They Don't Make Movie Stars Like They Used To

Two recent articles claim that the movie star as we know is going the way of the dodo. Old models and paradigms are crumbling and a new, megastar-less world is emerging. And they're right. The days of Julia and Tom are ending, perhaps already ended. And the younger generation of famous actors are struggling to take their place. Or maybe aren't even trying to.

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Two recent articles claim that, in various ways, the movie star as we know is going the way of the dodo. Old models and paradigms are crumbling and a new, megastar-less world is emerging. And they're right. The days of Julia and Tom are ending, perhaps already ended. And the younger generation of famous actors are struggling to take their place. Or maybe aren't even trying to. While both of these new articles primarily focus on women in the industry, it's happening to the men, too.

The Hollywood Reporter's take on the matter is that older actresses are suddenly reigning supreme, with 40-and-over stars like Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Cameron Diaz, and Meryl Streep getting movies made, and in many cases commanding huge salaries. And this is true! This is definitely happening and it is exciting. Who isn't happy about the fact that a film actress's career doesn't have to end at 40 the way it used to? That was terrible, and went on for way too long. Just think of what Debra Winger could have done if the system hadn't scared her off. But beneath all that celebration is the other curious change in Hollywood: The dearth of younger stars coming up behind the older ones.

Sure there are a few, talented and likable folks like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone, but THR points out that these younger women aren't nearly as popular as those twenty-plus years older than them:

Bullock, Julia Roberts, 45, and Streep are the three film actresses with the highest Q scores, with Bullock scoring 89 percent in recognition and a 41 Q score. By contrast, though their scores are higher among younger respondents, among all adults over 18, newly minted Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence rate Q scores of 20 and 15, respectively, while Twilight's Kristen Stewart checks in at just 10.

The best explanation for this is that the Baby Boomers are getting older and they're the ones most likely to go see movies in the theater. So as they get older, their taste in actors gets older with them. Thus they might like Silver Linings Playbook, but that nice girl who won the award doesn't register in the same way that tried-and-true Sandra Bullock does in The Blind Side. For younger people, obviously that nice girl is Katniss Everdeen, savior of Hogwarts or whatever. But most of those kids aren't going to go see a Jennifer Lawrence movie just because she's Jennifer Lawrence. That's not really how they consume things, it doesn't seem. (Remember all the craziness about Taylor Lautner in Twilight? And then remember how all those crazy, obsessive fans stayed home en masse for his big solo effort Abduction, essentially killing his nascent movie career?) It's possible that these younger actresses will become bigger, more traditionally "bankable" stars once they and their fans get a little older, but it's also possible that the "traditional" star is an irretrievable thing of the past.

The New York Times is suggesting just that today, noting how women's magazines are featuring fewer and fewer movie actresses on their covers, in lieu of musicians and television stars. Magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour used to rely on big splashy movie star issues to move copies at newstands, but now it's all reality heroes like Lauren Conrad and the Kardashians, or TV/music crossover acts like Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus. The rise of quality, obsession-stoking television, also heavily referenced in THR's article, has shifted attention to the stars of that medium, frequently accessible and intimate as they are. An Entertainment Weekly editor tells the Times that TV stars are more likely to interact with their fans on things like Twitter, sending out links to their magazine covers and thus moving more copies. So there's that element to the shift.

But also, as new Cosmo editor Joanna Coles tells the Times, "There are a lot of movies right now that don’t speak to women." Indeed, the Times points to a study that found that only 28 percent of the speaking roles in "the nation's top movies" in 2012 were women. That's pretty darn low! Now, you'd think that that would mean that the scarcity of roles would create a few bright, burning megastars, but that hasn't really happened. It might, Jennifer Lawrence perhaps being the strongest candidate, but the kind of movies that make people Julia Roberts-level movie stars don't seem to come around as often as they used to. Jennifer Lawrence's Pretty Woman or Emma Stone's While You Were Sleeping might be just around the corner, but it seems more likely that they'll continue to feature in huge franchises that are way bigger than their stars, Hunger Games and Spider-Man respectively. Those movies certainly get their names out there, but don' quite engender the same fervor as, say, Top Gun did for Tom Cruise. Maybe nothing will, maybe as the Internet shines a harsh light on the once faraway mystery and allure of Hollywood, we just won't revere movie stars as highly as we once did.

Speaking of Mr. Cruise, let's remember that this change isn't just affecting women. Esquire pondered a dearth of new male movie stars last year, and the Times article notes that men's magazines like Details still like putting big movie stars on their covers, but that it's mostly the older guys like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp (both turning 50 this year). Most of the big hitters are getting gray; studio staples like Denzel Washington, George Clooney, and Tom Hanks are all in their mid-to-late 50s. (Well, OK, Clooney's 52.) At 44, Will Smith still potentially has a good number of years ahead of him, but his After Earth was a high profile bomb, and there's a vague sense that public sentiment has turned against him. And then behind him is who, exactly? Shia LaBeouf fizzled out. Ryan Reynolds never quite got there. Obviously Ryan Gosling enjoys a lot of good will, but his movie track record is spotty at best, box office-wise. There are slightly older guys like Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg who still do pretty well, and then there's Gosling's Place Beyond the Pines costar Bradley Cooper. But can we really count Bradley Cooper on the level of a Pitt, a Cruise, a Depp? I'm not so sure. And the same goes for DiCaprio and Wahlberg, I think. So if this is really happening to both genders, albeit in different ways, then why is it happening? What's the cause of our sudden movie starlessness?

Well, the game has changed. The big movies are all franchises based on cultural properties, less star vehicles than spectacle machines. The Avengers can make someone like Chris Hemsworth famous, but it doesn't make him a box office draw exactly. (We'll see how his Ron Howard racing drama Rush fares this fall.) Certain comedies can rocket people into the mainstream — Melissa McCarthy, Jonah Hill — but it's been a while since we've had another Will Ferrell, who opened a string of successful movies rather than just one breakout hit. And then there are indies, which could-be-bigger actors like Ryan Gosling and Jennifer Lawrence seem determined to mix in with the commercial stuff. That's good and all, but during her big late '80s to mid '90s run, the most indie thing Julia Roberts did was a Robert Altman film. The mix probably makes them better actors, but it doesn't turn them into the money-machine supernovas that we used to have in days of old.

There's both a good and a bad to this development. On the one hand it's great that big actors feel free to switch back and forth between big and small movies. That means interesting scripts and talented newcomer directors get more attention, and that actors get to stretch themselves in often fascinating ways. But on the other hand, it means we get fewer studio movies (meaning movies that everyone can see in the theater, across the land) in the star-driven mid-budget vein. Major studio movies are becoming way bigger, and thus more distant, divorced from the personal. That trend was more a cause than a symptom of the shrinking of the movie star, but ultimately it's all related in a loop. The fewer dependable box office draws there are, the more the studios look toward mega-budget franchise stuff that isn't reliant on huge stars. The more those movies do well, the less incentive the studios have to go smaller and slightly riskier. Small movies soldier on and enormous ones flourish, but everything in the middle begins to evaporate.

But really, all is not so drastic as it may seem. After all, we have Channing Tatum, don't we? Of all the people mentioned so far, I think he has the most megastar potential. He does dramas, comedies, thrillers, and action movies all with the same conviction and likability. And his movies are hits, for the most part. That's pretty rare these days. Jennifer Lawrence is much the same way, and has an Oscar to boot. So those two might be our best hopes for the next big things. What remains to be seen, of course, is just how big they'll get.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.