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To The Devil His Due: Why I Don’t Begrudge Classic Actors “Selling Out”…

I happened to catch a few minutes of Anger Management on television last night. Not enough that I’d feel comfortable reviewing it, but enough to remember most of what I needed to about the movie – which was a perfectly standard Adam Sandler comedy notable for affording the comedian the opportunity to play opposite Jack Nicholson. Nicholson who was an autopilot for the most of the film, but managed to deliver one of the most awkwardly creepy-and-hilarious moments in recent cinematic history as his eyebrows urge Sandler’s character to deliver the line, “I’m sorry I was so rude before… but… it’s difficult for me… to… express myself… when I am on the verge of… exploding in my pants.” Aside from that surreal perv-y old man moment, Nicholson seemed to be in the film mostly for the pay check, which seems to be a recurring trend these days for all manner of respected veteran actors. It’s easy to label performances by Al Pacino in Righteous Kill and 88 Minutes or Robert DeNiro in Little Fockers as classic actors “selling out”, but is it really that big a deal? Is it something we can begrudge these one-time icons?

Most of his paychecks get made out to "Jack Nicholson's eybrows"...

Don’t get me wrong, I want good movies. I like good movies. I am a fan of good movies. If I were master of all things, Al Pacino would be turning out movies of the quality of Serpico and Scarface and Scent of a Woman at least once a year. If I were in a position of ultimate power in Hollywood, DeNiro would still be Martin Scorsese’s first choice for every role, and Jack Nicholson would still be a regular fixture on the Best Actor nominations for roles that people would be talking about decades down the line. Or, I’d simply design some sort of weird time-distorting device and basically keep Hollywood perpetually trapped in the seventies glory like some sort of great-film-producing snowglobe. But, for better or worse, that’s not feasible.

And perhaps it’s for the best. Times change. After all, as much as I may love DeNiro, Pacino and Nicholson, time marches on. Scorsese has found a new artistic soulmate in Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale is doing the sort of physically stunning (and, to be honest, severely risky) physical transformations that DeNiro used to do in his prime, and a new crop of young and reliable actors and actresses have emerged to take great roles in challenging and controversial films. Hollywood moves on a cycle, and – in a decade or two – we might be seeing Ryan Gosling in family comedies or James Franco making bland cop thrillers while younger actors again carve out their own niche. Because, truth be told, those actors can’t really play the sorts of character parts they devoured in their prime.

At least he's having a ball?

Hollywood has always had a bit of difficulty as to what to do with actors and actresses when they reach a certain age – it’s especially a problem with women at a particular age who start getting cast exclusively as mothers and (later on) grandmothers (if Betty White isn’t available to answer the call). Although, maybe Meryl Streep might be changing that. That’s part of the reason why I salute people like Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro, despite the fact that they aren’t necessarily pumping out classic-after-classic these days. It would be easy for them to fade out, but they are still names worth watching and noting. As much as I might even dislike the films themselves (and, to be honest, most are merely inoffensive), movies like Little Fockers and Mamma Mia serve to prove that DeNiro and Streep have currency with modern audiences and can headline successful films that people will pay to see.

In Streep’s case in particular, this has the benefit of allowing her the freedom and publicity to pursue her own more artistic fringe projects, like Doubt or the upcoming Iron Lady. While she might have ended up headlining those projects anyway, the financial success associated with her name (or, to use one of those awkward synergy-esque words, “brand”) helps make them easier to sell, and helps produce more diverse and interesting films. It’s kinda like the way that I justify Colin Firth’s involvement in tripe like The Accidental Husband and St. Trinian’s – it helps make him more than “that dude who was in Pride & Prejudice nearly two decades ago.”

Cinema's true Iron Lady...

However, I can’t really begrudge actors even where a rationale like that really can’t be applied. As excited as I am about Al Pacino’s rumoured upcoming Salvador Dali movie, the truth is that the actor’s last great role was Insomnia. Since then, the dude has appeared in films ranging from mundane (The Recruit) to terrible (Gigli). As much as one might hold out hope for Barry Levinson’s Gotti (Levison can be very good… or very not good), and as much as one can admire his more adventurous modern work on television (Angels in America and You Don’t Know Jack), it’s hard to argue that Pacino hasn’t been phoning in his work for the last few years. It’s the same with Nicholson, barring the occasional exception like The Departed.

