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In 1993, John Travolta’s career was teetering on the brink. The actor, who’d become a superstar with Saturday Night Fever and then added to his luster with Grease, had all but ceased to matter as a cultural force. True, he could still deliver the occasional hit, such as Look Who’s Talking, but at the domestic and foreign box office he was a has-been, someone largely remembered for a white sharkskin suit and a few fabulous dance moves.
Hollywood had effectively written him off, perhaps unconvinced he was all that big a star to begin with. But one director, who was just beginning to make his name, had faith, and when he came to make his second feature, he chose Travolta for the most important role. That director, of course, was Quentin Tarantino; the feature was 1994’s Pulp Fiction; and with it, Travolta was back on top, raking in $20 million per movie and sealing his place in the pantheon.
It isn’t easy being a star, as Jennifer Lawrence must have thought when Red Sparrow opened to a humble $16.9 million first weekend earlier this month. You’re on a perpetual roller-coaster ride, knowing each time you’re up, the law of gravity says you’re going to crash back down. Stars live in constant fear that everything they have, they’ll soon lose — the perks, the privileges, the private planes. Directors secretly resent their clout, executives question their monetary value and pundits (like me) wonder whether many deserve to be called stars at all.
Most “stars” aren’t stars; they’re really actors, comfortable slipping into other people’s skins, with hard-to-seize personalities, and ideas and emotions that change with their moods and the times. Every now and again they land the kind of role that defines them, and then get mistaken for the character they’ve played, often to their surprise as much as anyone else’s. Because the person they’re playing isn’t them. Gary Oldman’s a perfectly pleasant human being, but God knows he isn’t Churchill any more than he was Sid Vicious.
Real stars, like Lawrence, are different. They may happen to be good actors (increasingly, we want our real stars to be able to act), but that’s not their essential ingredient. Through some mysterious alchemy that no one’s ever quite explained, they allow us to identify in a heightened way with a complete stranger; they allow us to see the world more intimately and empathetically than we ever would on our own.
When Jack Nicholson plays Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we feel we’ve inhabited the soul of a borderline personality, the kind of man we might have no patience for in real life. When Bette Davis embodies a woman who shoots her lover in The Letter, we’re on her side of the equation, not the law’s. When Clint Eastwood pulls out a gun and offers someone a chance to “Go ahead, make my day” in Sudden Impact, we’re almost ready to pull out a gun ourselves, even if we believe in gun control.
Just as great stars somehow merge their personalities with the roles they play, they allow us to merge our personalities with theirs. That identification expands our thinking, our understanding, our view of life itself. Watching Lawrence play a woman with mental health issues in Silver Linings Playbook puts us in the heart and soul of a woman battling that sort of illness, just as watching Al Pacino become The Godfather helps us understand how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There’ve been very few great stars in the history of film. Sure, there’ve been actors and actresses who happened to become well-known, and starlets (male and female) who’ve been molded and groomed enough to briefly blaze on the silver screen. But the John Waynes, Greta Garbos and Humphrey Bogarts are few and far between; the ones (like Travolta) who last for more than a few flickering seconds, who mingle with our hopes and fears, who become as real to us as life itself, are rare, with no more than a handful in any one era.
There’s certainly been a fair share to have emerged in my time covering Hollywood. Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Tom Hanks — they’re all major forces who transcend their eras and the people they play. Few of them are as compelling offscreen as on; how, in real life, could they possibly equal their impact in scenes that condense powerful emotions into the space of a few minutes? Some, in fact, are way different than you might think; as director Robert Ellis Miller (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) observed, the greatest myth in Hollywood is that the camera never lies.
But they’re the essence of what’s special in film. The history of Hollywood is the history of the movie star; what would motion pictures be without stars, and what would society itself be, without the gift they bring of allowing us to transcend ourselves and enter another’s mind and being?
And yet right now stars matter less than ever before. There isn’t a single star who seems able to keep pulling in a crowd. Robert Downey Jr. had his moment, but that was mainly because of his identification with Iron Man; and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s riding a wave, but I’ve yet to be convinced he has the X factor that ensures long-term stardom.
I thought Lawrence was the real thing, until her box office began to show signs of continental drift. The news that she’s had her third flop in a row with Red Sparrow (following Passengers and mother!) was especially disheartening for admirers like myself. Partly, it’s a result of the movies she’s chosen. Even as a fan of the actress and Darren Aronofsky, I couldn’t recommend mother! to my own mother; as for Passengers, perhaps I shouldn’t have watched it on a plane, but it made an already long flight seem like it would never end.
There’s a chunk of Hollywood that might gloat at this bad news. But most of us should be concerned. If a star as bright and brilliant as Lawrence can’t sell tickets, who can?
Studios have increasingly turned to brands, rather than brand names, to the Star Wars and Marvel movies, rather than individual actors. They’ve come to favor a product over a personality. They’ve given up on the notion that film can be about real people, warts and all. And in doing so, they’ve turned their backs on their most important social role, the one thing that makes them more than mere corporations: their ability to teach us how to care.
Without developing character pieces, they won’t develop more stars. And without more stars, they’ll be forced back on machine-honed product, which might be fine entertainment but hardly nourishes the soul.
I hope this is only a phase, and not the death of stars altogether. Clearly, they’re an endangered species, though not one Hollywood cares much to preserve.
I hope and believe Lawrence will bounce back — just as Travolta did — proving naysayers wrong and quelling my own doubts. Because if stars like her vanish, then so do we, one little nick of our humanity at a time. We’re not there yet, but I’m afraid we’ve turned the tide, and the lesson we’re learning is this: Stars don’t die in Liverpool, they die here.
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