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August 21, 2021

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 08-21-2021 [TheJamesMadison]

The Movie Star As Myth

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I don't think movie stars exist.

The movie star is supposed to be an actor whose mere presence in a film will guarantee a certain level of box office returns. I think they are a creation of Hollywood executives to try and explain why some movies succeed and some fail, but the movie star is, at best, an incomplete picture of what leads to a movie making money or not.

The closest to a movie star today is, I think, Tom Cruise, and it's not because he has some magical power to draw people to his movies. I would barely even call Cruise an actor (he has the range of a grapefruit with several acting classes under its rind), but he does have charisma. Charisma is cheap, though, in Hollywood. A lot of people have it who don't headline multi-million-dollar features.
If Tom Cruise were a movie star, would a movie like Lions for Lambs open at a lower box office than Mission Impossible III released only 18 months apart?


Money

What does Mission Impossible III represent to the moviegoing public that Lions for Lambs doesn't? Lions for Lambs also starred Robert Redford and Meryl Streep (two more movie stars), and it was directed by Redford who's an accomplished director himself. Shouldn't Tom Cruise's presence, not to mention the presence of these other movie stars, have guaranteed box office numbers akin to Cruise's other movies? If not, why not?

Well, let's look at the numbers real quick.

Mission Impossible III, directed by first time feature film director J.J. Abrams, made $47 million in its first weekend of May 5, 2006. It went on to gross $134 million in the US and $263 internationally for a combined worldwide total of $397 million. It was considered a slight disappointment because it made less than either of the two preceding films in the franchise, but with a budget of $150 million, the studio most likely made some profit back.

Lions for Lambs made $6.7 million in its opening weekend of November 9, 2007 with a wide release comparable to MI: III's. It grossed only $15 million in the US and $48 million internationally for a total of $68 million.

Lions for Lambs arguable has more movie stars than Mission Impossible III, so why did it make less money?

Combinations

What Cruise has is Hollywood power and a strong self-awareness of his strengths and limitations. He's been able to choose his own scripts unlike pretty much any actor since the 80s, never taking a job just to pay the bills. He's been carefully cultivating his image for decades.

Seeing Tom Cruise in a movie isn't a guarantor of quality but a guarantor of a type of film. Ever since Top Gun he's played one type of character with a couple of exceptions. He's the usually cocky action man whether it's by being a spy in the Mission Impossible movies, a pool shark in The Color of Money, or even a deadbeat dad in War of the Worlds. What Tom Cruise's name on a poster means to most people is an action movie of a particular quality, usually directed by a strong director like Scorsese, de Palma, or Spielberg. It may be tied to a franchise (like Mission Impossible) or it might be original (like Oblivion), but ultimately they all fit into a particular bucket.

His attempts at "acting" are few and far between like in Magnolia (his one serious attempt to play against type) or Lions for Lambs, and they tend to make a fair bit less money.

When people see Tom Cruise's name on a movie poster, they expect a particular kind of experience. It's not a dour and serious look at the War in Iraq, a topical matter that people go to the movies to escape. They want action and adventure from his name. So, what ends up being successful? Well, most of Cruise's body of work fits in with his image as action-man. It's not Tom Cruise himself, it's Tom Cruise and the type of movie he's in.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has a similar game going. Acting on pure charisma, he leads big budgeted action spectacles and never really delves into anything that would go against that image. The biggest break was probably Michael Bay's Pain and Gain about meat-headed body builders who rob a rich guy. The most interesting example, though, is Robert Downey Junior.

From Superhero to Small Town Lawyer

In 2008 Robert Downey Jr.'s career revival hit into overdrive when he took the role of Tony Stark in Iron Man. Being the first Avenger cast before the dream of bringing everything together into a team up movie was anything but a fantasy, he got the best contract out of everyone involved with the Marvel franchise save, most likely, Kevin Feige. By 2012, Downey Jr. earned $50 million for acting in The Avengers alone. Whatever the truth, Keven Feige, Marvel, and Disney considered the payday worth it to them to keep Downey Jr. on board the franchise, assuming that his financial contribution to the film's box office receipts was worth at least that.

Then, in 2014, Downey Jr. starred in a movie called The Judge. Made for about $50 million, it grossed $84 million total. Where was Downey Jr.'s fanbase? Why didn't they come out for this?

Because the movie star is a total myth. People aren't clamoring to see whatever movie Robert Downey Jr., The Rock, or Tom Cruise are going to be in next. They want a particular type of entertainment and sometimes the lead actor can be an indicator of that kind of movie. Audiences can sniff out when Tom Cruise is making something they don't want to see, and they don't go to see it, hence the box office failure of Lions for Lambs despite the presence of real movie stars on the poster. It's also why a movie like 300 can suddenly blow up, offering the movie going audiences something that they like without the presence of movie stars (seriously, does anyone care that Gerard Butler is making a movie at any given time?).

Shorthand

Movie stars cannot guarantee box office. I think they're vastly overpaid for what they actually bring financially to a film. They can be helpful to audiences as a sort of indicator of what kind of film something they haven't seen before is going to be, but they don't drive people to the theater on their own. It's as useful as a good trailer, but great trailers don't always lead to great box office results either.
Movie stars are a very expensive and imprecise short hand for what may or may not make a movie a success. I lean towards not.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

The Night House

Reminiscence

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

The Suicide Squad (Rating 2/4) Full Review "I know this film is getting pretty universal praise, and I sort of get it. It's thinly entertaining, but it doesn't really gel overall." [HBO Max]

The Thing (Rating 4/4) Full Review Still, what Carpenter helped script and ended up directing is an ideal remake. Returning to the ultimate source, the short story "Who Goes There?" by John Campbell, Carpenter recast the whole concept with a twist while firmly planting the new film in a new time, never feeling like he's just repeating what Hawks and Nyby had done before in The Thing From Another World." [Personal Collection]

Halloween (Rating 4/4) Full Review "He's building these ideas into his films at the most basic levels, suffusing the stories with the ideas and never needing to address them directly. There's something special about this Carpenter kid." [Hoopla]

Escape from New York (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It does feel like his reach exceeded his grasp overall, like this is the one movie of his where he really did need a much larger budget to completely realize what his imagination was cooking up. Still, I wish this film's script had another couple of drafts to iron stuff out and give it a firmer structure. After its rather great opening, it ends up being more meandering that it probably should be, and I think that diminishes the film's overall impact and entertainment value." [Personal Collection]

The Fog (Rating 3/4) Full Review "Still, the film overall is a good horror film with something on its mind, fitting in well with Carpenter's body of work and offering some decent genre thrills along the way." [Amazon Prime]

Assault on Precinct 13 (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It's a solidly good film, and one that shows a more refined promise for Carpenter in his sophomore effort." [Personal Collection]

Dark Star (Rating 3/4) Full Review "A script that found a greater variety of business to do in the middle section, I think, would have improved the film overall, but as it stands, the ending raises the rest of the film to a higher level." [Hoopla]

The Private Life of Don Juan (Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "I ended up enjoying this far more than I thought I would." [The Criterion Channel]

Contact

Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
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I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

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