When major movie stars appear in smaller films

[6 September 2007]

By Ethan Sacks

New York Daily News (MCT)

Director James Mangold managed to rustle up quite a posse to help bring his movie “3:10 to Yuma,” opening Friday, into theaters.

Without lassoing Russell Crowe for the role of the notorious rogue Ben Wade, or Christian Bale as a one-legged rancher commissioned to bring the outlaw to jail, the taut, character-driven drama might never have gotten made.

In Hollywood, as lawless a town as there ever was, it’s easier to make a $150 million film than a $55 million one like “3:10 to Yuma.” Effects-heavy blockbusters always have a shot at putting ticket buyers in seats. But a hard-edged, leathery Western like the one Mangold had wanted to make ever since he saw the 1957 original as a teenager? It needed stars attached who believe in the director’s passion project, too. Nowadays, that’s part and parcel of being a major draw: Actors can juggle small projects with big ones, and it’s not considered “vanity work.”

“Actors are dying to be in good movies,” says Mangold. “The fact is, they want to make great films. And they have interests beyond the highest paycheck every quarter.

“I think it’s the only reason good films are being made.”

A rebel in the mode of the charismatic Wade, Crowe relishes picking parts that appeal more to critics than studio execs, anyway. Of his upcoming role as a manipulative CIA handler in the Ridley Scott-directed “Body of Lies,” the 43-year-old actor recently said: “I think it’s very timely. I don’t think it’ll be very popular, but that’s never been part of my thought process.”

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” opening Sept. 21, is less a Western than an art-house drama that happens to wear a cowboy hat, but it also relies on a big name on the marquee: Brad Pitt.

Director Andrew Dominik had just one film to his name, the critically acclaimed Australian film “Chopper,” and knew he’d have a tough sell adapting a film from Ron Hansen’s novel.

“The characters seemed to struggle more with themselves than each other,” Dominik says. “It became fairly clear that there was no way that someone was going to finance this film without a movie star.”

Knowing he needed help getting his project into theaters, he slipped a copy of the book to Pitt in 2004. Who better to fill the boots of the preeminent celebrity of 1880s America and the subject of fixation by the titular coward (played by Casey Affleck) than Pitt?

“He’s got a lot of power, and he’s not afraid to use it,” says Dominik. “I really admire him for it.”

“Once you reach a certain level of success as an actor, you can bounce back and forth between projects 1/8of different size3/8,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Media by Numbers. “One subsidizes the other.”

Or as Jesse’s sidekick Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) memorably puts it in the movie, “Poetry isn’t for whores.”

Of course, attracting a star pulls both ways. Ira Deutchman, CEO of Emerging Pictures, an independent distribution company, has seen how important a big name can be in getting a film made. As a producer of 1998’s “54,” Deutchman couldn’t get Miramax to move to the beat until he got Mike Myers to play disco impresario Steve Rubell.

“Even if you’re trying to make a `low-budget movie’ by Hollywood studio standards, 1/8those studios3/8 are going to try to get the same kind of ... star power as if you were making a huge Hollywood movie,” says Deutchman.

No worries: The list of actors who happily have a foot in both worlds is an esteemed one:

George Clooney has become the patron saint of the “one-for-you, one-for-me” model. He plays a fixer for a corporate law firm in “Michael Clayton” (Oct. 5) and a fading 1920s football player in the romantic comedy “Leatherheads” (Dec. 7), which he also directed. He was last seen in “Ocean’s 13,” which was, of course, hardly a gamble.

Between 1988’s “Die Hard” and this summer’s “Live Free or Die Hard,” Bruce Willis became a guy who loves to toggle between starring roles and character parts. His smaller turns include “Mortal Thoughts,” “Nobody’s Fool,” “Breakfast of Champions,” “Fast Food Nation” and “Alpha Dog.”

After some big box-office disappointments, Oscar winners Halle Berry and Nicole Kidman are starring in the indie-flavored “Things We Lost in the Fire” (Oct. 26) and “Margot at the Wedding” (Nov. 16), respectively.

The small films that boast big stars snag them for genuine reasons. Mangold, who, as a virtual unknown, got major stars for his 1997 drama “Cop Land,” says that with Crowe and Bale, all the cylinders clicked. “I couldn’t imagine it any other way,” he says. “These were the absolute best guys I could have gotten for this movie.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/when-major-movie-stars-appear-in-smaller-films/