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“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” It’s taken 60 years, but the movies have delivered a $2bn riposte to Norma Desmond’s famous put down in SUNSET BOULEVARD. The pictures have been getting much bigger. So big, in fact, that they cannot be constrained by a mere two dimensions.
And James Cameron’s Avatar has been the big blue daddy of them all, breaking all records for box office revenue and crossing the $2bn landmark in just seven weeks. “With this crazy, ambitious flight of fancy, Cameron has effectively killed off the movie star,” said the Times, a view held by a great many in the media. The stars-if we can still describe them as such-will now have to get used to playing second fiddle to CGI and gargantuan franchises, goes the theory.
There is more than a grain of truth in all of this. Since the collapse of the hedge fund boom in Hollywood two years ago, movie stars have had to face some harsh realities. The studios have bet their future on giant global franchises and 3-D, and the stars themselves are smaller. The acid test is whether any customer now cites the name of the star as the primary motive for going to a film, as they used to do for the likes of Humphrey Bogart.
The conservatism of film financiers is making it harder for newcomers.
These things work in cycles, however. The triumph of high-concept or grand-franchise films will last precisely as long as the boredom threshold of audiences allows it. Stardom-for all the fairy dust-is basically an economic unit. If people will part with tickets just to watch an actor, a star is born and the fees go soaring. But a couple of fundamental changes are happening. Firstly, the lèse majesté culture has brought the movie gods down to earth. We’ve seen their cellulite, their skin conditions and been exposed to their loopy religious views. (CGI creations don’t go ape on the chat show sofa, for example.)
Which brings us to the key point. Who wants to make that Faustian pact to become a star when you can be a respected actor, or indeed producer? Back in Gloria Swanson’s day stars lived in gilded cages, their lives and their images micromanaged. Now the big movie names can start their own film companies, appear on Broadway or in the West End, take on interesting roles that defiantly play against type. Actors still matter-try getting money for a film project with a cast of unknowns. In fact, the conservatism of film financiers in the current economic climate is making it harder for newcomers to break through. But widely recognised actors have power of a different kind right now, if the mansion on the hill and a paparazzi tented village outside the gate is not a prime motivation. There are any number of British actors, for example, able to attract big parts in the franchises without losing their arthouse credentials or the choice of roles.
Perhaps the greatest inspiration should be an actor who was also a star of the old world; Clint Eastwood, who looks to be in thorough command of his own destiny. Stars may be smaller and pictures bigger, but a three-dimensional life and career certainly has a lot going for it. ♦
Related: The True Value of Star Power
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 16 (March/April 2010)
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