Leo, Brad, Dwayne and the Return of the Movie Star

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DiCaprio and Pitt bring emotional resonance to 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' and Johnson elevates flimsy material in 'Hobbs & Shaw.' But are these anomalies? asks Hollywood Reporter executive editor Stephen Galloway.

Once upon a time in Hollywood, movie stars mattered. They were brilliant and belligerent, dazzling and demanding. They drove studio executives and their agents to distraction with their shenanigans, and then into a frenzy with their grosses.

For reporters like myself who’ve made a career of interviewing them, they could, and can, seem like split personalities: they exist one way onscreen (heroic, touching, likeable, empathic) and another way offscreen (insecure, egomaniacal, narcissistic and temperamental). I’m always trying to reconcile the two, persuade myself there has to be some link between these dual selves, some truth to the old adage that the camera never lies. If there is, I’m still searching for it.

Great stars are few and far between. I don’t mean great actors: I mean those transcendent personalities who manage to reveal themselves on a screen as big as a building, with whom we connect so deeply, so profoundly, we enter their lives almost as fully as our own.

I can think of only a handful of true stars to have emerged in the past 20 or 30 years — George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts among them. And because I believe in stars, believe in their power to make us care about another human being, I’ve watched with a sinking heart as their box office has declined, as they’ve shifted from the center of the public discourse to the sidelines.

If there’s been one dominant trend in the movie business of the past few years, it’s been Hollywood’s slide away from star-driven movies toward brands, franchises and effects. That’s been manna from heaven for the studios — it’s so much easier, after all, to control CGI than a human being (especially one with a powerful agent and entourage). But for an audience that cares about people — real people, not superheroes — it’s tragic.

So here’s the good news: Just when I was beginning to despair about the demise of the star, along come two movies that remind us how special they are.

The first is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s paean to the 1960s, not just a monument to historical revisionism but also to a director’s ability to impose his vision on the world.

It’s an exceptional piece of filmmaking, regardless of the many and justifiable critiques that have been lobbed in its direction. Its seeming weaknesses are its very strengths: Its digressions from the main plot and off onto scenes, sequences and characters that are apparently tangential to the storyline.

Two of its most memorable moments, in fact — tour-de-force examples of unparalleled narrative skill — could almost be cut without serious damage to the story: Cliff Booth’s (Brad Pitt) confrontation with Bruce Lee and Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) attempt to shoot a barroom scene while under the influence. In the latter, Tarantino does the almost-impossible: he manages to make us enter a film-within-a-film so completely that we forget what we’re watching, only to yank us right out when Dalton forgets his lines.

Every classical, conservative bone in my body felt like shrieking in rage at his game-playing. And every little drop of me that adores originality has, since, then yelled out: I’m in the hands of a master.

But where would this master be without these actors? Pitt is at his extraordinary best, managing to make the most improbable moments seem not only believable, but rich in humor as well as pain. Who else could convince us he can throw Bruce Lee into the side of a car and leave a dent as big as a New York apartment? When he bares his shirt and exposes himself to the sky, who can forget the young man who similarly bared himself in Thelma and Louise, now lined and older but still great-looking? He’s as rich and textured as the older Gary Cooper, and just as charismatic.

And then there’s his partner-in-crime, DiCaprio. What movie star would dare take on this role of a has-been, a self-pitying, narcissistic, tearful and angry B-movie performer whose eyes light up at the mere mention of Roman Polanski? The fact that DiCaprio has done so and made this man real — and added humor even to his explosions of anger — is nothing short of a miracle. Watch him as his eyes fill up while talking to a young girl who has no idea what he’s going through, even as he attempts to hide his tears from her; consider him as he explodes in rage, without letting us doubt for an instant that the rage is real; see him as he brings realism to the most cliched TV western, making it so believable we forget it’s a cliché — and then snaps right out of it as he forgets his lines.

This is breathtaking work. These actors don’t just bring different layers of emotion to everything they’re playing, they bring all our memories of their past roles, too. If that’s not what a great star is all about, what is?

On the flip side of the coin is Dwayne Johnson. Here’s a performer who would never equate himself with the De Niros, the Pacinos, the Day-Lewises. Just imagine casting Johnson as Hamlet — or Travis Bickle or Michael Corleone for that matter — and you’ll see what I mean.

But now imagine, too, how boring Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw would be without him. This is the flimsiest of material, the most factory-produced, honed-to-a-sheen, painted-by-the-numbers instance of genre filmmaking. But doesn’t that make it all the harder to bring to life? Name a single other actor who could step into Johnson’s part and allow us to go on the ride with him, without rolling our eyes or losing interest along the way. If that’s not a testament to the power of a star, nothing should be.

“I’m not an actor — I’m a movie star!” Peter O’Toole famously proclaimed as the washed-up thespian in My Favorite Year. Watch Johnson and you understand the difference between the two. But both have value.

Pitt and DiCaprio would be as out of place in Hobbs & Shaw as Johnson would be in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And yet each movie would be incomparably the worse without them.

The question, of course, is: are these anomalies or are they here to remind us that stars really do matter, after all? I hope it’s the latter. Movies without the mysterious and mesmerizing, the compelling and confounding presence of stars are as meaningless as a video game, as unresonant as a roller-coaster ride.