Twilight of the A-list: has the 21st century killed off the movie star?

·9 min read
<span>Composite: Guardian design/Alamy</span>
Composite: Guardian design/Alamy

These are dark days for movie stars. The new Brad Pitt action-comedy Bullet Train took $30.1m (£24.6m) on its opening weekend in the US – a solid enough figure to top the domestic box office chart, but unspectacular given the film’s $90m budget and Pitt’s star power. One of the few actors who can still “open” a film, Pitt represents an increasingly endangered breed: the movie star who refuses to do TV.

Another TV holdout, Tom Cruise, continued his hot streak with Top Gun: Maverick, which recently surpassed Titanic at the US box office, although the film’s very success is being heralded as the end of an era, with Cruise lionised variously as “the last movie star” and “the last movie star standing in a changing Hollywood”. Meanwhile, obituaries declare the “death of the movie star” and “RIP to the movie star”.

If the movie star is not exactly dead, they are certainly enjoying the hammiest of death scenes, like Marlon Brando’s virtuoso farewell in The Young Lions: stumbling after being shot and rolling headlong down a hill, before being stopped by a branch, looking stunned and blinking incredulously, then toppling into a watery ditch.

The A-list is a shrinking paddock of ageing thoroughbreds. All five films in the top 100 this year that might be called “star vehicles” – Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick, Pitt in Bullet Train‚ Sandra Bullock in The Lost City, Mark Wahlberg in Father Stu and Jennifer Lopez in Marry Me – feature leads who found fame in the 90s, with an average age of 56. The 2010s seem to have produced fewer certifiable movie stars than any previous decade. Chris Pratt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adam Driver and Jennifer Lawrence have had substantial careers out of superhero spandex, with Lawrence speeding through her ingenue phase to win an Oscar at 22 and now enjoying the twilit semi-retirement from the grind that an Academy Award buys you. Even so, after a trio of failures from 2016 to 2018 – Red Sparrow, Mother! and Passengers – the Hollywood Reporter published a piece titled: “If Jennifer Lawrence Can’t Open a Movie, Who Can?”

“There are no movie stars any more,” said the Avengers actor Anthony Mackie in a clip that did the rounds on Twitter. “Anthony Mackie isn’t a movie star; The Falcon is a movie star. And that’s what’s weird. It used to be, with Tom Cruise and Will Smith and Stallone and Schwarzenegger, when you went to the movies, you went to go see the Stallone movie; you went to go see the Schwarzenegger movie. Now you go see X-Men. So, the evolution of the superhero has meant the death of the movie star.” Chris Evans has enjoyed playing against type in Knives Out and The Gray Man, but almost every Avengers cast member who came to fame through the series has struggled to make it outside the Marvel bubble.

Of course, reports of the death of the movie star are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Part of it is the natural process of “ageing out” that occurs periodically in Hollywood, as one generation hands over to another. “Glamour is on life support and is not expected to live,” declared Joan Collins at end of the 60s, as the star system – by which studios signed actors to exclusive seven-year contracts, giving them lessons in manners, diction, acting, riding, walking, dancing, singing and fencing – finally crumbled. It made way for the young turks who followed – Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino – who in turn paved the route for the stars of the 80s and 90s.

Studios rely almost exclusively on superhero movies and franchises, for which they can just as easily cast newcomers as stars

But who can deny that a subtle sapping of movie-star power is at work when the producers of the 2022 Oscars invited sports stars including Tony Hawk, Shaun White, Kelly Slater and the Williams sisters on to the podium to presents awards, banishing Samuel L Jackson, Elaine May, Liv Ullmann and Danny Glover to the untelevised Governors awards to pick up honorary Oscars?

Throughout most of the 90s, the big question hanging over George Clooney’s career was whether he could break out from TV and make it in the movies. Today, Keanu Reeves has just signed up for a TV show (executive-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio), joining Harrison Ford, Dakota Fanning, Jude Law, Emma Stone, Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Julia Roberts, Sean Penn and Matthew McConaughey in completing the reverse exodus, from the ever-more convulsive movie business to the relative sanctuary of TV. Clooney topped the list of highest-paid movie stars in 2017 – not for any role, but for selling the tequila brand he co-founded for $1bn.

