Thursday, March 14, 2013

Heath Holland On...The Changing Face of Hollywood

This week I’m asking the big questions: Are today’s movie stars as great as movie stars used to be? And what about their films? How do they stack up against cinema of yesteryear? Will I still be “Hollywood” Heath Holland after this week’s column?

The impetus for this column came from two things, the first being an article I recently read about the highest paid actors and actresses for the year of 2012. I was flabbergasted, perplexed, dumbfounded, and other words that mean the same thing upon learning that Adam Sandler made $37 million last year and has a net worth of $280 million. I knew he was popular and made a lot of money, but COME ON. Kristen Stewart scored $34.5 million just last year. What started out as me seeing the annual income for the top actors and actresses got me thinking about the nature of celebrity, where it came from, the stars of the past, and how the current crop stacks up against those of our silver-screened past. Is Hollywood forever?

16 hours and 4 pots of coffee later, I managed to pull out of that black hole and started a search to find out where modern celebrity culture came from. It led me to England…not by plane, but by Google. Professor of Cultural Studies Fred Inglis has written a book called A Short History of Celebrity. Now I only read the article ABOUT the book, not the book itself, but what I gleaned from it was that it can be traced back largely to the poets and artistic community of two hundred years ago, and that Lord Byron was the powdered-wigged equivalent of Russell Brand. I knew Byron was a bad boy, but I hadn’t really connected him (as Inglis does, among others) to being the start of what is now our current obsession with celebrities, i.e. how we pick people who have status and spend considerable amount of time observing them do things that we wish we were doing ourselves. We live vicariously through them. When Byron defrocked ladies (and men) on the boudoir floor and wrote scintillating poetry about it, his readers wanted to be him, or the lady (man), or both. And that’s what we still do, innit? We project ourselves into the lives of our celebrities. They are a standard by which we judge ourselves.

Alright, this is all getting a bit academic and heady. Let’s bring it back down to Earth. Do our current movie stars still have that IT factor that Byron did -- or Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, James Cagney, and Clark Gable after him? I’ve noticed that the older I get (I’m 66), I am less and less interested in the keeping up with movie stars. Not just their private lives (though sometimes I am, as you’ll see further down) but even their films. I rarely go see movies based on who is starring in them like I used to. Back in the day, I saw EVERYTHING Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro starred in. Now? Not so much. I still have a few favorites, but a lot of my heroes are either dying out or have ended up in Movie Jail for not bringing in audiences anymore.

These days, I’m thinking harder than ever before I put my money down for a ticket or a Blu-ray. Looking back on my movie-going trends last year, I mostly got out to the cinema for the stories and not for the stars. When a movie is sold on the power of an actor, I’m rarely interested anymore. “A powerhouse performance you have to see to believe!” No, that’s alright, I don’t think I do. And it’s particularly true of Oscar bait. The movies that the studios want me to see the most are the movies I have the least interest in lately. I’ve watched The King’s Speech a grand total of one time and have no idea when I’ll watch it again. I’ve no interest in The Artist or Argo. I’m not saying those aren’t great movies or that I’m superior -- or even right -- in my lack of interest (remember, my motto is “like what you like…”along with “he who smelt it, dealt it”). I’m just saying that I’m less and less interested in what hits cinemas each year. The premises, the actors and the actresses don’t have the pull on me that they used to. The glitz is wearing thin. How many of us even watched the Academy Awards this year? And of those who did, how many actually enjoyed it? More often than I’d like, I’m saying “F THIS MOVIE!” When I should be saying “F! This movie!

The last couple of years have brought me significant joy in discovering the stars of Hollywood past: Charlie Chaplin, Erol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, Gregory Peck, and Marilyn Monroe. Those actors are charismatic, extremely watchable, and masters of their craft, and I FEEL (I don’t KNOW) that there’s not nearly as much of that today as there used to be. Is it just me? Am I just turning into a curmudgeon? Am I the only one who finds today’s Hollywood to be far less enchanting than the tinsel town of yore?

