Hollywood Without Stars?

The movie capital of the world has not produced a really big star - one whose name alone is enough to fill the movie theaters - for more than a decade. The search goes on for successors to Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise

A popular Hollywood story relates that there are five stages in the life of every movie star: 1. Who's Hugh O'Brian? 2. Get me Hugh O'Brian! 3. Get me someone like Hugh O'Brian! 4. Get me a new Hugh O'Brian! 5. Who's Hugh O'Brian? (Incidentally, Hugh O'Brian was an actual actor who has long since passed beyond the fifth stage. In the 1960s he was promised glorious stardom, but his career rapidly declined.)

Two of the biggest stars of the last decade and a half, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, are a t the fourth stage, according to that Hollywood model. Even if their careers falter, it is reasonable to assume that their names will not be forgotten any time soon. Still, such things have happened before. According to surveys, most American youth have never heard of Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant.

The U.S. media, including a cover article that appeared in Entertainment Weekly about a month ago, and the many television shows devoted to the American entertainment industry, report that Hollywood is desperately searching for young successors to Hanks, Roberts, and the other stars who have ruled the Hollywood roost since the early 1990s or even late `80s. And they are not finding them.

Tobey Maguire and the look-alikes

There is no shortage of candidates: Colin Farrell and Jake Gyllenhaal, Kate Hudson and Tobey Maguire, Orlando Bloom and Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Mark Ruffalo, and even Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, the stars of the romantic drama, "The Notebook," which became a surprising success. The feeling, however, is that they are not the real thing, and that not one of the actors on the list will be able to fill the vacuum at the top when the careers of Hanks and Roberts, and even of Tom Cruise, begin to fade.

First of all, some of those actors have already been in films for a long while, and if it hasn't happened by now, it isn't going to. If Kate Hudson has not become the new Julia Roberts, or even the new Goldie Hawn (her real-life mother) - despite her Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2000 for her role in "Almost Famous" - it is not going to happen. And if Jake Gyllenhaal has still not found the movie that would make him the new Tom Cruise, he is not likely to.

Secondly, none of those actors is able, not now and perhaps not ever, to do the one and only thing that would establish him or her as a big film star: to "open a movie," as they call it in the American film industry; to reach the point where his or her name alone is enough to have the crowds flock to the theaters on the first weekend of the movie's release (the critical moment that determines its success or failure at the box-office). Audiences will still go to see "Tom Cruise's latest film," or "Julia Roberts' latest film," but nobody as yet thinks that you simply cannot miss "Orlando Bloom's latest film" or "Kirsten Dunst's latest film" (even though she starred in "Spider-Man 2," one of the blockbusters of the past summer).

"Spider-Man 2" is an interesting case study of Hollywood stardom. There is no doubt that audiences love Tobey Maguire, who plays the lead in the film (as he did in the first "Spider-Man"), and stars in several other popular films, like "The Cider House Rules" and "Seabiscuit." Nevertheless, when word got out, a few months before production of "Spider-Man 2" began, that Maguire might be replaced by Jake Gyllenhaal, surveys showed that audiences were indifferent. The profits, it may be assumed, would have been similar had a new actor taken on the role of Peter Parker.

Big names and brand names

Summer is the most profitable season for the film studios, and the summer movies are the best litmus test of Hollywood stardom. Along with "Spider-Man 2," "Shrek 2" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" were among the big hits of summer 2000, and their success was entirely independent of big stars. (It is true that the soundtrack of "Shrek 2" featured the voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz, all three popular stars, but that was not the main reason for the movie's success: their presence was no guarantee.

In the opinion of American film industry insiders, the success of these three films is proof of the erosion of the status of the movie star, whose presence is no longer a necessary condition for a film to become a hit. The question is a bit more complex, however. All three films are sequels, a category that never depended on the appearance of big stars. The best example, perhaps, is "Star Wars," which boasted no big names in any of the original three movies, or in the sequels made in the last few years. (Harrison Ford only became famous after his appearance in the early movies of the series.) With regard to sequels, the title of the film becomes a brand-name (or it was already a brand-name beforehand, like "Harry Potter" and "Spider-Man"), and the brand name is the real star.