“The business has changed entirely,” Roberts told the New York Times in April, upon the release of the mini-series Gaslit (which also stars Penn). “When I started, I felt like you did a movie and if it did well then you might get offered a couple of other movies and might have more choice and you’d get paid a little bit more on the next one. There were incremental shifts in opportunity and it made more sense. Now, it’s made more of air; maybe it doesn’t feel as sturdy when you’re going along. I felt pretty sure-footed about the choices I was making. You don’t have those incremental markers any more, it doesn’t seem like.”

The causes of this volatility are multifarious and far-reaching. These days, studios rely almost exclusively on superhero movies and other branded franchises – for which they can just as easily cast newcomers as stars – to draw crowds into cinemas. Amazon paid $465m for its production of The Lord of the Rings, a spin-off with no stars attached, while subscriptions to streaming services have changed how everyone in Hollywood gets paid.

Most workers are better off – it is a seller’s market – but the power of the megastars is dimming. Last year, Scarlett Johansson got into a fight with Disney after the studio decided to stream Black Widow on Disney+ on the day of its cinema release, so retaining up to $50m it might have owed the actor, depending on the film’s box-office performance. This spat is but the most public of a series of tussles between studios and stars as actors try to determine their worth in the branded-franchise era. Henry Cavill has ended his run as Warner Bros’ Superman, while Chris Pine and Chris Hemsworth have walked away from Star Trek 4, after contract talks actors broke down over their pay.

So, how much is a star worth? This has always been a dark science. “As far as the film-making process is concerned, stars are essentially worthless and absolutely essential,” said the screenwriter William Goldman after the collapse of the star system. Freed from the studios for the first time, actors were able to negotiate multimillion-dollar deals. For 1989’s Batman, Jack Nicholson took a $6m paycheck and a cut of the box office and merchandise sales, ultimately netting about $60m. The nearest recent equivalent is Robert Downey’s Jr’s $10m fee for Iron Man 2, but that was negotiated only after the success of the first film, for which he took home $500,000. Even actors as established as Downey Jr are only as valuable as the superheroes they play. In another role, his price would plummet.

Streaming has only further muddied the waters. Before the pandemic, everyone in Hollywood engaged in the weekly anxious ritual of poring over the weekend’s box office, to determine the week’s winners and losers. Now, the streamers pore over viewership data, keeping score of streaming-app sign-ups and retention rates and measuring unconventional metrics such as mentions on social media as they try to determine the quicksilver quality that is a star’s worth.

But the connection between star and quarterly subscription rate is even more nebulous than that between star and weekly box office returns. When big movies hit HBO Max, downloads of its app spike, a recent study found. One agent confided recently that some of their more famous clients prefer the streamers’ secrecy around ratings because it avoids the bright glare of flopping at the box office.

From the stars’ point of view, the connection between their work and their worth has been muffled. They might not be paid as exorbitantly for their successes, but nor are they blamed so harshly for their failures. Indeed, they are buffeted by the same economic forces as the rest of us. “When we were content to gaze up at movie stars on a screen that seemed bigger than life, the exchange was fairly simple,” wrote the critic Ty Burr in Gods Like Us, his 2012 history of movie stardom. “We paid money to watch our daily dilemmas acted out on a dreamlike stage, with ourselves recast as people who were prettier, smarter, tougher, or just not as scared.”

Today, celebrities attuned to social media are much closer to their audiences. The internet has brought a “marked devaluation of the traditional movie star”, argued Burr, conspiring to strip movie stars of their mystique and marking what he calls “the triumph of celebrity socialism. The means of the production of stardom are at last in the hands of the people.”

The gods have become mortal. One benefit is that it has returned a level of artistry to discussion of their work. Spend much time on the fan sites and you will find – in place of the advice columns, beauty tips, fashion features and recipes that used to fill the fan magazines in the studio era – earnest discussion of a star’s acting chops: their “dedication”, “commitment” and “transformation” for a given role. Buzzwords, to be sure, but Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift would have killed for such treatment, longing to be seen as Laurence Olivier, not Clark Gable.

“Today, actors and actresses float across and around stardom,” wrote the film historian Janine Basinger in The Star Machine, her 2007 history of the star system. She identified the rise of something she called “the neo-star”: the actor who threads the needle between typecasting and character acting. The description fits Driver, Lawrence and Cumberbatch, all of whom have moved between big branded franchises and Oscar-bound film projects.

The old-school, Klieg-lit movie star may soon die, but behold, by the light of a million smartphones the neo-star is born.

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