Look, I dealt with this with my parents when I was growing up, too. I’d come home from seeing something like Lethal Weapon 4 or The Matrix and try to tell them how awesome it was. Sometimes they’d even give it a shot. But then they’d start in on how movies aren’t like they used to be, and go on and on about To Kill A Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men. And I’d say “No, you don’t get it! This is so cool! They introduce this thing called BULLET TIME and it’s like time just stops!” And they’d smile, nod and go back to watching AMC. We went to all kinds of movies when I was a kid, and went as a family to the late showing of Batman Returns on opening night. We saw A LOT of movies. But by the time I was 20, they had become almost completely uninterested in what was playing at the theater. These days they may see one movie a year because, to them, it’s not the Hollywood they remember. They say it’s all changed.

Now here I am, years and years later, and I’M saying to myself “This is not the Hollywood I remember!” And I’m kind of freaked out by that, because I don’t want to be closed off to all the wonderful things still coming out; at the same time, I’m having a harder and harder time relating to many of the movie stars and films coming out each year. It’s a weird thing, too, when you become older than the people that you’re watching on screen. Something seems to happen in your brain. I’m now noticing this in a lot of areas in my life. We just bought a car and the salesman was A CHILD to me. I wanted to ask him if his parents knew where he was. And in the movies we watch, I’m now older than many of the actors on the screen. Not all of them, but more than I’d like. I’m getting older, but Hollywood is getting younger. It’s not just freaking me out, it’s affecting how I am able to relate to the people in the movies I watch.

I’ve also recognized that the awe I have of celebrities has died out in recent years. As a teenager and into my early twenties, I avidly pursued and collected the autographs of movie stars. Few were obtained in person, but you’d be surprised what you can get with a well constructed letter and a return, postage paid, manila envelope. But now when I run across that binder full of 8x10 headshots covered in silver penned scrawl, I feel something very different. There’s a bit of regret for idolizing these people so much and treating them as larger than life. At the end of the day, they’re just like us. I go to my job, they go to theirs. They are not better than us or smarter than us. I’ve been to too many conventions and seen someone I idolized looking bored at a table all alone (there’s nothing more myth shattering than seeing, say, George Romero sitting all alone at a folding table looking sleepy), or worse, behaving like a child. These days if I ran into, say, George Clooney at a Starbucks, I’d think “Oh, cool, it’s The Cloon-Dog.” If we made eye contact, I may even give the universal nod of acknowledgement. But I don’t need an autograph or a photo, or even a handshake. He’s just a dude getting coffee. And he’s going to go to work filming a movie that I may or may not go see. He’s not a giant or a god. That perspective is relatively new for me, and I’m not even sure when it formed.

Why do we put these people on such a pedestal? Is it seeing them in our cinema, 40 feet tall and bulletproof? And then on the poster in the lobby? Why do we put so much of ourselves into them? Is it the passage of time that allows a legend to build? Jennifer Lawrence has only been at this for a few years. In a couple of decades, will she be as revered as Meryl Streep?

And while I’m asking questions, why do we love to build them up and put them on a pedestal and then smile when they fall off that pedestal? I love Robert Downey Jr. I love that he’s a redemption story, a morality tale come to life, but I HATE that about myself. He’s a human being, not one of Aesop’s Fables, and his has been a life full of trials and mistakes followed by redemption. And it all took place in the public eye. The same can be said of Charlie Sheen. Heaven help her, Lindsay Lohan has taken such a public beating that I wonder if she’ll ever be on our “nice” list again. These people’s private lives, their addictions and their failures (or successes, for that matter) are none of my business, but I find myself investing in spite of myself. I’m a sucker for a good redemption story. I try not to get involved in their personal lives, but it’s hard because that private life is on the front page of every magazine in the supermarket checkout line.

It’s nothing new. Remember, it all goes back to Byron. We idolize these people and make them into avatars. They know it, and play their part for us all too willingly and well. Keith Richards, while not an actor, is still a huge celebrity known the world over for his outrageous behavior. He said in his autobiography Life that he does a lot of the crazy things he does because people expect it of him -- they need him to be someone they can’t be and to do things that they can’t do, and he’s going to do his best to live up to those expectations. The same could be said for many of these actors and actresses.

