Over at Bill Simmons’ web site, he posted an editorial about the state of the hollywood movie star that is essentially broken up into two pieces. In the first, he rails against the idea that Ryan Reynolds is a movie star for way longer than is comfortable to read and in the second part, he discusses a much-spoken about idea that Will Smith is the last real movie star.
I’ll start by saying that Will Smith is indeed the last movie star inasmuch as he’s the last guy that a studio can market a movie around. Will Ferrel is the only other person out there who comes close, but mainstream audiences only like him if he’s going to play Ron Burgundy again, so a portion of his work won’t carry. ’Stranger Than Fiction’ was a movie that seemingly could’ve been a lot more popular, but was only marginally successful. With Smith, he made a really strange movie that people don’t even seem to have liked very much and would otherwise have made zero dollars in this country without his face on the poster (seriously, the poster was just his face) and turned it into a giant success called ‘Seven Pounds.’ Smith is not just a proven commodity - we have a bunch of those - he’s a sure thing. He’s the last remaining leading actor who can carry any premise to some form of monetary success.
Simmons uses the same argument to arrive at the conclusion that Ryan Reynolds is not a movie star. His movies don’t generally make a whole lot of money and he can’t carry a plot that is confusing or lacking. By all of these accounts, Simmons would be right about Reynolds and Smith would be the last living movie star (something Bill doesn’t entirely agree with). But this is not what makes a movie star.
A movie star is made by something totally unquantifiable, but being the society we are it’s been given a name anyways: presence. That’s the term we use when we see something in a performer that we don’t understand but draws us to them. It’s the reason Mickey Rourke will always be a movie star, even though I don’t think he’s ever headlined a movie that made a lot of money. Ever. Despite this, we all know his name and we all cheered for his comeback. That’s what it was called: A comeback. A comeback to what, if he never headlined a “successful” movie in his life?
A comeback to being a movie star again. Because being a star isn’t about making your movies money, it’s about the thing that happens to a room when that movie star walks into it. You didn’t have to know anything else about ‘Animal House’ to know that John Belushi was a movie star. The financial success of the film was irrelevant. There was nobody sitting in their home after having seen ‘Animal House’ waiting to hear about box office receipts to find out whether or not Belushi would work again. It was obvious that he would not only work, but star in whatever he wanted because he was a walking, human magnet. And he wasn’t even the protagonist of the movie.
When ‘Easy Rider’ came out in 1969 it did incredible things for the careers of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, the two men principally responsible for the movie. But you couldn’t take your eyes off of someone else: Jack Nicholson. Watching ‘Easy Rider’ today, you wonder why it took Nicholson so long to blow up, but watching his earlier works you can see that he hadn’t brought his presence to the screen yet. He hadn’t yet embodied that thing we couldn’t tear our eyes away from. But he always had that in him, which is why he was always - and will always - be a movie star. George Clooney was a movie star on ‘The Facts of Life’ but we just didn’t know it yet because it doesn’t look like he knew it yet. He had yet to settle into his presence. It happens when it happens. Clooney was a late bloomer, but you also have the likes of Seth Rogen, who was captivating in the ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin.’ He was probably the 4th lead in that movie and while everyone was (rightly) praising Steve Carrell and Romany Malco, it was obvious even then that Rogen’s presence on the screen was something of more than a fourth lead. He was a walking talking movie star. Apatow knew it.
Mostly I’m focusing on male movie stars because, to be honest, the argument about women in hollywood is impossible to breach without addressing the entirely different set of issues women have to face in the industry, but I will say that presence is still what makes or breaks a movie star regardless of gender.
Presence is ultimately why Ryan Reynolds is a movie star. He’s just one waiting for the right vehicle. What kind of a movie is ‘Van Wilder’ if anyone other than Ryan Reynolds is driving it? It’s certainly not the cult classic it has become and that has nothing to do with acting ability (I’ve never seen a bad Ryan Reynolds performance, but I’ve also never seen a great one, not even in ‘Buried’). ’Wilder’ is about the Reynolds’ presence. It about what happens when he walks into the frame. The presence of Reynolds combined with that of Sandra Bullock was the only reason I could endure ‘The Proposal.’ They were two legit movie stars together, without the imbalance that is too often seen in big budget romantic comedies (that, and the presence of Better White but that woman doesn’t need any more love).
I saw ‘Transformers 3’ last night and guess what? Shia Labeuf is still not a movie star. It’s not because of acting ability (he’s a terrific actor) or likability (he’s got great timing is can turn on the charm). It’s because of presence. This was never more evident than when he was sitting across the table from Harrison Ford in the last ‘Indian Jones’ movie and Ford was the only thing that mattered. This was should have been Labeuf’s moment to rise to the occasion and prove his meddle (think Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins in ‘Fracture’) but it didn’t happen. Ford was always the most important thing on the screen and Labeuf never felt like more than support. The box office receipts of the ‘Transformers’ movies, ‘Indiana Jones’, and ‘Disturbia’ would seem to argue against me, but measure him for just one second the way I did Reynolds with ‘Van Wilder’: Could anyone else have played Sam Witwicky? Yes. Anyone else in Labeuf’s age range could’ve played that part and we never would have given it a second thought, just as we didn’t give Labeuf a second thought. Is there any performance that he’s given that might ever be remembered for any reason? Nope.
It’s indefinable but inarguably there. Presence. It’s what makes a movie star. It’s what keeps us coming back to Will Smith. It’s what makes the studio think Tom Cruise can still carry a ‘Mission Impossible’ movie (he can) and its what makes Jodie Foster think Mel Gibson can still star in movies (I still want to see ‘The Beaver’ don’t I?). Marlon Brando stopped acting in the mid 70’s and just relied on his presence to carry him through roles. John Wayne built an entire career - and won an oscar- of nothing more than presence. It’s much more important that is given credit. What Simmons suggests in his article when comparing movies to sports, is akin to calling George Gervin one of the greatest basketball players of all time based on the fact that he scored a lot of points (4 NBA scoring titles) but no real basketbal fan is going to get far in a discussion in which he suggests the Ice Man could ever be considered the greatest of all time. Essentially, it’s about more than the numbers. It always comes down to the eye test.
The Simmons article: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6716942/view/full/the-movie-star
or like reading comics where Spider-man hangs out with the Human Torch. So good.