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”I am big,” said faded star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. ”It’s the pictures that got small.” Today, however, it’s the pictures that are big (King Kong, Narnia) and the stars that are small. Case in point: Orlando Bloom (left), whom the New York Times sees as a cautionary example of how Hollywood’s current star-making machinery can’t manufacture guaranteed box office draws anymore like they could in days of yore. (Way way back, like in Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts’ day.) Even well-established names like Nicole Kidman or Will Ferrell can’t necessarily open a movie these days (Exhibit A: Bewitched).

To me, this is a myopic way of looking at stardom. (And I say it not just because EW had this dearth-of-new-stars dilemma nailed a couple years ago in a cover story called ”Honey, Who Shrunk the Stars?”) Yes, stars are more disposable now, and for that we can blame reality TV, tabloid journalism, mediocre movies, or any number of causes. But we’ve also found ourselves in a situation where stardom is now divorced from its day job of making hit movies. It’s now possible to be famous and even beloved without actually backing up one’s fame with achievement. Colin Farrell is a star without actually having appeared in a hit movie, since stardom is now defined as much by ubiquity offscreen as it is by appearances at the multiplex. Similarly, if Bloom shows up on the red carpet on the arm of Kate Bosworth at this summer’s Superman Returns premiere, he’ll have done all he needs to do to maintain his stardom for the next year. And let’s not forget the big-in-Europe factor that makes bona fide stars overseas out of Hollywood actors who can’t open a movie in the United States.

Read another theory on why Bloom’s career is flagging — after the jump.

addCredit(“Orlando Bloom: Reuters”)

Finally, while hype often overtakes accomplishment, it takes just onesolid performance for a potential star to cement his status — seeHeath Ledger, who didn’t live up to his hype until Brokeback Mountain— but those kind of roles typically come in indie movies seen byrelatively few viewers. In other words, to advance your career as amainstream star, it may be best to choose a role in a non-mainstream,possibly obscure project. Of course, that’s a risky career strategy ifyou ultimately want to land $20 million paydays, but why should wedismiss as non-stars actors who’d prefer to do interesting work overbland but popular movies?

Still, there’s something else missing from the Orlando Bloom/Josh Hartnett set, something the Timesstory doesn’t get at because it’s hard to put a finger on. That’s acertain substance, a sense of solidity and gravitas, that a lot ofcontemporary stars lack. You could argue that this has been a problemfor a while — how substantive are Tom Cruise and Julia Robertscompared to predecessors like Gary Cooper or Katharine Hepburn? Morethan ever, individual movie stars are blank slates on which we projectour own fantasies. Today’s movie stars may be more versatile but alsomore elusive and ethereal, like they might blow away in a strong wind.George Clooney is one of the few contemporary actors who does have thatold-Hollywood gravitas; maybe some of these younger performers willattain it as they grow older and more worldly. Which brings us back toNorma Desmond. ”We had faces then,” she said of her expressivecontemporaries. Today, they have faces but nothing else.

Which of today’s movie actors and actresses are most likely to succeedTom, Julia, and their peers as bankable stars who capture theimaginations of moviegoers?

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