Again, I’m straying. My original point is that I see fewer and fewer actors that I want to be LIKE and actresses that I want to be WITH, and I’m wondering if it’s just me or if you guys see it, too. I swear, it didn’t hit me until I saw the article about Adam Sandler and Kristen Stewart. That got me thinking about all the faces that I had thought were new, but who aren’t new anymore. They’re modern Hollywood. The Hollywood I grew up with in the '80s and early '90s is long gone. Patrick Swayze, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, Julia Roberts, and Michelle Pfeiffer slowly gave way to a New Hollywood with Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cameron Diaz, Julianne Moore, and Gwyneth Paltrow. But now they too are fading, and it’s changing again, but I feel farther from it and less connected this time. I don’t know where it’s all going. Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Chris Hemsworth, Jonah Hill, Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis: these are the new movie stars. Do they have that indefinable quality? Are they the Katherine Hepburns and Spencer Tracys of the future? I don’t know, but I do know that Hollywood has changed. It’s still changing, and I want to discuss it. Is the Hollywood of today still as relevant and magical as the Hollywood of days gone by? Do these actors still have the power to cast a spell over us? Does it still mean the same thing to you?


  1. Heath! I've often thought this stuff myself. Great read!

    I had an Audrey Hepburn run a couple of years ago and it was delightful. I love discovering old stars for myself and going back and talking to my parents and sometimes grandparents about them (if we're going back to the Clark Gable's etc.).

    I think the 'property' killed 'the star' and that bums me out. You don't need a star when you have 6 superheros in a movie. You just need inexpensive actors to fill the role and not embarass themselves. Often you get pleasant surprises though.

    I kind of miss the star era myself. In the 90s you knew for the most part what you would get out of a Kevin Costner movie or the next Van Damme movie. There's some comfort in consistency.

    I might have to email you separately about this. I could go on and on. Again, great work!

    1. You're right, property definitely killed the star! That's so true...who would have thought, even 10 years ago, that there'd be movies based on board games like Battleship.

      Blow up my e-mail. We'll dish.

  2. Ladies and gentleman - Andy Rooney! - give him a big hand, folks, young people really are annoying!

    Seriously though, this was a good read, Heath, but I'm not sure I have the time or the blood alcohol level to really go down that dark, deep rabbit hole of what is wrong with a society that not only idolizes celebrity to a similar, but I'd argue greater, degree as we have for the past couple hundred years, but also now has an unprecedented level of access to their personal lives through Facebook, Twitter and TMZ, etc. It's all gotten pretty fucking gross really and I think it has a lot to do with why it doesn't FEEL like movie stars are the same as they once were - a feeling I whole-heartedly agree with. On the one hand we idolize them and covet their lives to a ridiculous extent; on the other, we see much more of them being human and vulnerable and for some reason these two conflicting realities are just not jiving well with our collective consciousness, including the celebrities themselves who I don't think realize, when they're getting into it, just how invasive and damaging Celebrity has become. They're under so much pressure now - they tell one "fan" to fuck off when they're having a bad day and the whole world knows about it within the hour. If they have too much to drink and accidentally flash their beaver getting out of a car it's not just a Hollywood rumour, it's a reality everyone can see in 16 megapixel high definition. Break-ups play out in excruciating detail, etc., etc. The lines between the Movie Set and the Real World are so blurred for them now - when can they stop ACTING? And you're right - boy, do we love it when they finally crack under all of the pressure we put on them. "She's got it so fucking great and she can't keep her shit together? I might have a boring, anonymous life compared to her but at least I'm not a disgusting drug addict." We might have stopped the Germans in WWII but it didn't stop schadenfreude from becoming one of our society's dominant sentiments. We are a jealous society - jealous of fame but to a greater extent jealous of other people's capacity to obtain material things, celebrities being the most in-your-face examples of people who can buy more shit than you can. So in the end we put some value on their ability to entertain us, but even more value on their wealth which we manage to both admire and hate them for. In the end, they're just more victims of the American Dream run amok and proof that those who attain it are no better off than those who don't (but want to). It's just another symptom of a civilization in apparent decline.

    TO BE CONTINUED - hit the character count wall for the first time ever!

