy roles (certainly not Funny People or Greenberg) or Angelina Jolie in the right actioner. That’s about it. If you want to stretch it a little you could throw in George Clooney, Reese Witherspoon, Jackie Chan, Matt Damon and Will Ferrell as well. Even that group is hit and miss. Leo couldn’t fill up the seats in Body of Lies and Revolutionary Road nor Bullock in All About Steve.

The fact is there are probably more directors right now that can open a film than actors. Cameron, Spielberg, Bay, Nolan, Abrams are all bonafide stars. Those are the names that people flock to in the multiplexes. Even art house directors like Jason Reitman and Alexander Payne have bigger fan bases than many of today’s so called stars. George Clooney’s last two hits, Burn After Reading and Up In the Air, were directed by the Coen Brothers and Jason Reitman. His own films, Leatherheads and The Good German, both tanked big time, though I will admit The American winning the weekend recently was impressive although $13 million isn’t exactly burning down the house.

Worse yet, the few bankable stars Hollywood has are starting to get long in the tooth. As good looking as Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp are at this point in their lives, both guys are fast closing in on their AARP card. Denzel already has his and everyone else on the list is already in the category we call middle aged. Young movie stars just don’t exist right now, which is really the larger issue isn’t it?

Shia Labeouf in Transformers

So why isn’t Hollywood producing any movie stars these days. It’s simple. They don’t know their audiences and they don’t respect them. Case in point. When Chris Rock did his bit at the Oscars lampooning Hollywood’s infatuation with the likes of Jude Law and Colin Farrell, America laughed knowingly. Hollywood responded with defensive statements from co-stars like Sean Penn. Better to remain clueless than confront the obvious.

Another problem is a total misunderstanding of the “business” part of the movie business. The other day Forbes put out their list of Hollywood’s Best Actors for the Buck. Shia LaBeouf and Anne Hathaway finished numbers 1 and 2 respectively. Anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about movies would immediately scratch their heads at such findings. Shia Labouf and Anne Hathaway? The fact is Shia and Anne could probably walk into a 7-11 in Bakersfield hand in hand and no one would recognize them. They just aren’t bankable stars.

A closer look at the Forbes article makes it clear why normal business people are so easily manipulated by the suits and agents in Tinseltown. Basing their article on recent box-office totals, Forbes credits Shia for the box-office totals of both Transformers films as well as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The fact that LeBeouf is a glorified prop in both Transformers flicks and most definitely not the star of Indiana Jones is apparently not a consideration to Forbes. The fact that you could have replaced Shia with several other young actors with little or no change in box-office receipts goes right over their heads. (I’m guessing Forbes also missed LeBeouf’s recent comments apologizing to fans for the quality of those movies as well.)

Using Forbes Magazine’s logic Mark Hammill was a more bankable star than Clint Eastwood back in the 70’s. Hammill’s Star Wars trilogy dwarfed Clint’s totals even with the Dirty Harry films mixed in. You could just toss in the Corvette Summer totals as a bonus. But any movie fan will tell you Clint was the bigger star. Because he was.

The argument for Hathaway at number two on the list is even more specious in my opinion. They credit her with the billion dollars that Alice In Wonderland made earlier this spring. You know that Anne Hathaway film featuring Johnny Depp. The fact is I didn’t even know Anne Hathaway was in Alice In Wonderland until I saw the opening credits. Crediting Hathaway for the success of Alice In Wonderland is the equivalent to crediting the Lakers girls for winning the NBA title. They’re nice to look at, but completely irrelevant.

Anne Hathaway in Alice in Wonderland

But how can anyone take Hathaway seriously as a box-office draw when her Oscar nominated film Rachel Getting Married brought in just $16.6 million worldwide and another recent film, Passengers, brought in a whopping $5 million. Jean-Claude Van Damme brings in more than that.

The list also included Daniel Radcliffe and Sarah Jessica Parker for their participation in the Harry Potter and Sex In the City franchises respectively, but somehow missed Sam Worthington who was the above the line star in Avatar, Clash of the Titans and Terminator Salvation. Who puts these lists together anyway?

Normally, I would consider the Forbes article just one more clueless piece written by some folks who don’t understand the business. But I guarantee the agents and publicists for both LeBeouf and Hathaway are emailing and tweeting this article out to every studio exec in town. They’ll be using it to demand more parts and bigger paychecks. For a couple of young actors who are, at best, up-and-comers and, at worst, a couple of shooting stars.

Neither of them exactly light up the screen. Shia is a likable presence, but who wants to grow up and be Shia LeBeouf? Kids want to be Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, not Shia. Hathaway’s main appeal seems to be a big toothy smile and her rare ability to be both bland and appealing at the same time. I did like her in Rachel Getting Married, though,

They used to say Paul Newman was a star because all the boys wanted to be him and all the girls wanted to be with him. That’s a movie star. Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford had that. Or Julia Roberts and Jodie Foster on the ladies’ side. People who light up the screen. Stars who make even the most mediocre Hollywood flick tolerable. And profitable as well.

That’s why The Expendables did so well. It wasn’t a good movie. Heck, it needed work to rise to the level of mediocre. But it succeeded anyway. I worked because it had star power. And audiences are hungry for them, but there also couldn’t be a better example of a movie containing aging stars.

Hollywood needs to find the next era of movie stars. And they need to do it quick.

How many stars do you count? How many do you see as truly bankable right now and moving forward? Are there any young actors you instantly gravitate to regardless of the movie?