Still, when a movie flops, there is a tendency in Hollywood to blame it on the presence or absence of stars. The same experts who interpret the success of "Spider-Man 2," "Shrek 2" and Harry Potter 3" as proof of the reduced status of film stars, claim in the same breath that if "King Arthur" had had high-recognition names in its cast, instead of the unfamiliar (to American audiences) Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, it might not have ended up as one of the summer's biggest failures.

Typically enough, the examples are contradictory. "The Bourne Supremacy" (sequel to "The Bourne Identity" of 2002) was hugely successful, grossing almost $50 million on its first weekend. The conventional wisdom was not to credit Matt Damon as the lead with the triumph, despite his popularity. In contrast, Will Smith, one of the few big male stars under the age of 40 - Tom Cruise is 42, Tom Hanks 48, Denzel Washington 49, and Harrison Ford 62 - is credited with the success of "I, Robot," which grossed a very similar sum on its first weekend. In other words, the way the American film industry relates to stardom is extremely ambivalent.

The legacy of Julia Roberts

The picture changes again when the talk is of female stars, whose careers tend to be shorter than those of the men. Julia Roberts was just 36 when she starred in her most recent release, "Mona Lisa Smile" (2003). Yet the publicity people were at pains to promote the three younger actresses who appeared alongside her - Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal - as Roberts' potential heirs. When the co-stars spoke in interviews of their admiration for Roberts, one might think they were talking of someone of at least the age and experience of Judi Dench.

In Hollywood, Julia Roberts' career is in a very delicate position for a woman approaching 40 who has not only been a star for 14 years, but has been the only big star to emerge in all that time. In fact, there are those who confess themselves puzzled by the way Julia Roberts has managed her career since its climax in 2000, when she won an Oscar for her role in "Erin Brockovich." She subsequently starred in "America's Sweethearts," which had some success but added little to her reputation; had a minor role in "Ocean's Eleven" (as she does in its sequel, "Ocean's Twelve," due to be released in another few weeks); and played in a number of unusual independent productions, like "The Mexican," "Full Frontal" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."

At this point in her career, it will be very interesting to see the fate of Roberts' next film, "Closer," directed by Mike Nichols, and due to be released before the winter. Last year's "Mona Lisa Smile" signaled her return to the Hollywood mainstream, but the movie, though successful, was not the hit that her earlier ones had been. And what is certain is that it didn't turn Dunst, Stiles and Gyllenhaal into Julia Roberts.

Tom Cruise in underpants

In truth, when did we last witness the birth of a star? When did we last experience something like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), Tom Cruise in "Risky Business" (1983), Julia Roberts in all her glory in "Pretty Woman" (1990), or Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct" (1992), which made her one of the best intelligent blondes in movie history? (Since then, she has appeared in progressively less memorable films. One can only regret that she wasn't a star in the era of Alfred Hitchcock, who would have known what to do with her.)

Generally it takes just one screen moment to create a star: Travolta walking down a Brooklyn street in the opening scene of John Badham's film; Tom Cruise dancing in underpants in Paul Brickman's film; Roberts removing her blonde wig in Gary Marshall's film, and revealing herself to Richard Gere - and us - in all her natural charm; and Sharon Stone crossing her legs and insisting on smoking in the police scene of Paul Verhoeven's film.

Add to this list Meg Ryan, who achieved stardom a year before Roberts, thanks to the orgasm scene in Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally." It is true, as the critics said, that the scene was out of character and inappropriate, but it was done so well and with so much charm on Ryan's part, that one can ignore the criticism. The outcome was to ensure Ryan's star status, which continued until a few years ago, and then began to dissipate miserably.

In those moments we fell in love with Travolta, Cruise, Ryan and Roberts. And more: our curiosity about them as dramatic heroes, both in their private and their public lives, were beyond and separate from their movies - and infatuation and curiosity are the stuff of stardom.