    1. Within the past couple years I've watched for the first time stars like Orson Welles, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis and Gregory Peck (to name a few) and I've been blown away by how unique and awesome they are and I've asked myself where are the guys like this now? Well, I don't think they CAN exist anymore for all of the reasons I mention above. Those guys got to keep their public personas much more firmly in the fictional realm of their work. No one really got to see them off their game - they were always in a state of larger-than-life Hollywood perfection. Even their occasional low moments seemed glamourous - no one heard a recording of them screaming at their soon-to-be-ex about how they didn't get the blowjob they were promised the night before. The public was happier then too - post -WWII a man could make a pretty good life for himself and his family, with all of the essentials and even some luxuries, working a factory job. They might have envied the rich and famous but it didn't come with the pain of barely getting by themselves - our envy is much darker now, and I don't think Movie Stars will ever capture us in the same way they used to and I suppose in some ways, that's not so bad, though it's too bad it's probably because everything else is going to shit.

      Like Adam I could go and on - preferably at a bar - Nova Scotia roadtrip anyone?

    2. Yeah, this column is definitely Andy Rooney. Better that than Mickey Rooney, as I always say.

      And we can just pretend we're in a pub. What are you drinking?

      So I definitely think that our celebrity obsessed culture is part of it, but I also think that the stars are getting younger and younger and less and less charismatic. Look at Kristen Stewart: she's 22, and she was the highest paid actress of 2012. I actually don't have much of an opinion on her, which I think is part of the problem. She's not bad, but I find her very unemotive and without range. Most of her performances that I've seen are distant and uncharismatic. That works when you need someone who is distant and uncharismatic, but she's on the top of the list of lead actresses now. I hope Patrick can weigh in on her performance in Snow White and the Huntsmen and if there's something more there. I'm not necessarily trying to pick on her, but with her being the highest paid actress, it bears comment.

      It's really just about my ability to invest. 20 years ago it seems like the average movie star was around 40. Ten years ago it seemed like it was dropping to 30. Now the average movie star seems to be early twenties. If they haven't blown up by 25, they're done.

      I do think that old Hollywood is gone and maybe never will happen again, but the Hollywood I loved still existed 5 years ago. This has really happened just in the last couple. Maybe since 2009 or so. Or I could be way off and that's just perception of things.

      I also think that what made older Hollywood so special was the mystique of the actors, but they also seemed a lot more talented as actors than a lot of the people I'm seeing on screen. Since the latest episode of F This Movie is about Oz The Great and Powerful, let's use it as an example. Patrick and Adam talked about how James Franco, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams don't really seem like the strongest cast for this movie. That's THREE leads in this movie that don't seem to fit. The number two movie last weekend was Jack The Giant Slayer, starring Nicholas Hoult, who's 23. Third was Identity Thiefwhich does NOT further my point, but number four was 21 and Over, a college movie, and number 5 was Escape From Planet Earth, an animated children's movie.

      Just for fun, I Googled the top 5 of March 2003, ten years ago. Steve Martin and Queen Latifah (Bringing Down The House, Bruce Willis (Tears of the Sun, Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones (The Hunted, Chris Rock (Head of State, and Frankie Muniz (he's the exception with the number two movie, Agent Cody Banks) were all actors over 30 in the top 5. Just using that comparison, there's clearly something different, not just in the age of the stars but in the type of movies. I can't believe it, but those movies from 10 years ago seem like AGES ago when compared to the flashy CG properties we see now. Of those 5 movies from 2003, only one of them relied on special effects, which was the Frankie Muniz movie. So, see, we don't even have to go back to GOLDEN AGE Hollywood to see that things have become significantly different just in the last 10 years.

      But since you brought up Orson Welles, Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, et al, don't you think those people had a certain something that made them special? A certain gravitas and way with commanding words, of owning those words, that made them so believable? How many modern actors have that quality? Some do, but I'm concerned that not enough do.

