UPDATED: Death of the Movie Star, Part 7,382…

UPDATE: Really good discussion in comments. Here’s a cover illustrating one of my points:

I’ve continuing flailing the dead equine that the whole idea of movie stars is largely gone by the boards now. That’s not to say that a certain guy in a certain part isn’t essential to a film’s success. But even that’s rare, as with Johnny Depp playing Jack Sparrow.

Of course, there are lots of ‘movie stars,’ in the literal sense of people who star in movies. However, the classic definition of a movie star, i.e., someone who ‘opens’ a movie to big money over at least the release weekend, after which the film entire is on its own, is increasingly suspect.

These thoughts rose to mind again when I saw the cover to this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, featuring a photograph of Daniel Craig, George Clooney and Matt Damon. These guys are all considered not only movie stars but major ones. Let’s examine that statement.

Remember that the general rule of thumb is that a film must make at LEAST twice as much as the budget (which actually would include P&A costs, not included in the budget figures below, which would add millions or tens of millions to each budget) to hit the breakeven mark.

Aside from his two Bond movies, Daniel Craig has recently starred in:

The Invasion (2007, with fellow ‘star’ Nicole Kiddman):
Production Budget: $80 million.
Worldwide Gross: $40 million
Verdict: Major bomb.
Golden Compass (2007; again co-starring Nicole Kiddman)
Budget: $180 million
Worldwide Gross: $372 million
Verdict: Breakeven
Defiance (2008)
Budget: $32m
WW Gross: $51M
Verdict: Modest bomb
Cowboys & Aliens (2011; with Harrison Ford)
Budget: $163m
WW Gross: $174 M
Verdict: Megabomb
Dreamhouse (2011; horror)
Budget: $50m
WW Gross: $38m
Verdict: Bomb
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Budget: $90m
WW Gross (as of 1/11/12): $107m
Verdict: Bit of a money loser, depending on ultimate BO
Overall Daniel Craig Verdict: Not a movie star.

George Clooney:
A bit of a more interesting case. Clooney occasionally makes a high profile movie, but he’s really mostly worked in smaller, more intimate films. These generally don’t have big budgets, and so more often are modestly successful. Occasionally these movies make a goodly amount of money, although they aren’t the blockbuster-types of success Hollywood is obsessed with. I’ll skip his big series, the Ocean’s films, of which he is merely the biggest star of large star ensemble casts.

Michael Clayton (2007)
Budget: $25M
WW Gross: $92m
Verdict: Nice sized hit
Leatherheads (2008)
Budget: $31m
WW Gross: $41M
Verdict: Yikes!
Burn After Reading (2008: co-stars Brad Pitt, Coen Brothers movie)
Budget: $37m
WW Gross: $163m
Major hit
Men Who Star at Goats (2009)
Budget: $25m
WW Gross: $69m
Verdict: Decent-sized hit, about $10m back on the $25m investment
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Budget: $40m
WW Gross: $46m
Verdict: Nice movie, but a bomb.
Up in the Air
Budget: $25m
WW Gross: $167m
Major, major hit
The American (2010)
Budget: $20m
WW Gross: $68m
Decent sized hit
Ides of March (2011)
Budget: $12.5m
WW Gross: $59m
Major Hit
The Descendants (2011)
Budget: $20m
WW Gross (as of now): $44m
Modest money maker
Overall Verdict: Legitimate star in terms of smartly starring in low-budget films that thus make money, sometimes quite a lot. Clearly doesn’t draw huge salaries, like Denzil Washington’s reported (and clearly unwarranted) $20m for some pictures. Clooney is probably not as big a star of ‘big’ movies as average people think, but it’s clearly nice to be in the George Clooney business.

