There’s a reason why the American public won’t flock to see a Dardenne film. There are concrete rationales for why they won’t line up for one from Wong Kar Wai, or even rent an Ozu title from Netflix. Some may point to the knee-jerk reaction most casual filmgoers have to the subtitle barrier. Others argue over the sheer exclusivity of international and arthouse cinema. But for me, the deeper reality lies in a much easier explanation. The mainstream movie fan, in all reality, simply does not want to watch actors, no matter how talented, that they neither recognize nor care about.
It goes without saying that the public loves stars and, although very few achieve the heights reached by Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Julia Roberts, the lure of celebrity is incentive enough to inspire thousands of Hollywood hopefuls to reach for the holy grail of blockbuster billing. That so few succeed is testament to the cult of personality required to win over a broad based audience. It’s a gentle balancing act of charisma and humanity. Guys need to feel warmly envious of their idols they want to be able to imagine having a beer with them while a leading lady needs to combine a sense of measured sexuality with an equally emphatic heart.
These blatantly manufactured pigeonholes are the stuff of big money. Of the top 20 films at the US box office last year, 12 were carried squarely on the individuals in the leading role—and, of course, accordingly marketed. Centering the name of the star in bold letters, at prime eye-line level along the top of the poster is the definitive commercial strategy employed by advertisers. People, it seems, will flock to see a “Smith” or “Hanks” movie in greater numbers than they will a “Mann” or “Zemeckis” film.
It’s the beautiful, malleable face that sells a film, not the technical skill behind the lens. One can easily imagine the confusion of a Letterman viewer watching Steven Soderbergh chatting about Julia and Catherine. A George Clooney interview, however, provides familiarity and a hint of jealousy. There’s no substitute for a pretty face. And while it takes skill to contextualize fame to this degree, the factory line of Hollywood glamour has reduced the standard to vapidity. For every Will Smith, we have a Tyrese. For every Tom, a Paulie.
Celebrity, more than ever, has entered the capitalist market as a product to be bought and sold. Producers are willing to outlay huge amounts of money to secure a bankable name. If that fails, they settle for a recognizable one. When Miramax picked up Yhang Zimou’s Hero in 2004, they sold it not on the director’s name, or even those of the actors involved (apparently not even Jet Li is trusted to carry a foreign film). Instead the Weinsteins went with the by-phrase: “Quentin Tarantino Presents…” Cinemagoers, largely ignorant of the fact that the film wasn’t actually directed by the American, validated the decision by sending Hero to number one in the box-office.
The sect of salability is, of course, nothing new in the world of film. From the earliest silent days, public appreciation of cinema has centered on the viability of visible on-screen personalities. Back then, it was Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford that lured people to theatres. While Eisenstein, Murnau and Griffith have gone on to gather critical support artistic endeavor, thankfully, remains blind to facial features it is still those directors that literally embodied their films (Keaton, Lloyd and, especially, Chaplin) that remain synonymous with the era.
As sound progressed, so did the demand on actors to draw a crowd. And when the auteur theory briefly reared its head in the 1970s, it was stymied by the deification of the Method and its disciples. Rather than being remembered for Coppola’s gloomy direction, The Godfather is now the film in which Brando spoke with cotton in his mouth. Ask someone on the street who directed The Graduate and many won’t know. A few may even offer: “Dustin Hoffman?”
Naturally, the US is not the only nation to denote fame so enthusiastically. India, in particular, celebrates its Bollywood stars like royalty, while the British public’s affection for Working Title rom-coms has been responsible for Hugh Grant’s Teflon persona. Sadly, European cinema allows Hollywood to dictate its pecking order. The theory is that if an actor can create a viable career in the biggest market in the world, they should become a symbol of nationalistic pride, an instant international ambassador: France’s Jean Reno and Spaniard Antonio Banderas probably remain the best examples.
Yet only one percent of US cinemagoers have probably never heard of Émilie Dequenne. That she gave one of the most realized and cryptic performances of the 1990s in the Palme D’Or winning Rosetta is not sufficient to grant her this vaunted recognition. Neither, apparently, is the fact she shared the award for best actress at the same festival. This summer Dequenne is set to star alongside Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Admittedly it’s not a big role. The overall reviews have been poor and the film will likely avoid multiplexes. Yet, somewhat disarmingly, it promises to exponentially raise her international celebrity. If the scenario wasn’t so emblematic, it might cause an ironic smile.
Another disheartening element is the mainstream audience reaction when “their” stars dare to diversify. Collateral may have crawled to the $100 million dollar mark on the back of an extended theatrical run and the faint echo of a Cruise performance, but that fails to disguise the fact that it made less than all but two films the actor made in the last 12 years (the comprehensively more avant-garde Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut being the obvious exceptions). The definable link between the three is Cruise’s rejection of his American Dreamboat image. In all three films he plays conflicted, anti-hero characters and, while the public is ready to pay out to see their romantic or masculine fantasies realized by ‘The Biggest Actor in the World’, the thought of him turning even slightly sour (or human) is enough to dissuade all but the most ardent fans.
The fickle nature of the beast has borne a long line of rejections; the audience or lack thereof, publicly disciplining an actor for veering from their modus operandi: Will Smith in Ali, Julia Roberts in Closer, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, George Clooney in Solaris, Nicole Kidman in Dogville. They even preferred the animated Shark Tale Renée Zellweger to her Oscar winning turn in Cold Mountain.
The unique case of the filmic medium is expounded by the collaborative nature of the process. The star vehicle, more often than not made with a reactionary director (as opposed to filmmaker), is free to juxtapose the central performance against all other elements in the story. The hand of the unseen moviemaker, increasing concomitantly as the film ranges from purely commercial to purely artistic, seems to negatively determine the general audience reaction. Mall-goers don’t care about neo-realism or the FILM101 contrast of pans and zooms; they want stars and they want them now.
While it leaves the more discerning film buff in something of self-gratifying cocoon, it has already reduced many talented thespians to repetition, caricature or worse - obscurity. In this self-defeating paradigm, those who choose the most artistically pure path may not be the best, but with others and the forces that drive them comfortably entrenched, they’re a necessary alternative. It’s just a shame traffic is so slow on the other side of the turnstile.
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