Ladies’ Plight

As movie years go, 2005 was a pretty strange one all around. Tom Cruise snapped. A Ben Stiller sequel became the world’s highest grossing live-action comedy ever. Penguins, gay cowboys, and Woody Allen all came into vogue. But perhaps most noteworthy is what a bad year it was for women.

If you disqualify Revenge of the Sith, Chronicles of Narnia, and King Kong — movies where the projects were bigger than the stars — only six movies this year with top-billed female talent opened at number one in North America: The Ring 2, Monster-in-Law, Flightplan, Just Like Heaven, The Interpreter, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the latter two had shared top billing with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, respectively). Not one movie with a headlining leading lady cracked $100 million in domestic grosses, and none took in $200 million worldwide. All of this might lead one to ask what went wrong in 2005. But the real question, in the modern era and in box office terms, is actually much simpler:

Is there such a thing as a female superstar?

Intuition might tell a generation fed a steady diet of Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, and Sandra Bullock that the question is preposterous. But a look at the facts might surprise you. First, we should define our terms. In this case, speaking purely of box office power, the difference between a star and a superstar is the difference between someone who can have a hit and someone who reliably will have a hit. It’s not just about fame, talent, or reputation. The past five years have shown that a Kate Hudson romantic-comedy is far from a guaranteed winner, but it is — or was at one time — possible for her to headline a $100 million grosser. And though they might be the greatest stars in terms of talent and accolades, the same cannot be said for Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett.

Box office superstars, even male ones, are true rarities. As Sharon Waxman pointed out in a recent New York Times article, Hollywood is always struggling to find the next big draw, and the repeated failures of Orlando Bloom have shown how even what seemed to be the safest of guesses can misfire. Most stars are dependent on the quality and marketing of their projects, as well as on a fickle public. No matter how many hits they have, most stars alone can’t guarantee success. It is also why so many go from Grade ‘A’ star vehicles to D-level comedy bombs (See: Affleck, Ben; Paltrow, Gwyneth).

But what’s most notable about superstars in the last decade is not that there are so few of them. It’s that none of them have been female. Of Hollywood’s elite women, several have found success largely in the shadows of men. Meg Ryan’s career is in final descent now, but even in the ’90s, her only three legitimate hits co-starred Tom Hanks and Nicolas Cage. Beyond the two Charlie’s Angels movies, Cameron Diaz’s only successes have been in roles supporting Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, Ben Stiller, and Julia Roberts — four of the world’s elite drawing powers. Renée Zellweger peaked high with Chicago, but otherwise she’s never scored on her own. She got famous with Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire and became a top star in the Bridget Jones movies, but they banked on a bestselling book and the enormous overseas drawing power of Hugh Grant.

Others have had their individual success greatly overestimated. Sandra Bullock is viewed as a top leading lady, but after riding Keanu Reeves’ coattails to fame with Speed she’s only had two other movies cross $100 million domestically (I’m leaving out animated voice work for everyone). Jennifer Lopez is a marquee name, but she’s had fewer hits than husbands. Only three of her movies have crossed $100 million worldwide, and only one has passed $90 million domestically — a pretty low baseline for success. Reese Witherspoon had three nice draws domestically with Sweet Home Alabama and the two Legally Blonde movies. But none performed particularly strongly overseas, and subsequent rom-com star vehicle Just Like Heaven badly under performed, falling well short of $100 million worldwide. While people said Brad Pitt needed a hit with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Angelina Jolie needed it worse. Her one blockbuster, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, resulted in an underwhelming sequel, and the rest of her résumé is loaded with huge flops, like Beyond Borders, Taking Lives, Original Sin, and Life, Or Something Like It. Those movies’ worldwide grosses were well under $150 million combined.

Jolie isn’t the only female star of Oscar-padded fame to underachieve commercially. Halle Berry has never headlined a significant hit, coming closest with Gothika ($140 worldwide). Nicole Kidman is cushioned by relatively strong overseas appeal, but Bewitched, The Stepford Wives, The Human Stain, and Birth were still all disappointments, and outnumbered her triumphs. Even Cold Mountain‘s $173 million worldwide was considered weak.

Then there’s the queen bee, Julia Roberts. Over time, she has had her draw overstated. Twelve movies surpassing $90 million domestically in 14 years is nothing to sneeze at. But two were Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve, in which she had fourth billing. One was Steven Spielberg’s Hook, in which she was a supporting player. Two had big name co-stars, The Pelican Brief with Denzel Washington and Notting Hill with Hugh Grant (the latter significantly outperforming Erin Brockovich and Runaway Bride, her other big hits from that period). This is not to say that Roberts wasn’t a substantial draw in her day, but especially with commercial results as bad as The Mexican with Brad Pitt, America’s Sweethearts and its star-studded ensemble, Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson, and Mona Lisa Smile with every dimpled actress under 30, it’s impossible to argue that Roberts herself is truly bankable or review-proof.

To put it in perspective, of Adam Sandler’s last eight movies, one was a limited release art house entry (Punch-Drunk Love, his answer to Roberts’ Full Frontal), two were disappointments, and the other five all grossed over $100 million domestically, averaging over $190 million worldwide. Roberts’ biggest hits are far more substantial, but Sandler is more consistently bankable — more so than the so-called biggest female star in movies, and he’s not even close to the elite male actors.

Of Tom Cruise’s last 13 movies, only the Stanley Kubrick-directed Eyes Wide Shut and a supporting turn in the prestige pic Magnolia failed to earn $100 million domestically, with all 11 others crossing $200 million worldwide. Plus, he’s passed $450 million worldwide four times. Mel Gibson is increasingly sporadic and focused on directing, but four of his last six studio movies surpassed $200 worldwide. Tom Hanks has declined lately, though a rebound is likely with the forthcoming Da Vinci Code. But from 1993 to 2000, every movie he made grossed $200 worldwide except for That Thing You Do, which was his low-budget directorial debut (he only played a supporting role).

Even some less vaunted actors far surpass any woman in box office power. Aside from an unsuccessful two-movie foray into drama with The Legend of Baggar Vance and Ali, every Will Smith movie from 1996 on has topped $200 million worldwide. It’s a testament to his star power that Wild Wild West crossed $200 million and was still considered a major flop. He’s topped $300 million worldwide five times in under a decade and topped $550 million twice. Jim Carrey’s dramatic work has performed meagerly, too, but of the last 13 movies he starred in before Fun With Dick and Jane (too soon to call), eight have topped $200 million worldwide. Like Smith, Carey’s flops have largely been dramas, and many of the hits have been spectacular successes — worldwide, Bruce Almighty is the second highest grossing live-action comedy of all time, right behind the aforementioned Stiller sequel Meet the Fockers.

Granted, women have other avenues. It’s more accepted for women to make TV ads in the states than it is for men. So Catherine Zeta-Jones, Berry, and others hawk phones and makeup both here and abroad, while folks like Pitt and Harrison Ford only put on their pitch overseas. Hollywood’s leading women can also bolster their fame stateside with magazine covers and occasional music careers in a way that men really can’t. But when it comes to box office star power, 2005 wasn’t a bad year for women; it was just part of an overall unfavorable landscape for female stars.

One could certainly argue the reasons for all this: the limited age window in which women are perceived as marketable (there’s no female parallel to Jack Nicholson) or the lack of good action roles for women both come to mind. And certainly, the success of Hanks, Cruise, and Smith is derived not just from marketability, talent, and good choices, but from what roles get sent their way in the first place. But whatever the reason, and whatever amount of celebrity and intuition says otherwise, the box office shows a clear truth when it comes to the current era in Hollywood:

There’s no such thing as a female superstar.