Why Movies Need Stars

Movies are a strange art form. They immerse an audience in a world that looks and sounds real, yet we can only access them through two-dimensional screens. We observe them as though we’re part of them, but the Fourth Wall is absolutely inviolable to us (not to the movie itself, mind). We can’t crash them or disturb them as we can a live performance. Movies are perhaps more product then they are performance. This isn’t to say the form has no artistry or craftsmanship. I rather think, with all the moving pieces involved, there’s more ways a movie can go wrong, and so more craftsmanship and discipline to do it right. But a greater part of that’s the responsibility of the filmmakers and their army, not the performers. There’s only so much even a brilliant actor can do if the director, cinematographers, editors, sound engineers, etc., fail at their jobs.

But the audience can’t see the filmmaker’s army. They can only see the performers. The filmmakers mediate how the audience sees the performers, which can be done a million different ways.

This differs from theater. A stage director puts together the moving parts of a show, rehearses it, builds it, tweaks it, sweats with his actors. And then he walks away, leaving the actor and crew to put together the show, night by night. Once this happens, the show belongs to the actors. I once went to a run of shows at a theater in Baltimore (Single Carrot Theater), where my wife was performing, and saw a performer give a different take of a single line every night for three weeks. It was just one line, but it differed by minor variations, each one communicating a distinct meaning. In a play, every show is different from the one before.

Movies don’t do that. Once the thing is “in the can,” it exists as an infinitely reproducible entity that will be exactly the same every time it is watched. In a film, it’s the actor who does his work and goes. In a very real way, film actors are almost entirely removed from the audience experience of the film. If an actor does ten takes of a scene, he’ll have no way of knowing which one the director will decide to use, or what it will look like. This explains the phenomenon of film actors not even bothering to see the movies they’re in. Such a thing could be an alienating experience.

This is not to say that none of the craft of performance goes into film acting. In fact, knowing from a shooting script and a treatment how to give the director and the camera something resembling what they want, and to give ten variations on that, cannot be easy. But it does present a challenge of a different order. It’s a challenge that will depend to a great degree on whether the actor looks like he fits in the world being built around him. This will depend on the kind of movie being made, and whether the actor steps into the world effortlessly or is swallowed up by it. So the movie actor needs to present a lifelike stability, a persona that the lens can interpret, that the director can build a world around.

And that’s why this quote from Rotten Chestnuts explains the 80’s far better than any nerd-sniffing ever has:

The reason you can’t make an “Arnold movie” without Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man, in a starring role isn’t because he’s such an indispensable thespian. It’s because Schwarzenegger doesn’t have an ironic bone in his body. Even when he’s doing comedy (and I think we can all admit, now that he’s in his 70s and effectively long retired, that he could be quite funny), he’s deadly serious. No matter how ludicrous the situation, he’s always 100% in it. No scriptwriter in the 1980s ever felt it necessary to explain how this enormous Austrian bodybuilder ended up being a colonel in the US Special Forces, or a small-town sheriff in Bumfuck, Idaho, or a New York cop, or a CIA agent, or whatever else.** He just went with it, and because he did, we did.

Insert John Wayne, Marylin Monroe, James Dean, anyone Warhol iconographed, and you get the idea. Schwarzenegger, above all else, was a known quantity: he shows up, commits to the bit, gets his work done. He’s a professional. You can build a movie around him and never have to worry about him not giving you everything he’s got. Arnold was never anyone’s idea of an actor, but the camera loved him. He made, over the course of his peak working years, a slew of films that not only were hits, but that are endlessly rewatchable, and will continue to be rewatched long after this year’s art-house cinema is forgotten by everyone except the Criterion crowd. Schwarzenegger made adventure films for the ages.

