Monday 18 December 2017

Kerr-pow: How monsters and superheroes killed off the Hollywood star

What have 'Godzilla', 'Transformers' and 'Spider-Man' in common? They hoovered up hundreds of millions at the box office and no one cared who starred in them

Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks in 'Charlie Wilson's War'
Andrew Garfield as Spiderman
Tom Cruise in 'Edge of Tomorrow'
Bing Crosby
John Wayne
Tom Cruise
Gary Cooper
Clint Eastwood

Peter Howick

In his book Adventures in The Screen Trade, William Goldman, the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, launched an endlessly repeated quotation about the film business upon the world. "In Hollywood'', he declared, "nobody knows anything." It's a great line. The problem is it isn't exactly true.

For example, you could learn quite a bit about the film business at the moment simply by taking a bus. Waiting, you may end up staring at a poster for the latest mega movie Transformers: Age Of Extinction (it's actually Transformers 4 but they have stopped counting anything except the money).

In the poster, you will see supposed superstar Mark Wahlberg totally dwarfed by one of those massive shape-changing Transformer thingies. It's almost like seeing a Bond film headlining the bad guy in bold print with the tag line, "also featuring 007".

If you wait at the bus stop long enough, you still might see an advert for Edge Of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise on one side of the bus and Emily Blunt on the other.

What gives? Well, for one thing, it tells you the film companies are not betting the ranch on the star power of either Wahlberg or Cruise. Mark, fresh off his hit Ted, is still relegated to a filler role in a big hit movie franchise brand. He has been added as a sort of relish to a burger we prepared earlier. If he adds value to the franchise, fine. But most people won't be going to the film because of him, no matter how much he's paid.

Then we have Edge of Tomorrow. Just what in the world is Tom Cruise doing sharing top billing with the lovely but hardly blockbusting actress Emily Blunt? Could it be the film company has decided that Tom Cruise isn't the box office power house that he was? Is it possible they think he blunted his mojo with women with his couch-jumping and Scientology and needs a lovely-looking British lass to get the girls in?

What both cases suggest is that the big film companies have lost faith in star power. In the case of Transformers, the advertising shows how the brand has dwarfed the star. And in the case of poor old Tom Cruise, it shows that film companies no longer trust stars to open a movie on their own.

In Hollywood lore, an example of what stardom meant was delivered in 1991 when an absolute dog of a film called Sleeping With The Enemy was released. The lamentable plot featured our very own Patrick Bergin playing a jealous husband who so terrified his wife that she faked her own death to get away from him. Not for her a simple trip to a lawyer. But the amazing thing was that it was a hit. Why? Because Julia Roberts was a superstar. Coming off Pretty Woman, she convinced an audience to shell out and see her in a film that could never have been a hit without her.

Flip forward nearly 25 years and it is impossible to think of any star on the planet who could pull off what she did in her heyday. Who really is worth the megabucks that Hollywood is still paying out to a few last survivors?

Okay, you might say, what about Johnny Depp? A look at the figures suggests Jack Sparrow is box office insurance, Johnny Depp far less so. Outside the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Depp has floundered. Last year, he appeared in two expensive bombs – Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger. This year, Hollywood was mortified when Depp's Transcendence limped to just a $23m take on a whopping $100m budget. Depp and Cruise are the last of a dying breed. And they are dying before our eyes.

From now on, they will only command their normal eye-watering salaries propping up franchises. So expect another Pirates from Depp and another Mission Impossible from Cruise. In today's world, the brand has become the insurance policy. Who cares who the star of Spider-Man is? The star of Spider-Man, is, of course, Spider-Man. Did you know who was in Godzilla except Godzilla?

Check out nearly all this summer's big blockbusters and you'll find that, if you had to name their stars in a pub quiz, you'd be stumped.A key indicator is the film magazine Empire. In the old days, say, the 1990s, they would put the star of the day on the cover. But now, if an actor is on the cover, he is in character. It's not Daniel Craig on the front of Empire, it's James Bond.

But what happened to the star? Your parents used to go and see a Clint Eastwood picture. Where is the modern-day equivalent? Blame globalisation. In the last decade, Hollywood has discovered it makes more money overseas than at home. People in China really don't care who Tom Cruise is. But they like the idea of G.I. Joe. The new Hollywood insurance policy is the brand. It's Batman. It's Spider-Man. A brand you can control.

As the foreign market gets bigger and bigger, the star may get smaller and smaller. That is not to say celebrity will die. But being a celebrity has little or nothing to do with opening a film. Only a bona fide brand can open a movie in the modern era. Hollywood may know nothing, but it sure seems to know that.

The five biggest box office stars

Who were the biggest stars in Hollywood history? That depends on one word: inflation. On one level, the biggest box office draws are, thanks to franchise power, Daniel Radcliffe, Robert Pattinson, Mike Myers, Hugo Weaving and Orlando Bloom, thanks to the draws of Harry Potter, Twilight, Austin Powers, The Matrix et al. Inflation adjusted, however, the biggest stars in history are:

5. Bing Crosby

Your grandmother loved the singer of 'White Christmas'. He died just after he sang a duet with David Bowie.

4. Gary Cooper

He was that lone outgunned figure in High Noon. Was Clint Eastwood before Clint knew it himself.

3. Tom Cruise

The Cruiser has outgrossed anyone else his age. While we can sneer, his is an extraordinary achievement in an increasingly disposable age.

2. Clint Eastwood

Even when his co-star was a monkey, Clint pulled them in. Legend can't describe it.

1. John Wayne

From 1940 to 1970, John Wayne was the biggest star in the world. Was it the walk? The drawl? In the end, the one and only Duke.

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