Matt Damon:
Will skip his outliers, the Ocean’s and Bourne movies.
The Informant (2007)
Budget: $22m
WW Gross: $42m
Close to break even, not including P&A costs
Invictus (co-starring Morgan Freeman, directed by Clint Eastwood)
Budget: 60M
WW Gross: $122m
Basically breakeven, not including P&A costs
Green Zone (2010)
Budget: $100m
WW Gross: $95M
Major bomb
Hereafter (2010; directed by Clint Eastwood)
Budget: $50m
WW Gross: $105M
Verdict:  Basically breakeven, not including P&A costs
True Grit (starred Jeff Bridges, directed by Coen Brothers)
Budget: $38m
WW Gross: $251m
Verdict: Major, major hit for a film of this level. Between this and Burn After Reading, it looks like you want to be in the Coen Brothers business more than the George Clooney or Matt Damon business.
Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Budget: $50m
WW Gross: $127m
Very modest money maker, depending on P&A costs
Contagion (2011)
Budget: $60m
WW Gross: $135m
Undoubtedly lost ‘small’ amount due to very high P&A costs
Margaret (2011; troubled production)
Budget: $14m
WW Gross: $46,500
Verdict: OUCH!!
We Bought a Zoo (2011)
Budget: $50m
WW Gross (as of now): $70m
Bit of a bomb
Overall Verdict: Matt Damon’s name will help you to get your movie made, and if you keep the budget reasonable you have a decent chance of at least breaking even. But unless the movie has Bourne in the title, it won’t make money.

Final verdict: Clooney is a star of modest-sized movies, but not big ones; a smart man, career-wise, but not a star in a Tom Cruise sense. Damon is not a movie star, but won’t generally cost you your shirt. Stay away from Daniel Craig if he’s not playing Bond.

  • Ericb

    Somewhat related: how long do you think Hollywood has under the current system.  Will the bottom fall out in a big bang or will studios slowly start to fold?  I doesn’t seem like the major studios are doing anything to change their business mode.

  • Anonymous

    Ya know, I haven’t seen a single one of these films, hell I haven’t even heard of ninty percent of them…

  • Ericb

    I can’t even remember when I was last in a movie theater.

  • Anonymous

    I have refused to watch a single thing with George Clooney in it since he made his absolutely disgusting, nay, reprehensible remarks (which he then refused to recant) about Charlton Heston “deserving” Azlheimer’s disease due to his long and successful tenure as president of the NRA.  Having watched family members succumb too an absolutely horrifying twilight and death as result of Alzheimer’s I would never wish it on anyone, particular not over something as petty as a political difference.  Also, as a long-time NRAer, I won’t give money to anyone who thinks I deserve to die in a horrific fashion because I disagree with him on the means and necessity of self-defense.

    I point this out because this is also a growing problem for the “Hollywood star” types.  Many of them cannot keep their mouth shut about their politics (annoying by itself) and many actively and loudly revile the very people buying tickets.  The list of folks whom I will not give money to support is growing by the day and I know that I am not the only person who feels that way.  If you entertain us, we’ll come back again and again, if you insult us we will take out hard earned money elsewhere. Heaven knows there are lots of cheaper ways to get entertainment than being gouged at a movie theater.

  • Monoceros4

    Saying, “If you exclude the Ocean’s and Bourne films, Matt Damon isn’t a star,” is like saying, “Sean Connery was a nobody once you overlook James Bond.” Nothing like picking and choosing data points to make a case!

  • Fisheyenomiko

    I’ll actually accept Ken excluding the Oceans films, since, as he says, they have ensemble casts, and it’s a little harder to know which star is the draw (not to mention that, as a remake, then sequels, the franchise itself might be the draw). But, yes, discounting the Bourne stuff does feel a bit like cheating.

  • Rock Baker

    All this really drives home is that lower production costs offer a better chance at making a profit. Who woulda’ thought, huh?

    I think I’d define “movie star” as someone who most people know by name and/or face at any given moment, they know they act, and can probably list three or four titles of theirs, minimum. Under those rules, yeah, Clooney is a star, although he’s not as visible as he used to be (granted, I haven’t followed current releases in so long that I may be mistaken about this last point). (And yeah, he’s a vile creep, so its not like I’d be going to his movies anyway.) Craig is a star in this sense, almost totally because he picked up the Walther PPK and got his double 0 rating. I’m not saying the guy has no fans from other sources, but taking the role of James Bond all but demands world-wide fame and becoming a household name. The test will be to see if this condition lasts very far beyond his stint as the world’s greatest spy. I can’t really comment on Damon, as he’s one of those guys I know by name but not face. Certainly, none of them are of the Cary Grant/Bob Hope/James Stewart/John Wayne/James Cagney/Henry Fonda level of stardom, I wouldn’t try top argue that.

