Like the movies themselves, movie stars are perpetually said to be in decline, yet neither cinema nor its inhabitants were in short supply at the Academy Awards last month: most of the movies up for Best Picture were deserving, in at least some respect, and the red carpet was chock-full of outsized personalities ranging from Anne Hathaway to Bradley Cooper to Hollywood's current patron saint, George Clooney.
And yet in spite of this – in spite of both Hathaway and it-girl Jennifer Lawrence taking home trophies, and Ben Affleck single-handedly propelling Argo to its Best Picture win – the meme of the death of the movie star persists. Actors and actresses are not what they used to be, the pundits lament: they're too versatile, or insufficiently charming; the intrusive gaze of the paparazzi has denuded them of their seductive mystique; they can't single-handedly open a movie anymore. Movie stars are out, and franchises are in.
Nobody can ever quite agree what a movie star is, or was, or should be, which makes this entire exercise frustrating. Mark Harris does the best job yet in a recent piece for GQ, "The New and Improved Leading Man," in which he mounts a case study of the divergent careers of two beefcake actors, Channing Tatum (a new addition to the movie star pantheon) and Taylor Kitsch (a three word eulogy: John Carter, Battleship). Harris argues that movie stars these days are made up of a combination of relatability, mystery, sex appeal, humor, talent, cunning, and something a little more ineffable, something we might call star quality, or "it" factor. We may not be able to identify what that is, exactly, but we know damn well that Jennifer Lawrence has got it, whatever it is. She pops.
It's true that the epoch of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, of Katherine and Audrey Hepburn, is long gone, but aside from a standard dose of misty nostalgia, I'm not sure we should be feeling anything other than glad about that. Those actors were all great in their own ways, and they're a pleasure to love even now, so many decades after their peaks, but the evolution of Hollywood and of the industry as a whole has been, at least when it comes to actors, far more positive than negative.
There are still movie stars, of course, who are not thought of as particularly great actors – Will Smith comes to mind – but for the most part, being a truly great actor is part and parcel of the movie star deal now, or it is if you're looking for longevity. Only a few stars can get away without range anymore: even Clooney, the most old school of the lot of them, got his Oscar for his least characteristic role (in Syriana). And though it may seem harder than ever to get movies made, the business is considerably more varied and complex now than it was in the 1940s and 1950s, when the studios were still king.
Something strange seems to have happened to the pattern of movie stardom, and Clooney is a good example. He made his name first on television, on ER, and then in a series of big-budget studio flicks, from Batman to the Ocean’s movies, and then, at a certain point, decided he didn't want to waste his time anymore, and transitioned into doing exclusively small, critically respected independent films. He is arguably a bigger start now than he was then, and he hasn't had a movie break $100 million at the domestic box office since – that's right, Ocean's Thirteen.
Then there's somebody like Tatum, who became a star this year with the double-whammy of 21 Jump Street (über-mainstream, surprisingly good) and Magic Mike (mainstream-ish but independently financed, kind of weirder than anybody expected, also very good). Or my personal favorite, Michael Fassbender, who got famous within the industry off the backs of Hunger and Fish Tank, two tiny British independents that almost nobody saw, and a small part in Inglourious Basterds. He followed up these roles with two big summer blockbusters, X-Men: First Class and Prometheus, and also another two movies from director Steve McQueen, Shame and the forthcoming Twelve Years a Slave, along with a variety of other projects large and small. Fassbender has got all the qualities Harris enumerates in his article, but more than anything he's got talent, and business savvy.
Because if you want to last, as a movie star, you've got to be good, and you've got to make interesting movies. That's the bottom line in the current climate, and we should all be happy at that status quo. To give two last, brief examples, let's compare the current state of Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman's careers. DiCaprio only works with established, respected directors, so even his less successful movies (Body of Lies, J. Edgar) somehow seem like noble efforts, even when they … really aren't (see: those same two films). But I worry for Leo, because even though he doesn't really make flops, he also hasn't made a legitimately interesting movie since The Departed, in 2006.
In order to be a great actor, you need to take risks; and to be a movie star, now; it really helps to be a great actor. Enter Nicole Kidman, who has made some truly embarrassing movies (Trespass, Bewitched, The Stepford Wives…) – and has also got, for my money, the most exciting and impressive career of any actress over 35 working today. Kidman has stated repeatedly that she makes a point of seeking out interesting and challenging auteurs to work with, and it is clear from her work – in projects like The Paperboy, Rabbit Hole, and Birth – that she is one of those rare artists who is actually fearless. And anybody who saw her present at the Oscars last week could doubt her status as a bona fide movie star even now, so many years post-Tom Cruise.
Golden ages are created in retrospect; it goes against human nature to think that you are living in a particularly great time. Doomsday prophesying is much easier, and so we get pessimists claiming that movie stars, and Hollywood, and the cinema itself are dead. They're not dead. They're more alive than they've ever been.