And those are the films studios relied upon to keep the wolf from the door. That army a director needs doesn’t pay itself. Star power, of the plodding, committed, Schwarzenegger kind, keeps people buying tickets. Once an actor becomes a star, he becomes a bankable commodity. That’s why Tom Cruise keeps making Mission:Impossible movies. More the point, it’s why he was hired for making the first one. Tom Cruise is a star: he’ll commit, he’ll get it done. What everyone laughed at in that leaked footage from The Mummy – Cruise yelling loudly at nothing – was precisely why he was there.

It sounds way less ridiculous in context, doesn’t it?

It becomes paramount, then for films to have stars whose personas fit the movies being made. Some actors will have greater range than others, and be able to make their work fit a variety of worlds. Others will be more limited, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less stars or that their work is any less valuable.

Take Harrison Ford. He was and is a star. But after his initial hit films, his career went on a weird tangent. He seems to have picked up the idea that he was, or could be, a Serious Actor, and so wasted decades of marketable time chasing roles that never suited him. Ford was, when all was said and done, the low-rent Clint Eastwood. If he’d had the balls to go truly counter-cultural, he could have made westerns relevant in the 80’s (and at what time in recent history would movie audience have loved Westerns more than in the 80’s?). Instead, we got The Mosquito Coast, a movie no one except Ford still cares about, and pseudo-emotional schlock like Regarding Henry. No one wanted that. We wanted variations of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, who were really just Harrison Ford, as much as John P. Chance and Rooster Cogburn were just John Wayne. “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage” was, if not a line for the ages, at least memorable and droll. Watching him yell about how he didn’t kill his wife (more than one film centered on this) had an unpleasant desperation to be liked. Even DiCaprio doesn’t sweat that hard.

{Also, not a great Jack Ryan. Jack Ryan isn’t an action hero; he’s a bookworm who has a Marine somewhere in his muscle memory. Alec Baldwin got that, and made his Ryan vulnerable, constantly trying to keep ahead of a world-historical devestation, so when he gets the drop on the KGB guy at the end of Hunt For Red October, and reveals that really, Ryan has seen death before, and isn’t just an analyst, it means something. Ford fulminating about “right and wrong” is not only boring, it’s words no one at Langley has ever said, ever. But there hasn’t been a good Tom Clancey novel since Red Storm Rising, anyway, so whatever.}

The result is, movies need stars, and stars need to know themselves as such, that they may understand their work. And critics need to understand what stars bring to movies, and stop judging them by theatrical thespian standards (Meryl Streep might be a star, but Elizabeth Taylor was a bigger one, and Taylor’s films are more rewatchable than Streep’s), the way the audiences already do. Then the art of cinema might finally understand itself.

Harrison Ford Hates Journalists

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what he really wants to say is “Oh, for God’s Sakes. I did a movie. I acted. It’s coming out soon. It’s not high art, but it’s not bad. People will enjoy it. Stop trying to dredge for controversey, you numb-skulled little guttersnipe.”

I suspect that deep down, Ford does enjoy working on a movie, putting a character together. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t keep doing it. But he hates talking about it with people who don’t know anything about it and aren’t really interested beyond mining his words for a click-baiting quote.

And Now For an Article in Which The Writer Pretends to Prefer That Harrison Ford had Stayed a Carpenter

The picture at the top is better than the article, but the article’s not bad.

Fame on that level closes as many doors as it opens. Few superfamous actors have ever seemed as uncomfortable with superfame as Ford always has. (Actual Google hit count for “Harrison Ford reclusive”: 28.7 million.) Maybe it was that the break came relatively late for him; maybe the years he’d spent being knocked around the studio system prior to that left him with a cynicism about the business that no amount of success could erode. Maybe he really is cripplingly shy, the way people say; maybe that’s why he’s such a curiously flat-lineish talk-show guest. Or maybe he’s just a guy who hates his job.

Whatever. Ford could have gone back to carpentering any time over the last thirty years. Maybe we shouldn’t psychoanalyze him based on whatever he says in the part of his job – talking to the entertainment press – that every actor hates.

Yes, at some level fame is always less fun than the not-famous imagine. In some ways it has to be a pain in the ass. But it sure beats working for a living.