June 25th, 2014

carole lombard 03
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The movie star...an endangered species?

Even by themselves, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable radiated star power. Put them together, as shown here at the 1936 premiere of "Romeo & Juliet," and you had a celebrity supernova.

But the days of Gable and Lombard have long passed -- and a century after Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin became the first legitimate, sustaining cinema stars, so might the very concept of movie stardom, too. At least that's the argument presented in a recent piece by one of the entertainment community's best-known writers.

In the June 10 issue of Variety, Peter Bart says franchises and brands drive the film industry these days, not stars (http://variety.com/2014/voices/news/movies-stars-are-an-endangered-species-as-actors-struggle-to-stay-relevant-1201217741/). Its very title, "Movie Stars Have Become an Endangered Species," says it all, as if the very nature of film stardom is about to go the way of the quagga or passenger pigeon.

Bart encapsulates it in his lead: "Summer blockbusters make studios happy, but they make stars nervous. That's because a lizard is the real star of 'Godzilla,' not an actor. And in franchises like 'Captain America,' 'Spider-Man' or 'X-Men,' the superhero is the brand, while the casts seem interchangeable."

That's true. No actor playing a superhero today will become as identified with the role as Sean Connery (or even Roger Moore) was as James Bond, much less William Powell as Nick Charles.

And note I used the word actor, not actress -- not only are few if any films about superheroines made in Hollywood (the teenage male audience that jams the multiplexes for such movies find girls "icky," particularly powerful ones), but relatively few actresses command any clout at the box office. When they do, such success tends to be fleeting. That's why so many of them have found refuge in television.

The result? Just as the gap between haves and have-nots is increasing, so is the cinema landscape. The summer blockbusters and the heavily marketed ilk are beginning to branch out into other parts of the year, leaving little room for "arthouse" and prestige films for awards season (but they'll always be around, if only for corporate prestige). Medium-budget movies, what used to be Hollywood's bread and butter, are becoming extinct, too.

Still, we can look on the bright side. Let's see a brand get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as was the case of Kate Winslet:

Oh, wait:

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