DiCaprio is sinking

The last time it happened was seven years ago, when "Titanic" turned Leonardo DiCaprio into a star, the likes of which had not been seen for years. Like Roberts and Cruise, DiCaprio's stardom was not an overnight phenomenon. He had already appeared in a number of films before James Cameron propelled him to super-star status. Four years earlier, he was even nominated for an Oscar, for his supporting role in Lasse Hallstrom's film "What's Eating Gilbert Grape."

But DiCaprio failed to exploit the success of "Titanic" to establish his star status. After the blockbuster, he turned down a role in a high-budget, effects-loaded action film, in favor of films that interested him (like "The Beach," which flopped), or directors he admired - like Woody Allen ("Celebrity"), Steven Spielberg ("Catch Me If You Can") and Martin Scorsese ("Gangs of New York"; and now "The Aviator," a biography of the young Howard Hughes, due for release just before the next Academy Awards). Some of those films were successful, but DiCaprio himself is no longer a star that "opens a movie." In fact he never was.

The last few years have produced many actors who became stars - Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, even Ben Affleck - but none of them is regarded as a guaranteed box-office success on the strength of their name alone, although all four have won Academy Awards. Even the Oscars themselves, despite the ever-increasing hype that surrounds them, are not what they once were. Neither Gwyneth Paltrow ("Shakespeare In Love," 1998) nor Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball," 2001) became stars who could open a film, (i.e, their names alone would guarantee success) despite their Oscars for Best Actress. Berry even starred in one of the worst flops of this summer, "Catwoman." . A similar fate may be predicted for Charlize Theron, who won an Oscar for her lead role in "Monster" (2003), but was not instantly transformed into a star whose name alone would fill the cinemas.

Almost the only new star who was able to "open a film" in the last few years was the bright-eyed, sharp-chinned Reese Witherspoon. Several of her films ("Legally Blonde"; "Sweet Home Alabama") became hits, but in her case as well there is no sense that she has the charm and substance to become a superstar like Julia Roberts.

There are several reasons for the serious dearth of new stars. Stars are not made in a vacuum, and John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts would not have become stars if the movies that propelled them to stardom had not used them so intelligently. Each star was born before our very eyes, both as a character and as an image. They burst forth unexpectedly: no one predicted that Travolta, Cruise and Roberts would become stars, and part of the excitement that accompanied their transformation was the element of surprise. Today, the publicity machine demands stardom even before the candidate has proven his or her worth. Almost every young actor, before his first film debut, is already declared to be the next Tom - Hanks or Cruise, your choice. It happens over and over, even though the method never works. Hollywood refuses to learn from experience.

Everyone's a star

Another immediate reason for the truly big stars fading is the inflated number of stars altogether. The only reason for their status is their fame; and in an era of reality series, and the wealth of television programs that deal with what's happening in the American entertainment industry, whoever is exposed in the limelight for even a moment becomes an instant star. There is something discouraging and even startling in the fact that even I, here in Israel, know who Paris Hilton is, and even Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who became one of the most hated women in America through her participation in Donald Trump's reality program, "The Apprentice." What has that got to do with us? All the new programs, which faithfully follow everything that moves in the American entertainment world, are supposed to assist the transformation of actors into stars, but in fact they do just the opposite. Overexposure, especially when it turns out that there was no justification for it, only creates resistance to the actor.

For years, cinema theory has had difficulty answering the question of what turns an actor into a star. It was recognized that there is a mystical element to the phenomenon, and for a long time the conventional wisdom was that stars were actors with "something extra." Over-exposure turns those with that kind of potential from actors with something special (or even mystical) that needs to be revealed gradually, into disposable products. In such a reality, it is no wonder that almost no stars are born any more.

Perhaps, on the other hand, the reality has changed, and films today succeed or fail less because of their stars, and more because of a variety of other reasons. In other words, th e product itself is the decisive factor, and not just one element within it. There may be advantages to that - the star system that dominated Hollywood for so many years did not always contribute to the success of the movies produced there - but those advantages, if they exist, are accompanied by a sense of loss. They neutralize a large part of the old magic and tension of cinema as an adventure that renewed itself with the appearance of every new star.