Star wars -- it's the final showdown
Actors will battle with computer-animated sprites for tomorrow's Oscars as technology threatens the big names, writes Susan Daly Picture three A-lister actors in a room together. Sandra Bull-ock, the star whose movies made most money in 2009; Mor-gan Freeman, the actor who has just crowned a career of wise, dignified performances by playing Nelson Mandela; and Jeff Bridges, hotly tipped to take the Best Actor Oscar for A Crazy Heart. By contrast, a huge star doesn't guarantee big box office. Last summer's record for star-cast movies was grim. Julia Roberts, the first actress to command a $20m cheque for her ability to lead movies to box office receipts of $100m or more, fronted the loss-making Duplicity.
They are gathered for Newsweek magazine's annual Oscar nomination shortlist discussion. They are not entirely happy. The discussion in the room is of motion-capture acting, the method used in the blockbuster Avatar to capture actors' facial expressions and map them onto computer-generated images.
Avatar, which this week became the most successful film in Irish cinematic history when its ticket sales here reached €9, 747, 390, mirroring its record-breaking receipts worldwide, is also the most technologically advanced -- and has been nominated for nine Academy Awards.
Not one of those nominations is for an actor.
Freeman looks stern. "I think it's a bit faddish," he says. "Because it's really cartoons." Bullock maintains she hasn't seen it yet. Jeff Bridges plays the diplomatic card. "It was a little uncomfortable," he says, "but there's something exciting about it too. It's where it's all going."
Mind you, Bridges would say that -- he had his face animated by the same technique for the upcoming sequel to his 1982 sci-fi hit Tron.
Their unease is understandable. Avatar suggests that a film can make actors a secondary concern and still be nominated for Best Picture.
Motion-capture still requires an actor to emote the range of expression that appears on screen -- they just don't need to be big stars. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana are the actors behind the blue-skinned 'avatars'. If you haven't heard of them, you are in excellent company.
The Avatar outcry is interesting because this technology has been making inroads at the box office for a few years now. Gollum in Lord of the Rings was created through motion-capture based on the face of the excellent but not famous actor Andy Serkis. He was also behind the King Kong monster in the 2005 remake. Here, at least, is one actor making a few bob out of the new technology.
Pixar animation films started off using stars to voice their movies. Toy Story in 1995 had Tom Hanks and Monsters, Inc (2001) had Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi. As time went on, the stellar line-ups largely disappeared but still, no Pixar film has ever made a loss. Its latest -- and also a runner for Best Picture at this year's Oscars -- is Up. The best-known actor voicing a role is probably Ed Asner, aka TV's Lou Grant.
Denzel Washington and John Travolta made a 'small' profit of about $50m with The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Even Eddie Murphy, the so-called critic-proof star, saw his fans turn their nose up at his comedy Imagine That.
The bigger picture looks no better. The lead actors in the highest-grossing movies of the decade included Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings), Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Tobey Maguire and Christian Bale (Spider-man and Batman) and Shia LaBeouf (Transformers).
Johnny Depp also gets a look-in based mainly on his role in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Mike Myers' major hit was the animated Shrek series. In fact, you have to go to No. 25 to find a bona fide star, Tom Hanks, with The Da Vinci Code -- and that film arguably traded off the bestselling book it was based on.
So here's the situation; franchise movies and movies based on comics, books and video games are hot, hot, hot. Franchise actors are not. In the so-called golden age of Hollywood, John Wayne, Bing Crosby or Grant hardly knew what it was to flip-flop between hits and misses. Their names were franchises.
Individual star wattage shone even more brightly in accepted franchise pairings: Tracy and Hepburn; Bogie and Bacall; Astaire and Rogers; Crosby and Hope; Crawford and Gable; Powell and Loy; Garland and Rooney.
Some of the most popular actors did consistently well because they were contained within the studio star system which, when it identified a genre that was working well for their starlets, wanted them to stay in it. Screwball comedy and westerns produced some of the biggest stars because that's what audience wanted.
But there are still some contemporary stars who can do it -- after a modest opening weekend, Tom Cruise's Valkyrie ended up taking $200m worldwide and he's taking no chances by signing up to Mission Impossible IV. Brad Pitt is still an acknowledged draw -- that's why the promotion for Inglourious Basterds focused largely on him, even though he's only in half the movie.
There is also the argument that technology has been threatening to overtake the star system since the introduction of CGI in the early 1980s. And what happened there? Actor and CGI managed to peacefully co-exist. James Cameron's 1997 Titanic used CGI to recreate the giant ship -- and in the process made two new A-listers, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
Morgan Freeman might want to take notes from his hero, Nelson Mandela, who once said: "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy."