Williams, Bacall: Death of star power

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20140811-AMX-WILLIAMS-OBIT116 The Washington Post Actor Robin Williams is shown in a scene from the 1993 movie Mrs. Doubtfire. Photo: Phil Bray / Twentieth Century Fox

Washington - The deaths this week of Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams weigh heavily on all those who love film. Some stars are irreplaceable. It's also an appropriate occasion to revisit a question that has troubled Hollywood these last few years: As much as we'll miss Williams and Bacall, do movie stars even matter anymore?

It has become commonplace to assert that we live in the post-star era, in which, as GQ put it, “the movies seem to be doing just fine without the presence of an entire category of people who have been, for the better part of the past century, the main reason a lot of people went to the movies.”

There are franchise stars but few movie stars. The Avengers series would be unthinkable without Robert Downey Jr., and he may well continue to earn enormous paychecks as Sherlock Holmes. The jury is out on whether he can carry a nonfranchise film. This is no knock on the talented Downey: It seems to be the story of the age. Rarer and rarer are the actors who can bring large numbers of fans into the movie theatre simply with their presence on the screen.

In The End Of Leading Men, a provocative article published last year in the New Republic, Noreen Malone suggested that the media's fascination with the supposed decline of the male lead was related to the “alleged masculinity crisis.” She also set out the problem from Hollywood's point of view: “Yes, male movie stars tend to be more bankable than their female counterparts, and so it's not great for the business as a whole if there are fewer of them.”

Of course, both can be true. It's hard to put a larger-than-life male icon on the screen if producers can't figure out what sort of man is iconic these days. But movie stars don't have to be men. If there are few men whom moviegoers will pay regularly to see, are there any women? The surprise success this summer of Lucy, a Luc Besson sci-fi film that served as a vehicle for Scarlett Johansson, has been heralded as leading a new era of leading women. But Besson has turned the same magic by directing or scripting one film after another in which world-weary and beleaguered characters, played by Liam Neeson, beat up bad guys. So Lucy might be as much to the director's credit as the star's.

What, then, is going on? Where are the stars?

IOL pic aug13 lauren bacall Actress Lauren Bacall arrives at the 2010 Vanity Fair Oscar party in West Hollywood, California, on March 7, 2010. File picture: Danny Moloshok Reuters

There is a standard story in which other forms of entertainment have swallowed up the film audience, and certainly, there is something to this tale. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, American households spent a remarkable one-quarter of their recreational budgets on going to the movies. By 1975, with television ubiquitous, that figure was down to four percent.

But there may be more going on. Perhaps our era is merely clarifying a longstanding truth: that stars are less important than we thought they were. The psychologist Skip Dine Young, in his 2012 book Psychology At The Movies, examines the scholarly literature on box office success and cites two predictors of success: The films that draw huge audiences tend to be “democratic” (in the sense that they draw from multiple age groups) and, with some exceptions, noncontroversial, “inhabiting a familiar and comfortable zone for the majority of American society.”

In recent decades, however, the single biggest predictor of a movie's success has been the size of its budget. Some high-cost productions fail, but “films with higher budgets tend to do better” - although there is dispute among scholars as to the reason. Other weakly predictive factors, says Young, include winning Oscars in major categories or (interestingly) for visual effects; genre (comedies, sci-fi and fantasy do best); and “whether the film is a sequel or a remake.” The ideal rating seems to be PG-13, “although G and PG movies can do well.” Gory violence and graphic sex are out. Biopics and literary adaptations tend to do poorly. The most successful films “emphasise humour, nonreality and spectacle.”

What's interesting about Young's tour through the scholarly work is what's absent: the presence of a bankable star.

Maybe we don't need movie stars as much as we used to. The media critic Richard Dyer, in his classic work Stars, argued that we should conceptualise film stars not as real people but as constructed images — a view by now widespread in film studies. Stripped of the academic jargon, Dyer's contention is that the star patches holes in the social fabric, stitching together on the screen that which in life would otherwise seem to be coming apart. The films, in Dyer's telling, are designed to bring us to an identification with the star: The star is a meta-human, papering over real social difficulties with his or her success.

I have no problem with films that offer an idealised form of reality, or with characters to whose traits we might aspire. Yet if Dyer is right, one would expect to see the value of the star rising as public pessimism grows. The opposite is occurring. This is where Young's review of the psychological literature helps. We no longer need the screen presence of a single famous individual to help us displace our worries and fears. The film - especially the big-budget film - can do the work all by itself.

Are there any stars left? Possibly. But it's hard to guess who they are. Malone's article, published a year ago, offered the name of George Clooney. A few months later, the Clooney vehicle The Monuments Men was released to poor reviews and terrible box office. Meanwhile, the franchises and sequels, mostly devoid of big names, glide deliriously along.

Which is another way of saying that the likes of Williams and Bacall may be irreplaceable indeed.

Washington Post/ Bloomberg News

* Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of law at Yale University.

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