Monday, February 23, 2009
Nobody Knows Anything, Part 1b: Bankable Stars
There is no need to make rules about bankable child stars, because there has only been one in history. Shirley Temple. She was first on camera at the age of four. From the ages of six to twelve, she was a box office star rivaled only by the likes of Clark Gable. There have been many great child actors, but most of them who became stars did so in their teens, and bankability was more about being part of a franchise, like Mickey Rooney in the role of Andy Hardy or the kids in the Our Gang series. A combination of changing tastes, the end of vaudeville and stricter child labor laws made Shirley Temple's record look as far out of reach as Babe Ruth's home run records looked for a couple generations.
For feature film bankability, Shirley probably will never be matched, but if we look at show business as including cable TV and the direct to video market, both very profitable today, Shirley's child star records have been at least approached by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
There is also a rule in Hollywood that has its counter-examples: Puberty is to child stars as Godzilla is to Tokyo. We will note a major counter-example in the next section.
You're a star, kid, just as long as you sing. An interesting sidelight to Shirley Temple's career is that MGM tried to borrow her to star in The Wizard of Oz, couldn't make that happen, and decided to cast a sixteen year old under contract they hadn't used in a major role named Judy Garland. Judy, born Frances Gumm, youngest of the singing Gumm Sisters, had been on the vaudeville stage since she was two, but the public hadn't seen her grow up, so she was already post-puberty when the public meets her, and has a nice girl next door look. The Oz books never say exactly how old Dorothy is, so they could have cast a ten year old Shirley Temple or a sixteen year old Judy Garland, but the studio execs did everything they could to make her look younger, putting her in a corset that hid her figure.
Judy Garland, for all the mess she made of her life, was a bankable star in any movie where she sang. She was a good actress, but she had just crazy pipes. She also had crazy levels of insecurity, but in her case, you can at least understand it. When she was at the MGM high school for actors who didn't have their diploma, her classmates included Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. One can forgive her for being a little self-conscious. (Liz Taylor is the major counterexample to the Watch Out for Puberty rule. She was twelve when the movie audience first saw her, and Those Awkward Years just didn't apply to her. They came a little later.)
I have heard the theory postulated by many, including blog buddy sfmike, that if the Gay Boys like you, you can have as long a career in show business as you like. Exhibits A through C: Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis. Add as many to the list as you like.
Nobody makes the transition from the small screen to the big screen. This has been conventional wisdom for some time now, and it's absolute bunk.
Burt Reynolds tells the story that he and Clint Eastwood got the results of their screen tests on the same day. Walking off the lot they compared notes. Eastwood was downcast, as he was told he was too tall, his eyes were too squinty and his Adam's apple too big. Reynolds was upbeat, because they told him he couldn't act. Eastwood didn't see why Reynolds was happy. "Hey, I can take acting lessons. You're stuck with that Adam's apple for the rest of your life!"
The famously harsh screen test results are yet another example of Nobody Knows Anything. Eastwood and Reynolds both made their mark on TV series, then moved on to be among the most bankable movie stars around. Fellow TV vet Steve McQueen could say the same. Reynolds doesn't work much, and does smaller roles when he does, but Gran Torino proves that at 78 years old, Clint Eastwood is a bankable movie star, both as an actor and director, since there isn't any other star in that film.
Does this mean the Gay Boys like Clint Eastwood? I don't know, hypothetical question asker, none of my gay friends have let me see the memo on this.
Tomorrow: Bankable Franchises.