  • Rock Baker

    Actually, until later in his career, Connery didn’t have overmuch success away from the Bond series. When he tried to break away from the role after YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, he made a handful of critically successful, but largely lackluster films. His return to ‘Bondage’ in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER marked his first huge hit since leaving the series. Only after the public had enough time to fully accept Moore as 007 did Connery’s non-Bond career really take off.

    The argument, at this point in Damon’s career, is valid.

  • Anonymous

    I have to agree, I won’t watch anything with Alex Baldwin either. And I don’t like Damon much either- other than ‘Saving Private Ryan’ I’ve never watched him in anything.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree. If Damon were a ‘movie star,’ the rest of his movie would open big too. When Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise and Will Smith were at the top of their game, nearly everything they starred in had big opening weekends.

    The post-star era is marked by audiences going to franchises. Indeed, your Sean Connery example point in my direction. The James Bonds films continued after Connery left, which Connery never had the same level of success outside the Bonds. So my point is, people went to see the Bourne films in particular because they were Bourne films, not because they starred Movie Star Matt Damon.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t argue with you, but that’s an evolution of what a movie star is, at least in industry terms. And Hollywood is still paying people as if they were ‘movie stars’ in the sense I mean–i.e., a concrete box office advantage when they star in a film–rather than in the sense you mean.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, so many stars say so many asshole things that someone has to REALLY cross the line to make a permanent impression. Clooney did, as you note. Whoopi Goldberg did with the “rape rape” thing.

  • bt

    Not that this is going to change your mind in any way, but Clooney didn’t say Heston “deserved” the disease. He made a joke about the disease, then when questioned about it, he said that as the head of the NRA he deserved what anyone SAID about him. Still not classy, but miles apart from wishing a disease on him.

  • Anonymous

    Ha! Neither have I! I would have seen True Grit, but I didn’t get around to it. And really, nobody thinks of that as a Matt Damon movie, anymore than the original being a Glen Campbell movie.

  • Anonymous

    Soon. DVD monies, which until recently were bigger than box office monies, were covering up the huge basic problems with Hollywood’s business model. Now that money is largely dried up, and there’s nothing to take its place. 3-D is already clearly a wet fart.

    This is why Hollywood is still pretending ‘stars’ mean something major. Because that’s the way it used to work, and nobody is brave enough to completely try something new.

    Also, we know the kind of narcissists who get into show biz, even on the business side. If there’s no star system anymore, there’s far less glamour to go around. Those two reasons also sum up why Vanity Fair is still doing ‘movie star’ covers.

  • Anonymous

    See my reply above.

    Not saying I’m right, but that’s my argument.

  • Bt

    Ken, I don’t know that your argument hadn’t kind of always applied. I’m too young to go back to the 50’s and 60’s, but when I was a kid, and I thought of “movie star”, I though of Burt Reynolds. But if you apply these same rules, take out “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Cannonball Run” movies as outliers, were his movies making any money? I think “Hooper” did OK, as did “Sharky’s Machine”, but I though “The End” was supposed to be a disappointment, along with “Paternity”, “Starting Over”, “Best Little Whorehouse..”, “The Man Who Loved Women”, “Stroker Ace” and a few others. In other words, he wasn’t infallible. Maybe guys like Bogart and Cooper and Grant were, but I don’t think there has been anyone who has been a star, in that sense, in a long time.

  • Anonymous

    Fair enough. Joking about someone having Alzheimer’s, though, and right after it’s announced, is still pretty appalling. Then saying Heston deserved anything said about him because of his civil rights work is even more appalling. Of course, I guess Clooney gets to judge which civil rights are good and which are bad.

