As 2019 Draws to a Close, Does the Movie Star Still Have a Pulse?

December 11, 2019, 6:30 PM UTC

The movie star’s in tears—literally. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, eyes watering and teeth clenched, can’t help it.

Within the once-holy ground of Musso & Frank Grill, circa 1969, he’s just been informed by an agent (Al Pacino) that the only hope of restarting his movie career lies in flying over to Italy to make Westerns. “It’s official, old buddy,” he laments to Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth as they head outside to their car. “I’m a has-been.”

It’s the opening scene of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, and its opening salvo in a feature-length memorandum on movie stars, what they meant and have come to mean in hindsight, as well as what significance they’re allowed today. “You’re Rick fucking Dalton,” Cliff says later in Once Upon a Time, talking Rick up as he heads to set. “Don’t you forget it.” But Rick’s not the one who needs reminding. He believes his own legend. It’s the town that’s stopped talking.

Rick’s insecurities are much the point of the character; in today’s Hollywood, they surely landed like a thunderbolt. The mainstream movie star has faded in recent years, largely replaced as a marquee attraction by brands (Disney), franchises (Fast & Furious, Marvel), and individual genres (particularly horror). At the heart of all three are concepts, the appeal of a story (even one that’s been told many times before), that outshine the actors involved.

For every Knives Out, a star-studded whodunnit that doubled expectations with a $42 million opening, there’ve been a string of seismic failures, like the Charlie’s Angels reboot (which barely cracked $50 million worldwide despite the promise of seeing Kristen Stewart in her first post-Twilight Saga blockbuster role) or Motherless Brooklyn (a similar bomb that hasn’t made back even half of its $26 million budget, a humiliating end result for the 20-year passion project of star/writer/director Edward Norton).

Earlier this fall, marquee names like Will Smith and Brad Pitt crashed and burned at the box office with ultra-expensive vehicles like Gemini Man and Ad Astra, largely built to capitalize upon their star power. Even quote-unquote safe bets, like bringing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton back together for Terminator: Dark Fate, turned out to be anything but. Despite attempts to court audiences nostalgic for the series’ acclaimed first two entries, the new Terminator flamed out in its opening weekend, making just $29 million (less than 2014’s critically reviled Genisys) and leading Skydance to scrap plans for future sequels.

Ford v Ferrari, the award-tipped racing drama starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, is only just now breaking even for 20th Century Fox, after weeks in theaters. Its $100 million price-tag (which it just made back domestically) necessitated a worldwide gross of $150 million to be considered successful. It’s now at $167 million and won’t get close to $200 million. Overall, the returns for Ford v Ferrari are solid, especially given that Fox is fast-disappearing into the Disney empire, but they also don’t mark the kind of runaway triumph this movie might have been had it come out a decade ago.

Innovation and good roles still sell

“The real star power right now is freshness and originality,” says box office analyst Paul Degarabedian, of Comscore. He’s observed with interest the kinds of movies audiences are flocking to, and which stars have survived—and, more rarely, been born—over the past few years.

Increasingly, he notes, stars aren’t moving tickets nearly as frequently as movies selling themselves with intriguing, innovative premises. Knives Out is a prime example; despite opening against the animated juggernaut of Frozen 2, it far exceeded expectations at the box office and did so while giving its actors, among them Daniel Craig and Jamie Lee Curtis, a chance to play against type.

Still, the traditional ideal of the movie star isn’t completely dead. DiCaprio is one, Degarabedian’s quick to point out. “To me, star power was always about the perfect combination of star, role, and movie,” he says. “It’s not just the star in a vacuum.”

In that sense, DiCaprio is as much a movie tastemaker as he is a movie star. Across the past decade, the actor’s made eight films, sometimes going years between projects, and his savvy in picking great roles in promising stories by talented directors (as holy a trinity as it ever was) is second-to-none. From Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street, both with Martin Scorsese, to Inception, with Christopher Nolan, DiCaprio’s brand is excellence, and consistency.

“It really, these days, comes down to how many great roles in a row does a star pick,” said Degarabedian. In Hollywood’s golden days, stars like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn were practically bulletproof, and audiences would turn out in droves to see their films—even if the last one hadn’t exactly set the world on fire.

“That was in a world before streaming, before the fragmentation of content in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Degarabedian. “Maybe the star will be the content again. But in your mind, who are the people who can reliably get you out to the movie theater?”

DiCaprio’s not the only one left, though stars like him are increasingly a rare breed. Tom Cruise has held onto his star power mostly by playing it safe, notes Degarabedian. “You put Tom Cruise in Top Gun or Mission: Impossible, and that’s an unstoppable combination,” he said. “But Tom Cruise has had some misses too, like The Mummy.”

The romantic-comedy stars have either disappeared, like Julia Roberts and Katherine Heigl, or morphed into more interesting dramatic actors often on the indie circuit, like Matthew McConaughey and Emma Stone. Adam Sandler is back next month in Uncut Gems, in a role that’s as rare because it’s dramatic as it is because it’ll play in theaters; the actor more or less bypassed the movie-theater route after becoming Netflix’s resident funnyman a few years ago. Denzel Washington is largely left with action-thrillers; his brand is strong, but narrow. (Though it netted him an Oscar nomination, legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq. didn’t make back its budget.)

Actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Ryan Gosling, who exist in a slightly lower but still sizable second-tier of movie stars, have earned reputations for making risky, execution-dependent projects. Their triumphs, like Phoenix’s Joker and Gosling’s La La Land, can be sweeping, but they’re not box-office guarantees, as flops like The Sisters Brothers and First Man make apparent.