    3. Oops. I realize that my parenthesis above are incomplete. I dunno what happened.

    4. Watch those parentheses Heath, I read that whole last part imagining your "aside" voice - you've embarrassed us both!

      I definitely get what you're saying and I think it ties into my insane rant in that our evermore consumerist culture has become especially focussed on pandering to youths (or "yoots" as my cousin, Vinnie, calls them). And these yoots are, I think, legitimately much different than we were (they don't just SEEM to be because I'm older) - I never cared if the stars of movies I liked were in their early 20s or looked young. I LOVED every member of the cast of Pulp Fiction when I was 14 - it never even occurred to me that they were old. Kids today either do, or marketing departments really think they do. Not only has that driven up the demand for young actors and actresses, it's also upped the pressure on middle-aged celebrities to LOOK young. Look at Jennifer Aniston at Oscars, for example, I've always found her super-hot but she's already doing shit to her face! Like it's better to look like a 29-year-old monster than a 40-odd-year-old gorgeous woman with a few wrinkles. It's sad and I don't think that pressure is coming from nowhere, it's the new reality of Hollywood because enough has happened in the past 10 years that young people today truly are a lot different than we were. EVERYTHING, literally EVERYTHING, is at their fingertips, on demand, they expect instant gratification of 3 three different desires at the same time. But I'm ranting again - basically I'm just agreeing with your observations and saying it's not that Hollywood exists in a bubble and just changed on its own - it's a case of the sellers changing to suit the new buyers. Because young people are into shallow, instant gratification, Twilight is a thing; because Twilight is a thing, Kristen Stewart is a thing; because Kristen Stewart is a thing, Heath Holland has written an article lamenting the changing face of Hollywood.

      Welles, Bogard, Stewart, et al, did have a certain something that made them special to people of their time and people of our time still able to appreciate that certain something. There's a good chance a 14-year-old would not see that something special in them. Is there a non-relative, absolute "something" that they had, that fewer people have today? Does Jimmy Stewart have "something" that Kristen Stewart doesn't? YES, but really I'm not sure. As much as I'd like to say so, I'm too much of a relativist to do so with much conviction. Like with primetime sitcoms (for example), I might just have to resign myself to the fact that I'm just not with what's "it" anymore, which is both a blessing and a curse, I suppose...

  3. Great read HHH.

    I view it more of a good thing that Hollywood is progressing beyond us. We're no longer the "young and hip" generation, we are now closing in on maturity at an alarming rate. If I was still identifying with the current generation I would view that as a problem. Either it would mean I was still functioning at the same level as someone half my age, or the young and hip generation was still the exact same as when I was young and hip, which would both be as depressing as each other.

    Times are meant to move on. And there comes a time when"young adult" and "adolescent" media SHOULDN'T appeal to me anymore.
    This gives me hope for the future.

    1. I agree, times are meant to move on, but I wish some of the stars from our era got to move on with us. I miss seeing Kurt Russell, or Kevin Costner, or James Spader, or Goldie Hawn or even Julia Roberts a couple of times each year. I even think I miss Drew Barrymore, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sandra Bullock. They all pop up every now and then, but the torch has passed to the next generation as the main box office draw. It seemed like it happened overnight.

  4. nice article Heath, while I will definitely agree with the fact that on an overall scale movie stars aren't as strong as they used to be (although I think Emma Stone even in lesser movies really has that presence) One of the great things that I think has actually helped Hollywood is the many different ways to get media. While yes that means two girl/one cup and Harlem Shake youtube videos have added to the dumbening of society.

    It seems like TV has really been getting the best actors of late, Andrew Lincoln of Walking Dead could easily start making some great films and Jason Isaacs last year did an absolutely mesmerizing job on NBC'S one year wonder Awake. The movie star thing doesnt bother me as much as it does Heath but one thing I wish I saw more of was some medium sized films cause one thing I see a lot of lately is either super small independent films or gigantic action tentpole films. It sure would be refreshing to see another original medium sized flick like District 9 again.

    One thing that I think has changed and for the better in some cases is CGI when used properly in films. When directors have used this properly it really helps bring the movie to life in ways that they couldn't just a few years ago say what you will about the plot of Tron Legacy (and god knows there is a LOT you can complain about) the visuals in that film absolutely blew me away in IMAX 3D. There's something I would like to see more of, films shot with IMAX cameras presented on legitimate IMAX screens, its just great.

    I cant wait for Heath's next column Heath Holland on... technicolor, Hollywood's new rainbow drug :)