    We should also remember that Heston’s civil rights history went way back. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. back when that really was controversial and might have hurt his career, unlike today’s loudmouths who seldom face any repercussion for what they say or do.

  • Anonymous

    You’re realy splitting hairs there, the implication was clearly one of he deserves what he gets. I never said Clooney wished the disease on Heston, just that he thought it was appropriate that Heston had gotten it.

    Anyway, the actual point I was trying to make, is that these guys (more Hollywood in general) need to stop biting the hands that feed them, that is, the paying audience, if there are to ever be “movie stars” again in future. Trust me, my list of people I will no longer pay to see includes a lot more people than just Clooney. He was just particularly heartbreaking to me because he ruined any future viewings of “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” for me. I can still love the soundtrack though.

    Natalie Portman is about there too, I feel like a heel every time I watch her after her vocal support of Polanski.

  • Anonymous

    That’s because the term ‘movie star’ has meant different things in different eras. During the studio system days, a star was something who top-lined major studio films. Right after the collapse of the studio system, when Reynolds was popular, it was someone’s whose movies generally made money. Reynolds was, with Clint Eastwood, the biggest star in Hollywood in the ’70s and early ’80s. (See 1978 Time cover added to article above.) The movies you mention were coming at the tail end of his career as a star, when he was indeed less deserving of the title.

    Hooper was a pretty major hit, by the way, being in the top ten films of 1978. However, yes, Smokey and the Bandit was his biggest hit by far.

    Anyway, when movie budgets started going nuts, a ‘movie star’ went from ‘someone’s whose movies generally make money’ (under this older definition Clooney makes the grade) to “box office insurance” in terms of “generally guarantees a  huge opening weekend.” That’s what Cruise and Hanks and Smith did when they were hot.

    That’s still the definition Hollywood subscribes to, as indicated by insane movie salaries of tens of millions of dollars, and it’s a disastrously out of date definition. The newest meaning of the term will be established when Hollywood officially acknowledges that stars don’t have that much to do with the success of the movie. Shia LaBeouf doesn’t ‘star’ in the Transformers films in the same way that, say, Harrison Ford ‘starred’ in the Indiana Jones movies.

  • Bt

    I guess it just seems to me that the definition is hard to define. Even in Will Smith’s case, ID4 established him, MIB proved he wasn’t a fluke, but then almost immediately Wild Wild West set him back, Legend of Baggar Vance put a stake in him, and box-office wise, Ali did nothing to help. Only his franchises (MIB, Bad boys) were guaranteeing him box office success. Hitch and Pursuit of Happyness and Hancock all made money, Seven Pounds, I am legend, not so much. Certainly he was successful, certainly one of the most successful of my lifetime (Hanks is on another level altogether), but even he couldn’t guarantee a hit, as they alternated.

  • Bt

    I’m not trying to defend Clooney’s statement as being classy (it’s not). I just think (Jane obviously disagrees) that there is a difference between making a joke about a disease and saying someone deserves the disease. One is classless. The other is heartless. I don’t think it’s splitting hairs, but opinions differ.

  • Anonymous

    Wild Wild West DID have a huge opening weekend. Business just fell off right away because the movie sucked, but Smith delivered what the producers expected of him.

    2008’s Seven Pounds was a rare Smith that didn’t open well, and followed after a nice series of giant hits.

    Indeed, and this is weird to realize, but Smith hasn’t appeared in a film since then! (Although he’s gearing back up, though.)

    I Am Legend was a rather gigantic hit, by the way. Hancock was a giant hit. I, Robot was a big hit. Note that while while Smith had a few films that didn’t perform well in the 2000s, he had quite a few major, major hits. And not franchise pictures. They were huge largely because they starred Will Smith.

    Note that I did write that “Cruise, Hanks and Smith are not Cruise, Hanks and Smith” anymore, because my entire premise is that the definition of a ‘movie star’ as now used in Hollywood is functionally dead. The difference is that none of these guys were ever movie stars in the sense that those three were, and only Clooney can really be logically called a movie star, and then in a comparatively minor and older sense of the term.