Scarlett Johansson, though largely relegated to roles within Marvel movies, has intermittently proven a box-office draw in her own right, especially in the sci-fi thriller Lucy, which grossed 11 times its budget in 2014. Still, she’s largely found in ensemble casts; Netflix doesn’t release box-office grosses, but her drama Marriage Story is estimated to have netted just $1 million in four weeks, a disappointing sum even for the streaming service, which it debuted to subscribers last Friday.

star: Frederic J. Brown—AFP via Getty Images; hole: Paul Souders—Getty Images

The ground is shifting

With its pointed casting of DiCaprio and Pitt—two maximum-wattage stars who’d somehow never before shared the screen—Once Upon a Time… felt like a rare kind of moviegoing event when it hit theaters.

How often do stars as massive as DiCaprio and Pitt end up in the same cast, let alone splitting the top bill for a director like Tarantino? Arriving this past summer, the film felt like an act of cinematic resistance. Box-office analysts buzzed about its potential to kick-start or stall at the summer box office, especially opening against Disney’s remake of The Lion King, and (however unlikely) it wore all the colors of a scrappy underdog, Hollywood’s brightest stars battling it out with one of the world’s mightiest corporations for audience dollars.

With DiCaprio and Pitt behind it, Once Upon a Time succeeded. But this year, Hollywood’s been able to feel the ground shifting beneath it. No longer can classically handsome leading men, smiling broadly on a poster, be trusted to launch a romantic comedy squarely on their own shoulders. A prestige drama must offer more than a quote-unquote serious actor at its center.

The film industry’s past year has been characterized most by Disney’s imperialistic plundering of the film industry, through its gathering of mega-franchises (notably Marvel and Disney) and pricey regurgitation of its own biggest hits (from remakes like The Lion King and Aladdin to sequels like Toy Story 4 and reigning box-office champ Frozen 2).

Notably, though Disney’s shown itself capable of anointing stars, particularly with the likes of Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pratt within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, none of its biggest cash-cows are tied to individual actors. To wit, despite Aladdin‘s $1 billion haul at the global box office earlier this year, lead actor Mena Massoud recently told The Daily Beast he hasn’t been able to book an audition since.

Disney’s animated confections and live-action reboots of classics, like The Lion King, are brands unto themselves. Donald Glover and Beyoncé voiced the Lion King principals, but their casting felt more boastful than necessary, a sign of profligate spending more than box-office strategy. Few would dispute that the film still would have been a major hit with lower-wattage leads.

And outside of Marvel, where they reign supreme, leading men like Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr. have bombed in solo outings like In the Heart of the Sea and The Judge. A big test ahead for Downey will be next year’s Dolittle, an insanely pricey family adventure that rests near solely on his shoulders, as well as the antics of an animated menagerie of talking animals.

Sometimes, even staying within the belly of franchises isn’t protection enough. Thor: Ragnarok leads Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson got a bitter taste of life without their Marvel overlords with Men in Black: International, a franchise extension that bombed despite their already-established on-screen rapport and star appeal. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, spinning off the Fast and Furious franchise with their own Hobbs & Shaw, grossed less than the past three entries in their mothership franchise, cooling talk of a more expanded side-universe starring the characters.

Addressing MIB as well as the ignominously fated new Terminator, Degarabedian says: “If stars become a part of big franchises, often if those franchises wane in popularity, no amount of star-power wattage can help resuscitate them.”

There’s a new kind of movie star in town

In this new Hollywood, fringe indie studios like A24 and Sony Pictures Classics are doing the work of making future stars more than $100 million productions. Increasingly, the names to know aren’t originating in Hollywood blockbusters, but on the independent film circuit.

With extreme social media savvy, culturally relevant (and thus reliably interesting, if not always good) stories, and up-and-coming talents behind the camera, these indie studios are crafting powerful introductions for young actors and putting the full weight of their marketing muscle behind them.

Look at Timothée Chalamet, Oscar-nominated in Call Me By Your Name, Midsommar breakout Florence Pugh earlier this year, or Lady Bird‘s Saoirse Ronan two years before that. When all three, along with Harry Potter star Emma Watson and Sharp Objects breakout Eliza Scanlen, join forces on screen next month for Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-tipped Little Women adaptation, it will—similarly to Once Upon a Time—feel like a real moment for star power at the cinema. Movie stars still exist, movies like Little Women make clear. They’re just smaller.

“We have to alter our concepts of makes a star is today,” said Degarabedian. “It’s technologically dependent, culturally dependent. A star in 1930 is completely different from a star in 2019, as will be a star in 2050.”

“One plus one doesn’t always equal two in the movie world,” he added. “Star power is not an exact science.”

As he points out, though definitions of what makes a movie star have always been variable, the winds of change are ever-blowing in Hollywood.

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx will topline a buzzy legal drama, Just Mercy, at year’s end. Both have been box-office draws in the past, and the film will have an aggressive Warner Bros. marketing push behind it. A little further ahead, though Charlie’s Angels proved a non-starter, Kristen Stewart will get another shot at mainstream stardom in Underwater, an edgy sci-fi thriller that’s one of the last 20th Century Fox films made before its merger with Disney. And then, of course, there’s Dolittle.

In times like these, few words spring more readily to mind than those of the great screenwriter William Goldman, who died just last year. Were he alive today, he still might have little more to say about the state of the movie star than what he always said: nobody knows anything.

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