Workaholic stars are inadvertently colluding with the studios, says Mark Harris

By Mark Harris
Updated January 22, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Roberts: Lisa O'Connor/ZUMA Press

Why a SAG strike won’t hurt Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise

The Screen Actors Guild strike is, in all probability, now less than six months away, and Hollywood’s priciest actors and actresses have decided to prepare for it by working their butts off. Julia Roberts, Hollywood’s $20 million woman, will probably take a day off to attend the Oscars, but other than that, she’s all business, jumping from the comedy ”America’s Sweethearts” to Steven Soderbergh’s ”Ocean’s Eleven” to the thriller ”Project 3,” directed by Gore Verbinski, who also made her upcoming film with Brad Pitt, ”The Mexican.”

Gwyneth Paltrow, with ”The Anniversary Party” and Neil LaBute’s ”Possession” already in the can, will move from the stewardess comedy ”A View From the Top” to Wes Anderson’s ”The Royal Tennenbaums.” Tom Cruise, having wrapped Cameron Crowe’s psychological thriller ”Vanilla Sky,” will jump to Steven Spielberg’s ”Minority Report” (if Spielberg can fit it in before the deadline), while Will Smith hopes to wrap Michael Mann’s Muhammad Ali biopic in time to get ”Men in Black 2” underway.

Lots of big stars, lots of big movies. There’s only one problem: This frenzy of prestrike work amounts to virtual collusion — the most richly compensated members of a union are collaborating with management to shoot the legs out from under the SAG strike before it’s begun.

The strike, of course, is not really about people like Roberts or Paltrow or Smith or Cruise, but about the vast majority of working actors who don’t pull down eight figure salaries — actors who struggle to make a five figure living and who are justifiably angry at an industry that’s long been dedicated to failing to compensate them adequately.

Producers and studios have already made it clear that they expect the strike to be a long one, and that they expect to win the day essentially by starving the actors out; if they can’t outwit them, they’ll outwait them. By racing to get so much product into the pipeline, Hollywood’s biggest stars have made management’s task all the easier.

Several movies not due to be released until 2002 are already in the can — including a new installment of ”Star Wars” and part two of the ”Lord of the Rings” trilogy — and dozens more will be completed by the strike deadline. If studios slow down their release schedules in anticipation of a long walkout, it could be mid- 2002 before moviegoers notice a significant difference — and that’s more than enough time to bust a union.

If the actors who are making life so much easier for the studios are serious about supporting SAG, they can still do two things: Drop those $20 million paychecks into a strike fund to support their poorer brethren, and unilaterally, flatly refuse to promote their films after the strike deadline. Yes, this means Entertainment Weekly would probably have to do a cover story or two on Animal Planet, but it would also let their colleagues and the industry know they mean business.

I can already hear some actors claiming that a publicity shutdown would be unfair to everyone who put so much work into a particular movie. Well, guess what: Strikes are SUPPOSED to hurt. A lot of big name actors have so far paid lip service to the issues that concern SAG members; let’s see how many of them are willing to put their money — and their reputations — where their mouths are.

One more thing: Mark your calendars for what’s sure to be a very interesting awards ceremony this March. No, not the Oscars, but the Screen Actors Guild awards, airing March 11. If ever there was a moment for a union to make its case before a national audience, it’ll be then — if they’re brave enough.