When it comes to watching movies, we’ve had stars in our eyes for more than a century now. The Tom Cruise-control vehicle Knight and Day and the Adam Sandler & Co clown-car Grown Ups, both opening this week, are just the latest cosmetic comets shooting into theatres.
A movie universe without a star system seems unthinkable, but it did exist. Pre-1910, films relied on their company names, not star power. Directors and actors didn’t get credited (partly to prevent them demanding higher wages). Longer contracts meant more screen-time for some, though, and soon viewers were asking for names or mailing requests for photos. Reviewers joined in, lobby picture-posters followed, and the first fan mag popped up in 1911. The star system had landed, just as studios moved across the continent to Hollywood.
Flash-forward to today’s Entourage era, when stars have agents and negotiate their salaries or gross-percentages before even signing on to a picture, and the result is a dazzling mirage, celebrity aura blurring with name-brand marketing as the actual film trails behind. Look at Knight and Day and you see the movie, or at least trailer, obviously slipping in nods to the most recent incarnation of Tom Cruise in the public image-nation: the Cruise who jumped up on the couch with Oprah to zealously declare his love for his actress-wife. So he’s giving his eager smile while splayed out on a car hood, complimenting June (Cameron Diaz) on her “beautiful dress” before opening fire on some baddies, then grinning as he goes along with her in a diner, confirming “I’m the guy” before he slips on shades to off-handedly warn, “Please, for your own safety—stay in the booth.” Tweaked a little for dramatic purposes, this is the Cruise made out to be, in tabloids and on entertainment shows, on another wavelength, the slightly oddball, little bit loopy (with a swirl of whispers of his Scientology), too-enthusiastic (bordering-on-weird) star out-of-touch with the real world.
But Sandler and co. seem to be even more comfortably just playing themselves—or what we think are their real selves—in Grown Ups . On-screen, Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider and Kevin James are a bunch of child-men buddies joking around with each other, just as they seem to be off-screen when they’re on talk-shows promoting the picture. They comment, stand-up style, on kids not knowing how to play outdoors anymore or one pal’s May-December marriage; one of them has an obviously Hollywood trophy-wife (Salma Hayek as, basically, Salma Hayek); Sandler reverts to that jokey, slightly rumbling delivery he gives to lines when he’s in his most regular-joe-comic, at-home, Adam Sandler-ish roles. Their own childhood photos (presumably) are even used to show them as kids before their now grown-up roles.
The star system has become so accepted that it’s even tainted reviews—many critics spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing an actor or, worse, their perception of that actor based on their celebrity persona. Even that esteemed periodical of record The New Yorker is particularly guilty of this—in one recent round-up, “Male Call” , David Denby waxed erudite for one page about Edward Norton’s social concerns and “the actor he could be” and almost is in Leaves of Grass, then went on to consider City Island through the prism of Andy Garcia and gaze at The Bounty Hunter through the spectrum of light running from Gerard Butler to Gerard Butler.
Even though acting’s just one element of a film’s mise-en-scène (most journalists secretly know how true this is, since most interviews with actors make it clear that they often don’t have a good sense of the film as a whole), it’s been vaulted into the stratosphere. And however much the star system grew out of people’s demand for it, it’s now mutated into a beast that distorts people’s perception and interest in a film—for instance, there’s a generation of women (perhaps recalling his role in the Polanski rape case), who are utterly uninterested in seeing anything with Jack Nicholson in it. And then others—and not just teenage girls—will see a film just because a certain actor’s in it.
The Tom Cruise of late ’90s publicity-perception, though, or more precisely, his much-covered marriage with Nicole Kidman, was rather brilliantly used by Stanley Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut, which otherwise wouldn’t have drawn so many viewers (though it probably would have garnered better reviews, since many critics seemed to buy into the whole “overblown, arty, disappointing use of Cruise and Kidman” backlash against the film, including Andrew Sarris ). But Sandler’s own persona was probably a big reason why his going against type in an impressionist arthouse comedy didn’t help the box-office for P.T. Anderson’s masterpiece Punch-Drunk Love (though many critics found thee film to be the only saving grace for his otherwise irritating on-screen persona up to then).
