Monday, February 18, 2008

The Only John Wayne Left in This Town

I often hear the complaint, mostly from younger folks (not that I am too old myself, but I neatly straddle two different ages of culture) or people who are only casual movie fans, that the classic movie stars of the 30's through the 60's "only play themselves over and over again".

They complain that they don't really act, etc... etc...

The problem of course is they have a lack of exposure to true movie stars.

Some actors, no matter how great they are; have such a unique and forceful screen presence, that it always shines through, and colors your perception of their performance.

Often even people who are serious movie fans, but who prefer method acting, will say of the old movie stars “he was just playing himself again”, or "he just didn't disappear into the role" or somesuch.

I have heard people who really should know better say of Olivier in Hamlet, that "he was too old, I jsut couldnt believe him as Hamlet and other such drivel. The POINT of Hamlet isnt photorealistic simulation; it's expression.

True stars; those who have both ability and presence; EXPRESS the character, in a way that lesser actors simply could not. This is why Cary Grant, and Humphry Bogart are true greats; and why Hugh Grant and Brad Pitt are not.

Now, certainly there are cases where these criticisms are warranted. There is certainly typecasting, and "vehicle casting" and all those ways that movies are made on the strength of the stars personality alone (much of the aforementioned Cary Grants work for example - though certainly not all); but the fact is, some actors even when delivering a great, and completely “out of character” for them performance, their presence comes through.

We call those people stars.

The problem is there aren’t very many true stars today; and even fewer who are also great actors.

Hollywood of the 30's through 60s was a starmaking machine. There was a system by which young actors could become stock players, and get real experience and exposure; building time, learning, and paying their dues on contract; until, if they HAD IT, they would become a true star.

John Wayne made 75 movie appearances, including 44 speaking parts; before he was cast in a star making role (1939s stagecoach). That simply could not happen in film today (though it is still customary in the stage world).

Actually, what’s really sad is, in part because of those criticisms; but also simply because in the 1970s the style, feel, cinematography, writing, and direction of popular cinema all radically changed; how many stars get dismissed as actors, even though they are both.

The 70's changed everything really. Almost overnight (well, from about '65 til about '75 really, but culturally that's a pretty short time frame) film moved from being essentially stage plays with bigger sets, into trying to be more representative of "truth and reality".

Also, the director became far more important in the process; with directors like Scorcese and Cassavetes incorporating the cinema verite ethos. This marks the rise of the "auteur" director in popular film (as had been the case in art films for the previous 20 years); as those directors and producers (and to some extent actors) steeped in that school, took over the controls of the hollywood train. .

At the same time, the Stanislawski/Adler schools of emotive experience based method acting, came to completely dominate the leading actors. It really began with Brando in the 50s; but by the 70s, excepting a few holdouts from an earlier era, and a few people who just had star power on their own (say, Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood), basically every major actor was a method actor; even those you wouldn't expect (like Gene Hackman for example)

In the mean while, the traditional stars (and character actors for that matter); with their stage oriented acting technique and style. were pushed aside.

They didn't change, directors did, and films did along with them. The quality hadn't changed; just the style.

Some people persist in believing that this change is objectively "better" than the older style. That newer films are more "real", and actors "disappear into their characters".

Well who ever said that was better? This new style isn't necessarily better (though of course sometimes it is), the older style isn't worse, it's just different; as film, and stage plays are different.

This left the Cary Grants of the world being dismissed as corny, old fashioned; and even unskilled, or just plain "bad" actors, which couldn't be further from the truth.

How many people do you know today under the age of 50, who know that Carey Grant could really act (or for that matter have more than the barest perception of who he is); or have a more than caricature like image of Jimmy Stewart, stammering through "it's a wonderful life"?

The stereotypical example of this is of course John Wayne. If you aren’t a serious John Wayne fan, you probably have a somewhat cartoonish view of him; and indeed, some of his most popular performances were simply restatements of his other characters, which reinforces this perception.

But if you know better; John Wayne was truly a great actor.

There are a few John Wayne movies you absolutely MUST watch, if you want to understand Wayne as an actor, and not just as “John Wayne”: “Red River”, “Rio Bravo”, “True Grit”, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", “The Searchers”, and “The Shootist” (other would also recommend "The Quiet Man", but I think you're seeing Wayne play and show more of himself there than a character).

I still have a hard time deciding which character moves me more, Ethan Edwards, or J.B. Books. Either one easily ranks in the top 100 film performances by any actor, ever.

That isn't to say the stars are gone completely; but they just aren't as "bright" now. They aren't as big, and they certainly aren't as prolific.

John Wayne had the starring role in 141 major feature films; had at least one leading role every year from 1939 to 1976; and was in the top ten in box office receipts every single year but one, from 1956 to 1974. Cary Grant had 70 someodd starring roles over 35 years. Clark Gable had around 70 over 35 years as well.

George Clooney, by most peoples estimation todays single biggest star in the classic hollywood mold; has only starred in 19, in a career that has thus far spanned almost 30 years. Tom Hanks, the biggest hollywood earner of all time has had about 25 starring roles in the same time period. Harrison Ford has grossed about the same, for about the same number of roles, starting in 1976.

But still, we have our stars. Some of them could even fit into the classic Hollywood roles; say if we were remaking some of the great films from the 30's through the 60's.

