In a recent article for the Los Angeles Times ("Fame Takes a Walk," Jan. 30), staff writer Mary McNamara bemoans the dearth of glamorous Hollywood stars among this year's crop of Oscar hopefuls. Triple nominee George Clooney is the only example she cites of someone possessing the kind of charismatic megawattage wielded in previous generations by the likes of Cary Grant, Bette Davis, and Clark Gable. Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Strathairn, Joaquin Phoenix, and Heath Ledger are hardly household names in McNamara's book. As for the women, only Walk the Line, with Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, had a strong female lead. McNamara even downplays Clooney's stature by noting that the two releases he has in contention—Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana—are "small, politically challenged films…that mark his determination to be more than a potential casino owner and Hollywood glamour guy." At the last Oscars ceremony, host Chris Rock put forth a similar, nasty theme when he joked that Jude Law, who appeared in four films that year, was not a real movie star and that producers should wait to cast Russell Crowe rather than settling for Law.
Yes, it's true the average moviegoer might not recognize the names of 80% of this year's nominees and that Clooney is making his political views known in two independent films. But Clooney, as well as Hoffman, Strathairn, Felicity Huffman, Paul Giamatti, and their colleagues, received nods from the Academy because they gave awesome performances, not because the readers of People and Us know them or agree with their politics.
McNamara cites our crass era as a cause of this "devaluation of the movie star." Decades ago, the major studios groomed their stable for stardom by picking suitable vehicles that developed their personae—sophisticated comedy for Grant, intense melodrama for Davis, and so on. They also controlled the stars' publicity, doling out digestible, often-erroneous tidbits on their personal lives for the fan magazines and gossip columns. Today each star-level performer develops his or her own career. And as for publicity, the hoi polloi are no longer served up cookies of info by lady columnists in funny hats. Instead, the peccadilloes of celebrities are treated like raw meat thrown to the ravenous hordes by equally ravenous media models. Red-carpet fashionistas revel in revealing embarrassing faux pas. The explosion of reality television, where anyone from a Boston construction worker to a NASCAR family from Florida can grab their 15 minutes, further weakens the idea of star currency.
McNamara quotes the veteran horror actor Christopher Lee, whom USA Today named the star with the biggest box office take in 2005, who said in a British television interview, "There are quite large numbers of very young men and women…[who] are playing very large parts in huge films, and they simply, through no fault of their own, don't have the background and the experience…to pull it off." There are indeed some young, inexperienced actors thrust into major film roles because of their looks or their name value from a TV series. But there are just as many talented performers delivering fully fleshed-out, gripping work. It's just that the studios are producing more and more lowest-common-denominator drivel (Big Momma's House 2 was the top-grosser last weekend), while independent producers are filling the void in films for grownups. Maybe that creates fewer stars, but it also makes for better, smaller movies, and better actors.