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When Does a Movie Star Become an Actor?

I think that most people would agree that there is a distinction between a “movie star” and “an actor”. I think that the great Nicholas Meyer offered a definition that fits quite well:

What’s the difference between an actor and a movie star? An actor is someone who pretends to be somebody else. A movie star is somebody who pretends that somebody else is them. Actors will change their face, will change their hair, will change their voice, will disappear into the role. A movie star doesn’t disappear.

That might sound quite harsh towards a “movie star”, but I think that you could argue that a movie star (if applied correctly) can add a certain amount of artistic weight to a film:

A movie star is someone whose past work enriches your experience of, and deepens your pleasure in, his or her present work. In other words, a movie star is someone whose baggage you want to carry.

I don’t mean that the terms are mutually exclusive insofar as they apply to a specific individual (indeed I can think of several performers who are both actors and movie stars), nor that it’s a fixed position (I can think of many individuals who have started out as what might be considered an “actor” before becoming a “movie star” in their own right). In fact, while it’s easy to think of any number of performers who have repositioned themselves as movie stars after beginning as actors, it’s somewhat rarer to see it happen the other way around. Is the road from actor to movie star a one-way trip?

Is it a rocky road to being taken seriously as an actor?

What prompts this particular thought is the fact that I happened to catch James Franco endorsing some perfume or other on the television the other day. I found it somewhat stranger than perhaps I should have – he is, after all, incredibly good looking and has major mainstream appeal and probably a huge fanbase. And, yet, for some reason, I had difficulty thinking of him as anything other than the guy who is going to saw his own arm off in 127 Hours. It was surreal to see him selling some sort of strange-smelling liquid in a sharp suit.

And all this despite the fact that he had received his big-screen big break in the Spider-Man movies, playing a guy who eventually rode a flying green surfboard glider-thingy. In all manner of rational thought, he seemed a logical fit. After all, if Oscar-winner Charlize Theron could sell a fragrance, why not Franco? What made him so different – or, rather, what made me see him so different? Sure, he’d dirtied himself up to play a stoner in Pineapple Express and had played Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Milk, but there are countless recognisable performers who have done far more and I still would consider them movie stars before actors.

I think that Hollywood as an industry is designed to produce movie stars. Actors are just the raw material you feed into the machine until you find the makings of a mega movie star whose name you can stick on a poster. That isn’t to diminish the talent involved – a great many of those actors deserve the fame and prestige that comes with the bigger name. I think that actors like Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro or Jack Nicholson all started out as actors – craftsmen who fashioned characters from nothing – before graduating to attractions in their own right. Al Pacino, for example, has his own cottage industry of showing up on movie sets and just yelling at people, while DeNiro has succeeded at turning his screen persona into a joke – Analyse This and Meet the Parents draw a lot of their humour from the fact that they simply star Robert DeNiro.

Al is all fired up...

The motivation for an actor seeking to become a movie-star is obvious: there’s a lot more money and a lot more financial security. Being honest, it’s hard to begrudge an actor who has turned in so many superb little-seen performances for taking a big cheque – they’ve earned it (which is why I’m not mad at any of the massive amount of talent involved in Transformers 3). Some times an actor will try to remain a credible and respected screen presence while also cementing their own fame – Meryl Streep, for example, could produce Doubt and Mamma Mia in the same year.

The move the other direction – from big-name star to respected actor – is a much more difficult proposition. There is frequently an obvious motivation for the transition: movie stars like awards. That is why, for example, you will frequently see name actors like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie starring in relatively low-key films that maybe twelve people will see. However, it’s very tough to sell that change to an audience. When I was watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for example, I never believed I was watching Benjamin – I was always looking at Brad Pitt. In Changeling, I was following Angelina Jolie in a funny hat.

Perhaps there’s an element of subconscious bitterness at work here. Maybe it’s harder to sell multi-million-dollar-earning celebrity to an audience when you know they are just doing it for the award nominations that they will garner – it does seem like an awfully cynical gambit. Indeed, it’s easier to accept a bold artistic move from a big-name celebrity when it comes with some measure of commitment. For example, Charlize Theron’s turn in Monster came with a huge physical transformation which was just incredible – and yet, despite appearing in films like The Road, I haven’t taken here seriously as an actress since. On the other hand, Johnny Depp has a history of playing strange roles that he would never garner nominations for, so he’s a lot easier to take at face value. Similarly, Mickey Rourke pulled himself up from obscurity with movies like Sin City and The Wrestler, making it easier to accept him as an actor.

Perhaps it’s also a commitment thing. It’s easy for a movie star to make a token gesture or two towards low-key independent film-making. The Rock starred in the bizarre mind-screw that was Southland Tales, for example, but that doesn’t make him an actor who takes risks because nearly every other film on his CV is a bland major studio production. On the other hand, George Clooney has nearly consistently taken a string of low-key films in the past number of years (like Up in the Air, Michael Clayton or The American), which show an actor who is willing to step out of the spotlight to do what he wants.

Which I suppose brings us to James Franco. I don’t think he was a major name in his own right, but I think that he ran the risk of being just another mainstream pretty face. However, he has shown himself to be consistently willing to take risks – particularly in what would likely be fairly thankless roles. For example, his appearance on General Hospital as “performance artist” Franco was a meta-fictional mind-trip which wasn’t going to endear him to soap fans, but would go unnoticed by a whole host of movie commentators and critics. He did “ugly” himself up for Pineapple Express, but it was hardly a movie that was going to garner him an Oscar nomination.

Perhaps these are the two key factors which help his roles in Milk and 127 Hours seem like more than just cynical Oscar-bait, like a movie star “slumming it” in the hopes of collecting a few Oscar nominations. It somehow seems more genuine than “Mark Wahlberg as a boxer”. It’s interesting to think about – are we perhaps a bit harsher on movie stars attempting to reinvent themselves as credible dramatic actors than we are on actors who aspire to be movie stars? Does it really make a difference, ultimately? Is every performance best judged on its own merits rather than in the wider context of the actor’s career? Is that even possible?

3 Responses

  1. The way I’ve always seen it is that movie stars can sell a movie based on their name and reputation. i.e. their presence in a film can generate box office success. That’s not to say that movie stars are not actors. For instance, Johnny Depp is a talented actor who can also generate bank at the box office.

  2. It’s funny that you mention George Clooney as an example of an actor because he is the quintessential movie star. Being a movie star or an actor goes far beyond acting abilities or what happens on-screen and really, it is essentially all about image. Some people craft it more carefully than others.

    The George Clooney, Brangelina and Tom Cruise of the world have crafted a particular and consistent image of themselves to the rest of the world and that’s what makes them movie stars. They are the people who crave the spotlight (even when they pretend not to) and end up in tabloids and gossip magazines every week.

    I wouldn’t consider James Franco a movie star at all because he doesn’t (seem to) care about his personal image: He has a weird cameo in General Hospital, attends gazillions of graduate school and overall is an individual who refuses to be consumed by Hollywood

  3. Weird, I posted a comment but it won’t show up. You might have to fish it out of Akismet

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