Any old movie starring Carey Grant, you can sub in George Clooney. He won’t be as good, but he can pull it off.

For Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper, we’ve got Ed Harris or Harrison ford.

For Montgomery Clift or Alan Ladd, we’ve got Viggo Mortenson; and god help us, Matt Damon ("The Talented Mr. Ripley", "Rounders", "The Departed", "The Good Shepherd..." now shut up - I didn't want to admit it either OK)

For David Niven, we’ve got Pierce Brosnan.

For Jimmy Stewart we’ve got Nick Cage.

Will Smith is no Sidney Poitier; but he is unquestionably a star, and he really can act.

Tom Selleck can almost, but not quite, pull off John Wayne; and any number of other classic western, and tough guy roles. He can pull off Cooper as well.

Kevin Spacey just has an overall old time movie star thing going on; he could pull off any number of the classic roles (and in fact has, on stage).

Then of course there's Jack Nicholson, and Morgan Freeman; two men who are both great stars, and great actors; but they really qualify as an earlier generation (the both turned 70 last month).

Anyway, not great substitutes, but serviceable.

The real problem is in the women. Catherine Zeta Jones, and Renee Zellweger are good; but just not even close to the great woman of the golden age.

They’re just outclassed in every way (except maybe physical fitness); and I mean that both literally and figuratively.

There is no woman today even on the same stage as Catherine Hepburn, or Audry Hepburn (amazing how two unrelated women with the same name can be so diametricaly opposed in character, yet so alike in it simultaneously) , or Bette Davis, or Grace Kelly, or Barbara Stanwyck, or Rosalind Russell… I could go on.

I didn’t quite realize how bad off we were in the actress department until a few days ago. I looked up the top grossing actors and actresses of all time, and here’s the list:
  1. Julia Roberts
  2. Cameron Diaz
  3. Kirsten Dunst
  4. Kathy Bates
  5. Halle Berry
  6. Drew Barrymore
  7. Emma Watson
  8. Nicole Kidman
  9. Natalie Portman
  10. Liv Tyler
  11. Keira Knightly
  12. Meryl Streep
  13. Michelle Pfeiffer
  14. Jada Pinkett Smith
  15. Sandra Bullock
  16. Cate Blanchett
  17. Meg Ryan
  18. Queen Latifah
  19. Renee Zellweger
  20. Catherine Zeta Jones
  21. Judie Dench
  22. Angelina Jolie
  23. Bonnie Hunt
  24. Susan Sarandon
  25. Julianne Moore
  26. Demi More
  27. Glenn Close
  28. Famke Janssen
  29. Helen Hunt
  30. Kate Winslett
  31. Jodie Foster
  32. Anna Paquin
  33. Carre Ann Moss
  34. Joan Allen
  35. Kate Beckinsale
  36. Marissa Tomei
That’s every single woman in the top 150 grossing actors list by the way; all 36 of them.

Now, look at that list, and tell me, who’s a true movie star? By which I mean they can pull off being lead in a BIG movie (sorry guys, horror and SF don't count here. They allow for a much smaller star actor; because the scenario is really the star), and carry that picture all on their own?
  1. Julia Roberts
  2. Angelina Jolie
Drew Barrymore, Nicole Kidman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renee Zellweger, and Catherine Zeta Jones, maybe a couple others, are or were all close at their peak, but they really couldn’t truly carry a BIG film entirely on their own (sometimes they do well with smaller movies, especially Barrymore)... in fact most of them have tried, and failed.

Ok, easier task; who on that list can REALLY match up with a great leading man? Who can stand up there, and not be blown off the screen?
  1. Julia Roberts
  2. Angelina Jolie
  3. Drew Barrymore
  4. Nicole Kidman
  5. Michelle Pfeiffer
  6. Renee Zellweger
  7. Catherine Zeta Jones
  8. Keira Knightly
  9. Meryl Streep
  10. Cate Blanchett
  11. Judie Dench
  12. Susan Sarandon
  13. Julianne Moore
  14. Glenn Close
  15. Helen Hunt
  16. Kate Winslett
  17. Jodie Foster
  18. Queen Latifah
A lot more; but still less than 20…

Now I can think of a few more who could go up on that second list, but who aren’t in the top 150 grossing actors… Gena Davis, Emma Thompson, Ellen Barkin, Dianne Keaton, Annette Benning, Kate Hudson, or Sigourney Weaver; in fact I could probably go on for a while... but those are all second fiddles, not the true stars.

I can’t really think of any more women who are true movie stars; and not one of those women could come close to matching EITHER Hepburn for guts, brains, wit, charm, grace, or presence.

Is there a single actress today, of the appropriate age to be a lead; who you can imagine going up against Cary Grant in "Bringing up Baby" or "His Girl Friday" or "The Philadelphia Story"?

How about holding their own against Spencer Tracy, in ANY of Hepburns parts (they made nine movies together).... but especially in "Adams Rib" and "Woman of the Year" (the latter has been remade several times; starring Gena Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Julia Roberts among others - all were failures) .

So the question is, is the classic movie star obsolete? Do we not want them anymore?

Well... I know I do. I'd give up all 36 of the women on that list for one Audrey Hepburn.