    Clooney clearly has a regular audience that shows up and will generally make money as long as he works in (by today’s standards) low-budget movies. Calling Damon and Craig movie stars, though, is a bit of a stretch. Neither comes close to guaranteeing success for the movies they star in.

  • sandra

    Showing my age here, but none of the current crop of ‘movie stars’ have the kind of star quality the old time stars like Cagney ,Bogart Gable etc had.  It’s not a question of talent; Clark Gable was a mediocre actor, but a powerful scene presence.  Cagney, of course, was both a great actor and a great star.  The old timers made plenty of bad films too, of course.  I don’t think any current actor is the kind of household name  the Golden Age of Hollywood types were. So Ken is right – there are no real Movie Stars anymore.

  • Rock Baker

    And history will ultimately bear out why. Cagney, Bogart, Gable, etc. were Men. Eastwood, Reynolds, Moore, etc were Teenagers who eventually Grew Up, and the current crop is made of Children. Sadly, pop culture reflects society as it develops. Centuries from now, the Men will be remembered, there will be a fan base for the Teenagers, and the Children will largely be forgotten. So too will be this phase of our history, save for being a “don’t let this happen to you” (or, “how it all ended” should we not be able to pull ourselves back from the brink) footnote in text books.

  • Mr. Rational

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  Movies make stars, not the other way around.  And the biggest stars of all time have been the ones who, for the most part, had defined screen personas.  Think of Katharine Hepburn, and what do you think of?  The modern-age, brassy woman.  Think of John Wayne, and what do you think of?  The cowboy.  Think of Marilyn Monroe, and what do you think of?  That’s right.  Sex kitten.  Think of Tom Hanks, and you think of the all-American average Joe.

    What star today does this?  Charlie Chaplin WAS the Little Tramp.  Buster Keaton WAS the sallow-faced man of misfortune.  Is Matt Damon known for playing a particular type of character, other than Jason Bourne?  Is Daniel Craig’s Bond persona with him from film to film?  George Clooney is the closest in that list to being a genuine star, but it has more to do with the fact that, like the stars of old, you know what to expect.  Have you ever seen a George Clooney movie when he wasn’t playing himself?

    People went to the movies of stars because of their characters, which persisted from film to film.  In that sense, and in that sense only, stars made movies.  But those characters came pre-defined, by a combination of the native gifts and personality of the actor, their previous roles, and studio publicity.  These days, there isn’t a studio system to support them with consistent publicity (and to keep them from making an ass of themselves), and the actors themselves seem bent on trying to do different types of films.  No wonder there aren’t any real stars anymore…

  • Beckoning Chasm

    I saw True Grit in the theatre and really enjoyed it, but the whole time I couldn’t tell who was playing the Matt Damon character.  It was only after the credits rolled when I said O RLY?  I guess that’s a testament to his abilities, though.

  • Beckoning Chasm

    I’ve never really thought that the success of Independence Day was due to any of the actors; rather it was the special effects, the massive destruction, spaceships et al.  You could make the same argument that Jeff Goldblum is a major star because he was in both Independence Day and Jurassic Park.  I don’t think anyone went to either of those for the actors.

  • Beckoning Chasm

    I think the older stars were not so much “actors” as they embodied characters.  You know what to expect when you’re going to see a movie with John Wayne or Cary Grant, whether it’s a serious film or a comedy.

    Nowadays, stars want to show their “versatility” so much that you don’t know what you’re going to get when you see a Matt Damon film.   That makes it more of a risk.

    Probably Harrison Ford would be the last “character” type actor (not counting Arnold Schwarzenegger).

  • Beckoning Chasm

    I should have read your comment before posting mine above, since you said what I was trying to say much, much better than I.

  • Mr. Rational

    Actually, reading what you wrote, I think all I did was to say what you were trying to say much, much longer than you.

