We are living in a post-movie star era, but Will Smith was the last one to find out.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air-turned-21st-century box office king has enjoyed his time as perhaps the sole exception to the many articles that have discussed at length the death of the traditional movie star (including ones written here). Smith’s magnetic charm, family-friendly aura, and conventional good looks (coupled, more importantly, with an incredibly calculated, decidedly un-risky series of career decisions) made him a star with mass audience appeal – an increasingly rare commodity as studio films geared more and more toward dedicated niche audiences.
But Smith’s anachronistic career (even with two Academy Award nominations and 11 blockbusters under his belt in almost as many years) was growing ever more conspicuous even before his four-year absence from the silver screen. He came back with the serviceable (read: unremarkable) MIB3. However, it was this summer’s After Earth (whose opening weekend gross was $100K shy of, erm, Wild Wild West) that solidified the fact that even Hollywood’s “biggest star” no longer provided a guarantee that anybody would show up.
Six months ago, Scott Beggs and I argued that 2012 signaled, with certainty, the death of the movie star. If the movie star died in 2012, then 2013 is most certainly its wake.
Trapped By Blockbusters
Of course, we used “death” in a knowingly hyperbolic way that is (in retrospect) perhaps a bit overused in Interweb cultural commentary. Perhaps. The movie star is still very much alive, it’s simply taken on a different form within filmmaking, film economics, and in culture at large. The bankable movie star – in the sense that the presence of a star is meant to guarantee a core audience and thus provide an economic security for a film’s backers – is most certainly dead, at least until franchise-fever breaks (fingers crossed).
That’s why the underperformance of After Earth is so important. Will Smith became popular during the tail end of the last great wave of conventional Hollywood movie stars. When Independence Day came out, Mel Gibson’s, Tom Cruise’s, and Julia Roberts’ faces dominated both ticket booths and supermarket checkout counters. George Clooney was supposedly next in line. But somewhere in between Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Iron Man 3, the greenlighting machine switched from people to properties. Smith was merely one high-profile summer tentpole failure away from bringing this switch full circle.
Of course, the presence of a household name still has the power to get projects moving; in Hollywood logic, any name is better than no name at all. But it’s more of a device that gives studios, managers, agents, and perhaps the stars themselves a false sense of security. Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp have created a thoroughly realized manufactured illusion that they are both movie stars by exhaustively reprising franchise roles while seemingly maintaining a sense of charm, energy, and charisma. But allegiance to the likes of Marvel, Tim Burton, and Gore Verbinski have left them in a bind, unable to explore interesting roles characteristic of their pre-blockbuster days for fear of destroying the façade.
Changing Perspective Without a Tentpole
The last sign of the movie star Apocalypse.
Other stars – perhaps summarized best by the careers of Brad Pitt and George Clooney – see their economic power differently: they can elevate difficult and unconventional projects instead of lending their names to the false economic security of the tentpole release. Pitt’s had more Killing Them Softlys – which wouldn’t have seen wide release at all if not for him – in his recent career than World War Zs. And studios know they can buy a blockbuster for the relatively cheap price of one Henry Cavill.
It will be most interesting to see where Will Smith decides to take his name in the wake of After Earth, specifically in the context of his having rejected the lead in Django Unchained. Smith reportedly felt that the role was second fiddle to the character eventually played by Christoph Waltz, showing more concern with vain center positioning than the potential of a role – it’s the sign, in other words, of a star already fretting about the worth of his stardom. Sean Fennessey of Grantland summarized the decision thusly:
“This was obviously a terrible decision; a role like Django would have reasserted a credibility among longtime fans, introduced a new kind of anarchic verve to his calcifying I’m a fun dad, I swear persona, and perhaps even made Will Smith seem a little dangerous. His decision to turn down the role, largely because his character didn’t get to kill the movie’s big bad, seems particularly addled by movie-star logic.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee the film would have been the-same-but-different with Smith instead of the perfectly adequate Jamie Foxx, but it undoubtedly would have put a necessary wrench in the spokes of Smith’s flaccidly focus-group’d star image. In an era where David Cronenberg and Nicolas Winding Refn found muses in the likes of Robert Pattinson and Ryan Gosling, Smith should know that some dark auteurist violence (but not vulgar auteurist!) has the potential to elevate a reputation more than destroy a brand.
Using Clean, Renewable Star Power For Good
Smith seems to have taken the hint. As reported by Tambay A. Obsenson of IndieWire, Smith made a veritable “calling all self-fashioned auteurs” announcement in the UK while doing press for After Earth, stating, “I think I’m going to start moving out of [making blockbusters] and finding more danger in my artistic choices.”
Whether Smith’s words were those of receding-stardom-panic, yet another manager-engineered career move, or a genuine desire to move out of his self-made box (probably all of the above), the statement speaks to a unique possibility of the post-movie star moment: once saved from the requirement of making blockbusters and only expected to adequately perform in modestly-budgeted films, the contemporary movie star has the ability to make interesting, relatively low-profile choices that likely won’t have any lasting negative effect on their reputation. Making After Earth hurts the star; making Cosmopolis or Killing Them Softly doesn’t. Stars can leverage their economic power for creative risks. And nobody has accumulated more to leverage than Will Smith.
And what’s the reason behind this seeming emergence of a creative playground for the rich and famous? The fact that the economics of film stardom has shifted into two distinct categories: the films themselves (in which the star no longer guarantees the success) and star discourse in the form of gossip reporting. With the last heyday of the movie star in the 90s, these two industries were largely symbiotic: wide-ranging interest in Julia Roberts’s private life readily translated into a mass dedication to her fictional roles, and vice versa. Now the industry of celebrity tabloids and fandom is more wide-ranging than ever, but social investment in the phenomenon of stardom does not translate to interest in the star’s creative output. Look at Ryan Gosling’s internet-based fan communities. Especially these videos of him refusing cereal. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean many people will see Only God Forgives.
This Is The Beginning
But the reason that the summer of 2013 is important for the post-movie star era isn’t only because of the failure of After Earth in contradistinction to the success of, say, Man of Steel. One needs to look no further for evidence that we’ve entered a post-movie star era than This Is the End. That film brazenly collapses any prior distinctions between the movie star and the public celebrity. Each actor references one another’s career choices and public reputations, indulges in an exaggerated and self-deprecating hybrid of movie persona and public identity, and criticizes the supposed virtues of fame altogether. Moreover, the film presents little distinction between movie star, celebrity, and fraternal member of a famous entourage; This Is the End presumes that you know who both James Franco and David Krumholtz are.
The film could have gone much further in terms of lampooning onscreen the stars’ public reputations offscreen (Jonah Hill’s inflated self-regard, James Franco’s renaissance tendencies – only Michael Cera here gets the transcendently batshit treatment), but we have to keep in mind that star images, even in their most risky and self-deprecating moments, are still heavily regulated. But, more importantly, This Is the End provides an opportunity to put post-movie-stardom in a positive terms rather than inspire a declaration of its death. We’ve arrived at a moment where the movie star, no longer studio filmmaking’s driving commodity, is freer than it’s ever been to play as it pleases, whether in films dedicated to self-parodying potty humor or “serious” artistic endeavors. The movie star is now largely free from the requirement to be predictable and boring.