Yesterday I wrote about a recent piece in The Hollywood Reporter, in which they dug into the meaning of the word "star" in Hollywood and found it, well, almost non-existent. The decline of star power in selling movies has been well-documented over the last decade, with franchises and superheroes drawing people to movies far more than who's in them, but aside from the fact that the same old stars are drawing in fewer fans, there's the much more troubling fact that no new stars are emerging to replace them.
Yes, there are plenty of names you look forward to seeing in a movie, people whose performances thrilled you in the past and guaranteed you'll look for them next time. But that's not happening any more on a large scale, where a simple name above the title-- "Will Smith in I Am Legend! Tom Cruise IS Jerry Maguire!"-- could get people to check out a movie they knew nothing about otherwise. These days people go into movies for the brand name they're familiar with above all else-- Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Transformers, Marvel--and if the person who stars in that movie happens to be popular and well-liked, then hey, maybe they'll get another pre-sold franchise to lead with their name below the title.
Take Jeremy Renner, for example. When I polled my twitter followers yesterday about who they thought were the stars who had emerged within the last 5 years, Renner got just a handful of votes, even though he's starred in three of the biggest movies to come out within the last year-- Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy. But even the titles of those movies are evidence of Renner's lack of actual starpower-- Mission: Impossible is thoroughly associated with Tom Cruise, Bourne with Matt Damon, and even the theme of The Avengers is that it's bigger than the individuals who are in it. Ghost Protocol was theoretically a chance for Cruise to hand the franchise over to Renner, depending on how people responded to the aging star in the lead, but Cruise killed it in that movie; the star from two decades ago keeps his tenuous foothold, and the social order remains.
The Hollywood Reporter article I wrote about yesterday proposed that Channing Tatum is the only actual star to emerge in the last few years, based on a series of recent successes-- both Magic Mike and The Vow were sold largely on his appeal-- as well as his ability to get projects made going forward simply by signing on. Virtually no other stars who broke out within the last 5 years have that power, though the article does curiously ignore Robert Downey Jr., who obviously has been acting for decades but exploded as a star with immense power after Iron Man in 2008. Downey Jr. wasn't unknown 5 years ago, but he was utterly unreliable, which might be an even higher mountain to climb over.
When I asked people on Twitter to chime in with who else they thought were the "new" stars, there was one clear winner: Michael Fassbender. THR also cited him as "one of the few names that foreign financiers get excited about," thanks to blockbusters like X-Men: First Class and Prometheus, and he's also got devotion from the film geek crowd, which can mean a lot for buzz. And with an adaptation of Assassin's Creed coming, Fassbender could have a shot at headlining another franchise that could give him that final boost up into the stratosphere. But would the household name of that video game still overshadow his? The trends of the past few years strongly suggest it will.
Here are the other top answers from that Twitter poll, in order of how often they were cited, along with some arguments against their current star power.
Chris Hemsworth. With The Avengers and Snow White and the Huntsman (and rumors of a sequel focused on him), he's certainly getting there. He could easily follow the Robert Downey Jr. path to stardom while also playing a superhero, but since we didn't know him before, could he always just wind up being Thor? (Note: A ton of people answered Chris Hemsworth, but no one picked Chris Evans. What's up with that?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Rising star? Most definitely. Current star? Not so sure. Even in Looper, the upcoming time-travel thriller, he's got long-running star Bruce Willis as backup, and as much as we want him to carry on Nolan's Batman franchise, it doesn't seem likely to happen. He doesn't seem to have anything lined up for the future that could skyrocket him to fame, but given how tight he and Nolan seem to be, that could be right around the corner.
Tom Hardy. Also a very clear rising star, but someone precious few moviegoers would recognize on a poster, especially since most of them know him now as Bane. But he's clearly got the talent and the physicality to do anything an action movie would demand of him-- as we talked about at length last fall-- and the upcoming Mad Max remake could easily do for him what it did for Mel Gibson 30 years ago. Tons of potential there, but not really a star by any definition just yet.
Emma Stone. She might be the best answer so far. Easy A was a modest hit entirely from her charms, she was the best part of The Amazing Spider-Man, she's got gobs of press attention, and-- lucky girl!-- she's got Cameron Crowe writing and directing a movie with her in the lead. She's virtually alone among young women in her ability to do both comedy and drama, and anyone who's seen her previous work-- which by now is a lot of people-- is eager to see her again. If she follows the Reese Witherspoon career track she's on right now, an Oscar and major paychecks will soon follow.
Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence already has the Oscar cred, an upcoming prestigious project with David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and, of course, her very own franchise. We'll see if she gets a beefed up role in X-Men: First Class that capitalizes on her fame as Katniss, but it's still way too early to tell if she's got what it takes to carry a movie on her own.
Kristen Stewart. Well, for various complicated reasons you know about, it's really hard to gauge this right now-- and will continue to be until Stewart makes her next non-Twilight movie. The success of Snow White and the Huntsman seemed to prove Stewart was a draw beyond Bella, but now, her personal life is clouding everything so much it's impossible to know what to expect.
Ryan Gosling. He's got the Internet meme market covered for sure, but Gosling has never been in a movie that made more than $100 million-- Crazy Stupid Love came close with $84 million, but before that you have to go all the way back to The Notebook for anything even over $50 million, and he seems to be doing everything he can to get away from his Nicholas Sparks roots. His Gangster Squad could be a solid commercial hit, but the shift to a January release date makes it tricky. There's a potential game-changer lurking in the future though: if his Logan's Run remake ever goes through, and his critical acclaim keeps going so strong, he could be something huge in a few years.
Other actors getting multiple votes include Renner, Chris Pine (he's got both Star Trek and a Jack Ryan reboot coming up, so he's a good bet), Robert Pattinson, Sam Worthington and Jesse Eisenberg. Shia LaBeouf was tellingly absent. And I'd probably also throw Mila Kunis's name into the mix, as a threat to Stone's domination of the comedy market, especially after this summer's Ted-- but again, that stardom isn't in place just yet.
So there you have it, the picks for the stars of today-- or the near future-- from a pretty limited sample of people, but people deeply invested in film and pop culture (well, I assume they are at least). Do you have other choices? Do you think any of these people are bigger stars than I give them credit for? Can you answer the Chris Evans mystery for me? Chime in with comments below, or vote in this poll.
Who is the biggest star to emerge in the last 5 years?
(Channing Tatum image via Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com)
(Michael Fassbender image via cinemafestival / Shutterstock.com)