Sunday, July 6, 2008

Working actors and movie stars.

The first season of Mad Men is now available on DVD, and I've been catching up on Netflix as I wait for the second season to start at the end of this month. I'm a sucker for commentary, so I listened to all the folks, writers, actors and directors, yap about the show, which I enjoy. Alan Taylor, the director of the pilot episode, said that he expected January Jones, pictured here, to become a movie star because she is, in Taylor's words, "Grace Kelly beautiful".

I don't disagree with Mr. Taylor's assessment of Ms. Jones' looks, and of course he is in the business and I am not, but I would say that she is probably not going to be a movie star, and I say this on the basis of probability, not as an insult to either her looks, her talent or her will to succeed. Before she was an actress she was a model for Abercrombie & Fitch, so there's no question that she's pretty and she does very good work in the ensemble cast on Mad Men.

Ms. Jones is a working actor, which is a rare enough thing, but movie stars are even rarer. For women in show business, physical attractiveness is almost a given, and being really beautiful is no guarantee of stardom. Any regular reader of this blog knows that I am hopelessly and pathetically smitten with Indira Varma, but even I will admit that Ms. Varma is a working actor and not a movie star.

I will also admit here that I, the mathematician Matty Boy, does not have a mathematical formula for what is the separation between a movie star and a working actor. Certainly, if an actor's name is above or near the title in every role, that person is a movie star. Also, just because a star sometimes takes smaller roles in ensemble work does not mean they are no longer movie stars. Being a movie star once does not mean being a movie star forever. There was a time in the late 70's and early 80's when Jill Clayburgh was a movie star. Now she is a working actor again. Her contemporary Meryl Streep is still a movie star.

There are successful working actors and struggling movie stars. I would put John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the working actor category. They have been stars in movies, but in their successful work there was another element that was the hook for the audience, like Hoffman playing Capote or Reilly in a comedy parody like Walk Hard. More often, they play supporting roles and do it brilliantly well. Sarah Michelle Gellar, on the other hand, is a struggling movie star. She is almost always a lead actress, but a lot of her movies have been box office disappointments. It's a question whether she will continue to be given leading roles and what her career path will be without them.

Looking at the careers of modern movie stars, it seems there is a window of a few years and maybe ten roles, sometimes twenty on the very outside, for an actor to capture the public's imagination as a movie star. In the old days, while there were actors like Clark Gable groomed to be stars from the beginning of their careers, there were also success stories like Humphrey Bogart, who worked his way up through the ranks of co-stars in his early career at Warner Bros.

Taking my three adopted actors, I would say Jeffrey Wright and Chiwetel Ejiofor are working actors, and Christopher Guest has made himself a niche market as the star writer, director and actor of his style of improvised comedy films. This stardom isn't at the level of George Clooney or Brad Pitt (whose is?), but he is clearly a comedy star as much as Will Farrell or Adam Sandler are, with a name that implies a brand of comedy. Also, his path to stardom is very different from the usual, as it happened well over a decade after the audience knew who he was.

Some movies have a concept as the star. Lord of the Rings needed a good cast, but no real stars. Of the cast, Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom would best qualify as having careers on the movie star path. I had a discussion with my friend Jodi about whether Sir Ian McKellan should count as a movie star, and though we both love his work, she said no, he wasn't a movie star and I'm on the fence. The career choices of the Brits make measurement of movie star difficult. Hugh Grant is one of the few British actors who is absolutely a movie star. Helen Mirren, on the other hand, presents the standard problem for judging the Brits. She's always good, and she's often near or at the top of the bill, but she moves back and forth between TV, movies and the stage so much, it becomes problematical if she do enough work for the audience to think of her next movie as "that Helen Mirren movie". I don't know for sure, and I lean towards no.

Big budget special effects movies don't need stars, and they don't have a great track record recently of turning actors into stars, though it did the trick for Christopher Reeve back in the day. I don't even remember the name of the guy who played Superman in the most recent version. Eric Bana's career wasn't helped any by being in Ang Lee's The Hulk and the jury is still out on whether people will want to see young Daniel Radcliffe without a scar on his head and a magic wand in his hand.

Turning back to the ladies, there are only a few female stars, and while physical attractiveness is important, it's so common it almost becomes a non-factor. What really does the trick is having that movie that captures the public's attention, followed by another and another. The templates for the career path of the modern female movie star are best exemplified by Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie. A daunting part of being an actress wanting to be a star is not just how many competitors you have in your own peer group or younger, but the longevity of the careers of female sex symbols these days. As a 25 year old, you might not lose a plum role to some perfectly sexy 18 year old, you might lose it to a perfectly sexy 38 year old with a proven box office track record.

William Goldman, writer of many successful films including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, famously wrote in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade that "nobody knows." What films will be successful, what ones will be flops, what will do slightly better or worse than expected is very hard to say. Likewise, whose career will jump to the next level and whose career will stay there is also hard to predict. I wish Ms. Jones, the original reason for writing this passel o' 'splainin', the very best of luck in her career. But being as pretty as Grace Kelly isn't enough these days, and it probably never has been.

Woo, that's lotsa 'splainin'. Glad it's a Sunday.


Karlacita! said...

I think Sir Ian is too much of a working actor to be a movie star.

But so was Johnny Depp, and now look at him.

Here's a question for me - when American TV shows need strong lead actors, they often get Brits - Kevin McKidd in that time traveler show, lots of the cast in The Wire. etc.

Do American actors besides Gwyneth and Renee get to pretend to be British? I'm not saying I liked it when they were, because there are so many, far more talented British actors for those parts, but it is a question.

Oh - and for Dan Radcliffe? He's gonna play Equus in the states. I think the magic wand will still draw the crowds.


Matty Boy said...

Yanks playing Brits. Hmmm.

Harris Yulin on Buffy played the leader of the Watcher's Council.

Danny Huston played a Brit in Children of Men.

After that, I'm drawing a blank.

Karlacita! said...

Oh hold the phone!

If we're doing TV, how can we overlook Spike and Drusilla? Okay, maybe Ms. Daughter of Mission Impossible was a little broad with her cockney, but James Marsters? Jaysus, he's brill.

How about John Hillerman on Magnum PI?

And the execrable Dr. Smith on Lost in Space!

Who else?

Matty Boy said...

I never thought Dr. Smith on Lost in Space was supposed to be British. I thought that was just the fancy way to play a pedophile.