  • Mr. Rational

    I would argue that Jeff Goldblum is a major star because he was in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

  • Beckoning Chasm

    I think what we’re getting at here is that people have always gone to the movies to see characters that they like (or at least like watching).  In decades past, those characters were “John Wayne,” “Jimmy Stewart,” “Martin and Lewis,” “Katherine Hepburn” or “Arnold Schwarzenegger.”  They went by different names in each movie but were basically the same person.

    Now, people still want to see characters, but now it’s the characters themselves–people want to see “James Bond,” or “Ethan Hunt,” or “Jason Voorhees” or “Peter Parker” and it doesn’t matter who plays them.  Actors, by wanting to appear “versatile” have taken themselves out of the equation.

  • The Rev.

    I’d argue he’s a star because of the Fly remake.  (I haven’t seen Buckaroo.)

  • Bt

    IMDB has I am legend grossing 270 on a 150 budget, which would make it a smallish bomb, right? Regardless, I see what you are saying, I just am saying that I’m not sure things are so very different now than they were 20 or 40 years ago.

  • Anonymous

    BT – That’s domestic gross. Note that I used World Wide grosses above. World wide, I Am Legend made close to $600 million. So it was a pretty major hit.

    The difference between now and 20 years ago is that 20 years ago stars carried movies. Stars were the main attraction, and having Cruise or Schwarzenegger in your film by itself came close to guaranteeing a hit movie. Now it’s all about the franchise, and the star is largely an interchangeable piece. Yet because Hollywood is loathe to give up an established formula, ‘stars’ continue to draw huge salaries, often in the tens of millions of dollars, that aren’t remotely justified by what they bring to the table. There are exceptions (Depp in the Pirates movies), but they are pretty rare.

    The difference between now and 40 years ago is that 40 years ago, even adjusted for inflation, both movies and stars cost a LOT less. Basically, this is the pattern Clooney is following. He’s clearly not making $10 million a picture for movies with a $20 million overall budget. So Clooney is a movie star by the terms of the 1970s, but not by modern standards, in which ‘stars’ are expected to drive blockbuster movies making hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.

    Which they really don’t, which was my point.

  • sandra

    Most actors are basically the same in every role.  The ability to sink yourself so completely into a character that you are unrecognizable from one role to another is an extremely rare talent.  The only person I can think of who is capable of doing that is British actor Tim Piggott-Smith, who is scarcely a household name.  Maybe they are others, but as you don’t recognize them , you don’t realize its the same actor in different parts.

  • Rock Baker

    That’s a pretty good point, although there were exceptions (sort of). I note that Cagney could draw crowds in a wide range of films (comedies, gangster pictures, musicals, etc) and audiences were going to see Cagney, not the characters he played. Granted, the majority of stars followed your contention. One way to look at is that they gave their audiences what they wanted, and were paid handsomely for doing so. The current crop of “Actors” are more concerned with their craft and personal satisfaction, so they’ll play what they want to and not really care about their public.

  • Sandy Petersen

    I’m unconvinced. While some actors always played similar roles (John Wayne frex, but even he wasn’t just a cowboy – I think his best movie was The Quiet Man), others did not. Jimmy Stewart is a “movie star” I would argue, but the characters he played in Harvey, The Philadelphia Story, Shenandoah, and the tortured hero of It’s a Wonderful Life are IMO exceedingly different. The same applies even to someone like Katherine Hepburn. Is her character in The African Queen really the “brassy modern woman” extolled by Mr. Rational?

    Some actors stick to a role. Others don’t. It was true in the good old days and it’s true now. It’s easy enough to find people who play the same roles again and again in modern films.

    Baker’s theory that the old-timers were Men and the moderns Children has some truth in it – at least in part because the characters who are the Men in the modern movies (if there are any) are often the bad guys. Being strong and rigid and unwilling to fall in love easily and having a strong code are Manly ideals in 50s western culture, and they are largely rejected today. At least in Hollywood. Not in reality – look at our politicians. No matter how spoiled and childlike they are in reality, they attempt to project an image of steely determination because they know that’s what we want.