Ignoring the argument that Hollywood isn’t interested in providing too many meaty roles for actors that age, I have to admit that people like Pacino and Nicholson have “earned” a graceful sort of period in their careers where they get paid large amounts of money for relatively little effort. The movie industry isn’t one that offers pensions, so retirement isn’t an option (although I do respect Sean Connery a bit for opting for it rather than putting out more mediocre efforts like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). These were actors who defined modern cinema, and while it can be frustrating to see Robert DeNiro chasing Ben Stiller through a ball-pit, it seems like the kind of work the actor enjoys far more than gaining and losing massive amounts of weight, or trekking off to the far side of the world to catch exotic infections doing location work.

Scenery... TASTES... Good... FOR PACINOOOOOO!!!!!!

It feels almost like making movies is the kinda thing that those actors do between games of golf, as a job rather than a passion. To be honest, I miss the passion. I am frustrated that Pacino has two modes these days: hammy and SUPER-HAMMY!!! But they’e worked hard enough in the past that they deserve some form of financial security. Pacino, to be honest, didn’t get paid what he was worth for Panic in Needle Park or The Godfather, but he got overpaid for The Godfather III. I know capitalism isn’t supposed to work that way (and he should have been paid his worth at each point), but I like to thing that – over the course of an actor’s career – it balances out.

Raúl Juliá is perhaps the best example of this logic in action. One of Mexico’s most famous actors, and one for whom my better half has great fondness (she always had great taste), he was respected for a long and prestigious body of work. However, when he found out he was dying, he was keen to finish work on Street Fighter, the terrible Van Damme film, partially because of the financial security it offered, but also partially because his children loved the video. It’s hardly a creative highnote, but it was perhaps the most financially lucrative role of his career. That said, it’s not a bad movie if you like Juliá. Juliá’s performance is really good – despite the fact it’s arguably the first time he worked on a horrendous movie, he’s far more adept than Van Damme, despite the latter’s accomplishments.

I take my cap off to you, Mister Juliá...

Of course, that’s the extreme example. I am fairly sure that Pacino and DeNiro and Nicholson have more money than I can dream of. Still, I think they’ve made a solid enough contribution to the arts that they deserve that standard of living. On the other hand, it might not be as clear-cut as we imagine. After all, Nicolas Cage is bankrupt. Marlon Brando was rumoured to have died in poverty despite charging an-arm-and-a-leg for Apocalypse Now and Superman, among others. It didn’t turn out to be the case, but the fact people believed it until disproven tells you something. Yvette Vickers, the star of Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, died alone and penniless – and had been dead so long by the time she was found her body had mummified. You never know. And because the way the film industry is structured, it isn’t as if a catalogue of classic and defining films stand to an artist’s financial security.

Finally, there’s also the fact that – based on the way these movies seem to be constantly churned out – obviously somebody harbours some affection for these old stars. And I don’t just mean movie executives and directors. People pay to see these movies. And people enjoy them. And, to be honest, keeping these actors around appeals to older viewers like my parents who are often ignored or overlooked by Hollywood. If we don’t like them, we don’t have to watch them. After all, Meet the Fockers didn’t delete my copy of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Classics are classics, and there’s no tangible damage done to these early films (unless we allow them to be sullied by association).

Poor Nic Cage can't even afford a haircut...

So that’s why I don’t get too sad when I see Frances McDormand or John Malkovich in Transformers 3. I’m just glad they’re finally earning money they should have been paid decades ago.

4 Responses

  1. Fair assessment, Darren. I guess it’s fine for them to pick roles solely for the money as long as they balance them out w/ artful fair once in a while and not lose sight of the artistic side of acting. I commend Streep for ‘growing old’ gracefully in Hollywood and still continue to pick challenging roles. I think Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, etc. are in the same camp.

  2. The cast Bay managed to rope in for “Transformers 3” was unbelievable. Still, it’s easy to judge when you don’t have massive bills to pay and a big fat check staring you in the face.

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