Monday, August 31, 2009

Is This The End Of Hollywood Stars?

Disney's acquisition of Marvel took us by surprise. It is, in retrospect, a brilliant idea. Time Warner and Viacom are probably wondering: Why didn't we do that? Marvel, for people of my generation -- mainly men -- is to our childhood what Disney was to previous generations of Americans. There is an organic alliance between characters like Goofy, Mickey, Minnie and Spiderman, Iron Man, Captain America and The Dazzler. All of those all-American fictitious characters are as comfortable on the page in colorful, cheap print as they are on the big-screen (but unlike their A-List counterparts, they don't demand larger trailers and a piece of "back-end."). But what does this mean to the traditional A-List Hollywood celebrity, the overcosmeticized Vanity Fair covergirls and coverboys, who have not, of late, been doing so well as this digital age progresses?

Is this the end of Hollywood stars? At this weekend's box office, the top two performers -- Final Destination and Halloween 2 -- the *stars* are the horrific special effects and 3-D technology. Are A-Listers worth their $20 million paychecks? Is this the rise of the un-celebrity? Nicole Kidman as metaphor? From The New York Times: "Ms. Kidman’s last three big-budget films, Australia, The Golden Compass and The Invasion were box-office disappointments, and an auteur-directed indie, Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, was a moderate success at best." The article continues: "So while her red-carpet appeal is undiminished (her life in Nashville with her husband, the country star Keith Urban, and their daughter, Sunday Rose, is still tabloid worthy), her big-screen clout may be." And a Vanity Fair pin-up like Kidman is not alone among the A-Listers. The celebrity weeklies like People and Us are all about the "reality stars." Where once one expected to see celebrities confiding health problems and addictions, nowadays Us Weekly is more likely to place Jon and/or Kate on the cover. And the Internet has brought people like Perez Hilton, a decidedly un-celebrity presence, to the fore. Tom Cruise, Angelina, Brad Pitt, Julia, Denzel, Jennifer Anniston, Will Smith, Sandra Bulloch and Jim Carrey -- all are still do brisk box office, but their star-wattage has somewhat diminished. As The New York Times noted, "The spring and summer box office has murdered megawatt stars like ...Eddie Murphy, John Travolta, Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell."

From The Telegraph:

"The three biggest US films of the summer have been the latest versions of the Transformer and Harry Potter franchises, starring newcomers Shia LaBoeuf and Daniel Radcliffe, and a computer-animated Pixar offering, Up.

"The one movie luminary to live up to his billing for drawing audiences has been Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds - the new violence-packed Quentin Tarantino number that took in $38 million last weekend.

"'In the past, studios believed that if they wanted a box office hit, they needed a big star for presence and visibility,' Peter Guber, chairman of Mandalay Pictures production company and former studio chief at Sony Pictures, with films such as Midnight Express, Rain Man and batman to his name, told The Sunday Telegraph."

"'But this year, we've had a summer filled with sequels, remakes and franchises that don't come with big names. There are still very talented stars of course but not every movie needs them for commercial success.'

"The tough economic climate started the transformation but the revolution in technology and social networking has driven home the fundamental upheavals this summer."

This Great Recession may have accelerated that process. Even before the economy stumbled, B-Listers -- at best -- like Paris Hilton and LiLo and Britney arrested our declining collective attention with their buffoonish antics rather than their actual professional accomplishments. Then Reality 2.0 kicked in, and the manner in which lesser luminaries mis-mananged their lives -- the VH1 formula -- began to overshadow the over-polished publicity machines of times past. Even the TMZs and the Gawkers, who pride themselves on critical takes on celebrities and un-celebrities like Julia Allison, have played their part. The fall of the American economy has created an even stronger "felt-need" for celebrity schadenfreude. Cover stories of celebrities that appear to have been fed to the glossies by publicists are a quaint thing of the past. Those glossies themselves -- ironically -- also to appear to be a thing of the past. Instead of a worshipful relationship with glamorous celebers -- like we had in the now-dead Kennedy era -- we demand blood, sweat and a decided lack of panties.

Enter: Superheroes. Unlike Tom Cruise -- whose PR people always painted him to be something of a superhero -- Wolverine does not bleed. And Captain America, unlike Brad Pitt, does not do hash (although the ingredients of the super-soldier formula are still classified). Superheroes, in fine, are that to which celebrities have always aspired, role models but without the human, all to human frailties. Of course, it also helps that superheroes are purely fictional characters with perfectly-pencilled bodies and non-visible pores. Superheroes don't age. They don't have extramarital affairs. And they kick the asses of supervillains. But what does this say about our collective psychology that we are now veering -- dangerously? -- into an era where hundreds of millions will be spent valorizing comic book unreality.

Is this the end of the $20 million club? Can we expect to see a Captain America Vanity Fair cover in the near future in which the films star is covered up by red, white and blue pajamas?

Stay tuned.

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