  • Marsden

    Is it me or does anyone else think Craig look like Putin, at least on that cover?   
    Whenever I hear the name Matt Damon I think of Team America, I didn’t even realize he was the “Bourne” guy. 
    I think a lot of George Clooney’s name recognition is still from 6 years of ER, not saying he hasn’t been around a lot since then, but that got him to the status where people know who he is, because name/face recognition is “the” factor in stardom, I think, more that acting ability or profitability.  Of course, recognition for movies would make a movie star, you arent a movie star for being on tv.  I think Liam Neeson is more of a “movie star” And as far as someone being themself in everything they’re in, I don’t think we can beat Jackie Chan. 

  • Mr. Rational

     Well, to be fair about Katharine Hepburn, I did say that stars had defined screen personas “for the most part.”  I don’t really think she was playing the brassy modern woman in A Lion in Winter, either, just as I don’t think Tom Hanks was playing the all-American average Joe in The Ladykillers.  But one or two roles that are exceptions to the rule do not invalidate the rule.

    As for Jimmy Stewart, maybe he’s the exception to the rule.  He did all sorts of pictures, you’re right about that.  Rear Window and Vertigo, How the West Was Won and Winchester ’73, and of course The Philadelphia Story with our good friend Kate Hepburn.  But I think Stewart too has a character type…a plain-spoken idealist, the sort of guy who believes in the essential goodness of the small town and the American way of life.  Admittedly, though, in Stewart’s case I’m not sure whether that’s more of a retroactive and selective interpretation of a staggering body of work.

    And as for your comment about politicians, well, if one exception is enough to knock down a general rule, I gots three words for ya, Sandy:  Sheila.  Jackson.  Lee.

  • Mr. Rational

     This post deserves a hearty “Matt Damon.”

  • Beckoning Chasm

    I think Stewart is pretty consistent in character.  His most “out of character” role was probably Vertigo, and as I recall, that one was not a box-office success, showing that maybe audiences were looking for “Jimmy Stewart” and not finding him there.

    Likewise, Cary Grant, even when as a heel (Suspicion) or cold calculator (Notorious) still projected a kind of “I go to get what I want and generally get it” type of character.

  • Rock Baker

    I think Stewart probably broke his established character most in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, but I’m unsure as to what kind of business it did. Stewart off screen was known as a true class act, and indeed that persona is reflected in his film work.

    I seem to recall hearing that Hitchcock favored using Stewart and Grant more than any other actors for his leading man parts, believing them to typify the ‘every’ man who gets swept into his crazy situations.

  • Anonymous

    There’s plenty of actors who do this, even today.  But they’re almost exclusively character actors who flesh out a film, not leading men and women.  Mike Starr comes to mind; the man has 182 listings under Actor on IMDB.  Stephen Tobolowsky has 210.  There’s tons of people like this, but because they don’t lead films and because they completely disappear into their roles, they aren’t thought of.

    Also, because they’re almost always side characters, nobody’s going to go see a movie they’re in.  Who wants 110 minutes of some yahoo star just for 5 minutes of character acting gold?

  • Sandy Petersen

    Look, Clooney always plays the same guy just as much (or as little) as John Wayne did. So does Charlize Theron, or Christian Bale, or even Posey Parker. We have stereotypes of the old time actors, but i think those stereotypes are largely a product of modern looking back. Humphrey Bogart played a huge range of characters – they were not all embittered drunken bums. Gregory Peck played a huge range of characters. Henry Fonda is difficult to pin down as well. Those guys had far more breadth and variety in their acting than they are normally given credit for.

    I’d like to see Damon play three characters further apart in essentials than Admiral Halsey, Philip Marlowe, and the widowed schoolteacher of Ryan’s Daughter, all played by the “stereotypical” Robert Mitchum.

  • Hugh Grant always plays an irritaing buffoon who somehow manages to attract women who hate him at the start of the movie.
    Zooey Deschanel always plays an annoyingly ‘quirky’ hyperactive lunatic.
    Jason Statham always plays a gritty Cockerney violent geezer.
    Martin Freeman always plays a bewildered-looking ‘everyman’ who can’t close his mouth properly.

    They’re not the biggest of names, but they’re there.