Where are all the stars hiding?

StreepHoffman In the novel Entertaining Welsey Shaw, Welsey is the biggest movie star in the world at the moment. Famous since ten, she has made dozens of movies of all sorts, from airy comedies to serious dramas, has won lots of awards, and never undertakes the same sort of project twice. It’s still how we think of stars. In real life, however, the stars have disappeared, gone out.

Once upon the time there were many more stars in the galaxy. Stars used to drive Hollywood.

Not anymore.

Oh, it seems that stars are still mega-powerful, and in a way they are. The paparazzi are always chasing them, flattering them, cajoling them. But they do it for reasons of gossip, not accomplishment. (Actually they do it to fill news holes in this 24/7 celebrity world.) It doesn’t matter if you are a brilliant actor or you make a sex tape.

What about Jennifer Lawrence? you’ll say. Or Shailene Woodley? That just shows how dim the universe of stars has become.

Jennifer Lawrence, after a couple legit movies where her acting skills sold the package, has “gone franchise” with her Hunger Games flicks. And Shailene, after some initial hesitation, seems to have followed with her dystopian series as well. Their few other efforts since they started starring in franchises have gone almost unnoticed.

Another recent star, Kristen Stewart, has tried to do the reverse—transitioning from a franchise, Twilight, to indie films. Those films barely opened, and her career is nowhere near where it was five or six years ago when she was Bella Swan.

Once upon a time stars ruled Hollywood. Not just in the day of Bogart, Bacall, Gable, et al, but even in the recent 80s, with Streep, Close, DeNiro, etc.

For a while directors edged them out, in the 60s-70s, as the auteur theory from France took hold in America. Suddenly people went to see a movie because of the man behind the camera and his “vision.” Movie posters would announce “A Robert Altman Film” or “A Francis Ford Coppola” film very prominently at the top, and that would often be enough to bring the audience in. Serious film nerds, bearded hippies who toted Bolexes and bathed weekly, would talk about how Woody Allen hardly ever panned the camera with his actors and the ways in which Gordon Willis failed to light a scene.

All that has changed. Sure people still flock to Spielberg’s movies, but they do so because of the honking huge IMAX special effects, not because Steven was behind the camera, since he is all but indiscernible. Indeed, while one can spot a Hitchcock from a Wyler at a thousand yards, I doubt most people today could discern a film Spielberg directed from something by James Cameron, Michael Bay or someone else. Nor would they care.

Special effects are the stars now—computers, or computer software, coding by Silicon Valley geeks. The allure of Hepburn, Tracy, Grant, Crawford and the rest have been replaced by software that allows cities to be chewed up and spit out by dinosaurs.

Look at the latest Jurassic movie. Who’s the female lead? Ever heard of her before? Do you care? What could Welsey Shaw, with all her great talents, bring to a movie like that? Absolutely nothing.

The very conceit of my novel has sort of died.

And that’s the difference between not-too-long-ago and now. No one cares who stars alongside special effects—digital bits that aren’t even there. It’s the digital bits that aren’t even there that are all important. Like with so many other occupations, actors have been replaced by computers.

Yet television—particularly cable—is still being cited as the place where serious actors with serious stories can do their work. Many heavyweight actors who have been floundering on the big screen in recent years have moved to HBO, Showtime and the others to strike gold. Writers and directors are finding their character-driven yarns welcome.

Why is that? Wisdom used to be that “the small screen” was more suited to “human dramas.” But that doesn’t hold anymore. TV screens today are—or can be—huge, and they are wide, the same ratio as movie screens and just as sharp. Add to that the giant surround speakers and subwoofers the size of small refrigerators and in short you can have a home setup as overpowering as anything in a cineplex. And while many people watch the big special effects movies this way, a lot of the material on TV screens is still of the character-driven variety.

I think it’s less to do with screen size and more to do with story flow. In the movies, once the lights go down and the film starts, there are no interruptions—all the better to sustain a fantasy universe. At home there are cell phones and doorbells and the dog and the kids and pizza delivery, as well as the fact that the TV programs themselves have built-in interruptions periodically. Harder to lose yourself in the suspension of disbelief. You don’t have that special “out of body experience” that Roger Ebert so often talked about in the movies when you’re at home. You’re always aware where you are and what’s going on around you.

But it seems this is where character-driven literature is bound to stay, at least for the time being. I really think that indie film is essentially dead, or close to it. Sure there will always be the occasional film made, and it will get shown in a small handful of theaters around the country, probably for just a week or two out of the year. But this hardly constitutes an industry, even a niche one.

And the big sense-flattening extravaganzas just don’t have room for stars. They don’t need them. No one is noticing acting nuance and subtle dialogue when a giant tsunami is wiping out San Francisco or a T-Rex is eating a car full of tourists.

Me, I’ll stick with Meryl and Dustin, and Altman and Coppola. There sure were a lot of great films in the 70s, my favorite decade for American movies. Thank goodness I can still enjoy them at home on my big screen while munching a pizza.



One response

  1. An inspired post, John. I miss seeing the stars, too. It seems the feast is over and we are left with crumbs. I am grateful, however, for the foreign films and series I’ve been able to watch on Netflix streaming. I may not recognize the actors (unless it’s the BBC!), but I appreciate the attention to craft in many of them.


    June 18, 2015 at 12:39 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s