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.

In Fact, The Hunt for Red October is Awesome.

I am largely unfamiliar with The Toast, but it seems to have a Buzzfeedy kind of feel, except it has articles instead of gifs. But I haven’t hit upon any obnoxious political content, so it can’t be Huffington Post. I started with one kind of article, and then I found Movie Yelling with Nicole and Mallory: The Hunt for Red October.

And it’s definitely watching two girls be very silly and hyperbolic about a movie. But it’s a great movie, and they’re right on a few key points:

  1. Alec Baldwin is, in fact, the greatest Jack Ryan that has ever been. I’m not a tremendous Alec Baldwin fan, either. In fact, I can’t even think of another movie I’ve seen him in that I would watch a second time (wait, he was in Beetlejuice, wasn’t he? I always forget that). But he nailed this one. The Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies are kind of plodding by comparison [In fact, If I’m being honest, I don’t much like Harrison Ford outside of his particularly narrow Han Solo/Indiana Jones oevre. He’s got too much anti-hero, too much fuck-this-shit-in-particular in him, to really be an earnest heroic type, yet for some reason he kept trying to be that, and it sucks. The only real exception to this is Witnesswhen he plays a cop charmed by the Amish, and even then he gets romantic with an Amish woman. Because of course he was. And before anyone mentions The Fugitive, that movie is entertaining because of Tommy Lee Jones and his gang of misfit cops, and for no other reason.]
  2. The cast in this movie is pretty damn good. All actors you’ve seen in other things, and none of them are embarrassing or off-putting. Tim Curry is completely believable as this great big true-believing Soviet dupe, but then Tim Curry is believable as pretty much everything he ever did. Dude had range. I rather enjoy Scott Glenn myself. The “Hey, I think someone fired a torpedo at us!”-“No shit, Buckwheat, get the fuck outta here!” exchange gets me every time. Also, he’s pretty badass with the whole “hardest part of playing chicken is knowing when to flinch” business. Which brings me to…
  3. Endlessly. Quotable.

    “And the singing, Captain?”
    “Let them Sing.”

    “I would have liked to have seen Montana”

    “When I was 12 years old, I helped my daddy build a bomb shelter in the backyard because some idiot parked a dozen warheads 90 miles off the coast of Florida. This thing could park a couple of hundred warheads off the coast of New York or Washington and no one would know anything about it until it was all over.”

    “That kid spent six months in traction, and another year learning to walk again. Did his fourth year from a hospital bed. Now it’s up to you, Charlie, but I might consider cuttin’ the kid a little slack.”

    “They’re pinging away with their active sonar, but they’re running at almost 30 knots. At that speed, they could run over my daughter’s stereo and not hear it.”

    “Then tell it right. Pavarotti was a tenor, Paganini was a composer.”

    “A Russian don’t take a dump without a plan.”

    “Oh yes it was. The man was patronizing you, and you stomped on him. In my opinion, he deserved it.”

    “Remember, chief. That torpedo did not self-destruct. You heard it hit the hull. And I…[shows identification]…was never here.”

    “Yuri… You’ve lost another submarine?”

    “Next time, Jack, write a goddamn memo.”

    That’s just off the top of my head.

  4. It’s perhaps the last great Sean Connery performance. He did stuff in the 90’s, but it was mostly big-budget schlock like The Rock. This had a taciturn passion to it, a real dramatic arc and gravitas. And If I wanna get meta for a second, I feel like getting a Scot to play a Lithuanian has an odd kind of logic to it. He is both utterly ensconsed in and utterly removed from the empire he serves, making him deeply dangerous to friend and foe alike. Which brings me to…
  5. No film gets the Cold War better than this one. Yeah, all you Dr. Strangelove fanboys, I said it. Come at me. Strangelove is a satire, and rather a low one. It has nothing to say beyond “Nucular weapons are Teh Dumbz LOL”. The joke is that these generals and statesman are tap-dancing around the End the World button, and woops! they step on it. Red October does the military and political leaders of both the USA and the USSR the courtesy of treating them like grownups, like men keenly aware that a false move means the end of the world, and trying to prevent that by any means necessary except giving the enemy an advantage. The paranoia, the sorrow at the labyrinthine nature of the conflict juxtaposed with the pride in playing it so well, the mutual fear and fascination with which Russians and Americans regarded each other for almost the entire second half of the last century, it’s all deftly woven into this potboiler action movie with nuclear submarines.

But that’s my point of view. It’s nice to see the younger generation appreciating it, too.