Angelina Jolie is the woman most likely to be covering the tabloids in your CVS checkout line. She's heralded as the only woman in Hollywood who can carry an action film. Johnny Depp is ranked the Most Powerful Person in Hollywood, the highest earning actor of 2010, and only recently was forced to abdicate his reign as People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive. They are—right now—the most famous actress and actor in the world. And they are starring together in a film, The Tourist, which comes out on Friday.
It sounds like a moviegoer's (and, especially, a studio executive's) dream: a collaboration between two of the most buzzed about, most attractive, most profitable people in the world. But history shows us that movies headlined by Hollywood's two biggest stars aren't surefire hits. Cases in point: 1963's Cleopatra and 2001's The Mexican.
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It's a rare occurrence for stars of this magnitude to align at exactly the time they are most bright (ask an astronomist, really). We're not talking about the teaming of two charming A-list actors, like Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal starring in a mostly nude romp about degenerative disease and Viagra. We're talking about people with Oprah Winfrey levels of fame. In year 2010, that is undeniably Depp and Jolie. There are perhaps only two examples in cinematic history that parallel this pairing: Julia Roberts teaming with Brad Pitt in The Mexican and Elizabeth Taylor playing opposite Richard Burton in Cleopatra. In the case of both ventures, the two stars collided, combusted, and left behind of supernova of studio executives, agents, and journalists wondering what in the world went wrong.
With the case of Cleopatra, the excitement of landing such exorbitantly renowned stars for the leads led to an exorbitantly overblown production. Taylor's unprecedented $1 million salary ballooned to $7 million after production delays an other set backs caused filming to span four years—that's close to $47 million in today's world. As the stars became attached to the project and hype that it could become the next cinematic masterpiece built, executives funneled money into the production. Too many egos became involved; the film ended up costing $44 million to make and originally screened at six hours long. Though it was the year's highest grosser at $26 million domestically, it still posted a loss because of the huge budget. The film was a critical disaster, ended the popularity of the "sword and sandal" epics of the '50s, caused a shift from studios funding films on their own to independent production companies, and, thanks to a tawdry, headline grabbing affair between Taylor and Burton, ruined the two stars' reputations.
When Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts teamed for The Mexican in 2001, she was regularly opening $100+ million grossing films and had just won an Oscar; he was the charmer with matinee idol looks garnering critical acclaim with films like Fight Club and Snatch, gracing the cover of Sexiest Man Alive for a second time in 2000. The two had been looking for a vehicle to collaborate on, and settled on The Mexican, decidedly more of a road-trip adventure film than a romantic comedy. But with the world's two biggest stars on board, the movie was heavily promoted as one of Roberts typically winning romances, a sort of false advertising. Both critics and audiences saw right through it; The Mexican earned only $66 million—behind films like Cats & Dogs and Dr. Dolittle 2—and was critically trashed.
It's unclear how exactly The Tourist will fair. Not every pairing of Hollywood behemoths is an unmitigated failure: Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart were quite lovely in The African Queen, undeniably a successful film. But fame in 2010 is completely different from when Hepburn and Bogart ruled Tinseltown in 1951. They were stars beloved for the quality and success of their films. Sure, there was personal intrigue (Hepburn's affairs with Spencer Tracy, Howard Hughes...), but the amount of tabloid coverage given to stars' personal lives and the 24/7 press watch under which they are scrutinized and exploited has increased exponentially in the past 50 years—even in the decade since The Mexican. Depp and Jolie only need to look at Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez's Gigli to see that gossip rag fame doesn't translate to box office (or critical) success.
The Tourist's prognosis is already not good. It's being rolled out in almost 1,000 fewer theaters than the weekend's other wide release...a Chronicles of Narnia sequel. The first smattering of reviews have accrued a paltry 23 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, a number that's not likely to get fresher as more critiques come in. The two stars looks so ethereally beautiful in the promos for the film, as if they were airbrushed onto the Venice and Paris backdrops their characters gallivant through. They almost look fake. Maybe that's the lesson here: with so much fame in one frame, it's hard to view a film believably. Both are Oscar-caliber actors (she has one; he's been nominated), so good separately. But together, their trip with the Tourist doesn't look like one to send postcards home about.