One of the biggest problems with the star system may just be that it’s become impossible to tell if a role’s all just canny persona-playing and movie-marketing or genuinely having fun with distorted media image. It also means that actors who seem to be so obviously not playing themselves—a Nazi or obviously “not normal” person or, sometimes, uncannily impersonating a person more famous than themselves—often get the spotlight come awards time.
Apart from our culture’s schizoid relationship to celebrity—singing the praises of idols or happily dragging fallen ones through the mud—another big problem with the star system is that it tends to chew up and spit out actresses, who are so reduced to their image that their star power has a shorter battery-life. (The most erudite example of star system analysis may be French academic Roland Barthes’ essay “The Face of Garbo,” which explains just how much starlets were basically celluloid Aphrodites to be awestruck by even as Barthes buys, however eloquently, into the pseudo-religious mystique of the screen-star: “Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.” )
Nicholson, Eastwood and other actors are still going strong well into their 70s. Male stars seem to be more durable and bankable not just because of the basic sexism of the industry—more starring, complex roles for men—but also because many female stars get more tarred and brushed by the tabloids: as spurned (e.g. Aniston) or betraying (e.g. Jolie) or sluttish/washed-up sex-star/wreck (e.g. too many in the last week alone to count). There’s also the stereotype of men being more complex actors. Starting with Brando and running through De Niro, Pacino, Depp, Day-Lewis, and perhaps now Gosling, we’re told that it’s men, particularly, who turn acting into such deep craft, disappearing into their roles, finding a new kind of method-acting in their talent-madness (for instance, count the number of method non-men that David Thomson mentions here). And most of these top stars are white (Will Smith and Denzel Washington are exceptions that only prove the rule, since they usually play characters who are utterly palatable to white North America).
The system has made for more viciously segregated films, too: foreign films, Sundance films, and documentaries may as well be called non-star films in most cases. But perhaps what we gave, we can take away—audiences launched the star system with their demands back in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and only audiences can bring it back down to earth. Or maybe we don’t want to? Perhaps we’re happy to have celebrity-actor personas to be irritated or beguiled or fascinated or reviled by, and we go to see a movie because it’s like watching someone we sort of think we know act a little bit like what we expect—a kind of false front in an already untrue tale that only helps us escape our too-real lives even more.
SCENE-AGAIN/DEJA-VUED: In Pixar’s Toy Story 3, out now, a big baby is one of the tyrannical toys guarding the daycare in which Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang find themselves imprisoned. The baby seems an obvious nod to Hayao Miyazaki’s big, needy baby, Boh, stomping and storming about his mother’s apartment in Spirited Away (2001). John Lasseter, one of the chief shot-callers at Pixar and a co-writer of TS3, has long admired and been inspired by Miyazaki (Lasseter also produced the English-language releases of Miyazaki’s last three films: Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo). TS3 also includes a more overt reference to Miyazaki in its brief inclusion, in one scene, of the creature Totoro from Miyazaki’s 1989 film My Neighbour Totoro.
In Miyazaki’s film, the baby is needier, whinier, and yet both more morally ambivalent and metamorophosing a figure than the malevolent henchman that is Big Baby in TS3 (though Big Baby does turn change his malevolent ways towards the end, out of a sad, remembered need for its first owner). But Boh, the film suggests, has been made so plaintive and selfish by his coddling mother. Both babies are scary takes on just how strange and self-absorbed babies seem to us, being the fairly helpless, pre-linguistic creatures they are, though perhaps the slightly demonic seed of such inimical infants is the Duchess’ baby in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which howls away before gruntingly becoming a pig (Alice sets him down and he trots off, never to be seen again). That baby is better not seen and not heard, reflecting the casual treatment of children—what we’d consider neglect today—in times of high infant mortality and child labour. Today, children are so hypocritically sanctified and privileged by our mainstream society (not to mention marketed to by movies) that it may seem all the stranger for a poor, defenceless baby to be made so malevolent in a movie—precisely the disturbing, thought-provoking, counter-cultural effect that, I think, both Spirited Away and TS3 were going for with their inimical infants.