Some bad habits are hard to break. Making stupid cell phone calls while driving on the turnpike. Snack hunting in the fridge after 10 PM. Scanning USA Today’s Life section for the inevitable postmortem on how last night’s American Idol contestants did.
And then there’s believing in movie stars. The Hollywood elite were less than charmed when Chris Rock took after this myth in his Academy Awards monologue—the most amusing result was Sean Penn’s impassioned defense of Jude Law—but I thought Rock was right on. At last someone pointed out the obvious: The emperor is strutting around in his birthday suit.
Maybe the closest thing we have to a bona fide movie star these days is Will Smith. USA Today officially crowned him in that purple Life section of theirs after Hitch scored $43.1 million in its opening weekend. The Hollywood trades have preened over him; so has this very magazine. But while no one disputes that Hitch has had a terrific run, and Columbia Pictures has every reason to be delighted (as does Will Smith), let’s not get carried away.
Hitch was powered by a charming trailer and opened on the single biggest date-weekend of the year. The chief competition was a panned horror movie (Boogeyman) in its second week. So tell me—are you really surprised that Hitch blew the doors off the competition? I’m taking nothing away from Smith, an incredibly charming actor who has also been incredibly savvy about choosing his projects, but I mean… a romantic comedy that doesn’t insult the twentysomething moviegoer’s intelligence and opens on Valentine’s Day weekend? Come on.
Did people really go to see Will Smith just because he was Will Smith? Sorry, don’t think so. I think they went to see Smith’s character teach the fat guy (beautifully played by Kevin James) how to dance and kiss. To get the girl, yeah, sure, but mostly how to dance and how to kiss. It was sweet, it was charming, and it was simple. Too simple for most studio execs, apparently, who can’t believe such sweet simplicity works unless you’ve got a 20-million-dollar man like Will Smith toplining the show. But in fact it did work, more than 20 years ago, when a virtual unknown named Kevin Bacon starred in a similar movie called Footloose.
Star power is a myth, but story power exists. Filmmakers consistently turn away from this fact, and that’s why filmgoers so seldom get what they’re more than willing to stand in line for. Story power is why Boogeyman, with no so-called “stars” (except for its producer, Sam Raimi, and its shrewd PG-13 rating), can do $19 million on its opening weekend, far exceeding industry expectations. It’s why Diary of a Mad Black Woman opened with a jaw-dropping gross of $22 million. Man of the House, starring Academy Award winner (and acknowledged “star”) Tommy Lee Jones, opened on 939 more screens the same weekend, but grossed a third as much. Why? Moviegoers wanted to see what happened after the Stinking Lawyer kicked out the Faithful Wife, that’s why. The same way they wanted to see what happened when the Troubled Young Man finally went back to confront his childhood fears in Boogeyman. Never mind the mostly negative criticism these films generated; like The Passion of the Christ, which also featured a no-name in the starring role (Jim Caviezel), these movies had stories people were willing to line up to see. The Texas Ranger and the Jiggly Cheerleaders, on the other hand? Been there, done that.
The way Will Smith has chosen his roles suggests a man who understands he is not a star, but instead a bankable actor who can greenlight a project almost single-handedly. And how long will that state of affairs continue? As long as Smith continues producing successes like Hitch; I, Robot; Bad Boys; and Men in Black—the kind of movies that allow play-it-safe producers to believe in a magic-bullet movie world where stars can deliver big box office even if the movies themselves are just the same dumb old dreck. It’s not the Will Smiths and Tom Cruises of the world who are stupid; far from it. In fact, they’re the ones who every so often save the really stupid guys from their worst excesses… can you say “Heaven’s Gate”?
Sorry, no stars. The myth of star power may seem pretty, but the statistics prove it is nothing but a lie. For every high-budget, starring-vehicle flop you can name—a King Arthur with Clive Owen or an Alexander with Colin Farrell—there’s a string of low-budget, no-star flicks that found multiplex success in spite of studio indifference. They had the only thing that audiences really care about: story. I’m thinking of Cary Elwes in Saw; Sanaa Lathan in Alien vs. Predator; Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite; Because of Winn-Dixie, with Annasophia Robb; and, of course, Kimberly Elise in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. In Hollywood, studio execs are even now sitting around asking themselves, “Why didn’t we do that?” The answer, of course, is because Halle Berry was too busy doing art films like Catwoman.
Banking on stars isn’t truly safe, because there really aren’t any stars—only stories. “I am big,” Norma Desmond proclaims near the beginning of Billy Wilder’s great (but hardly blockbuster) Sunset Boulevard. “It’s the pictures that got small.”