Thursday, November 12, 2015

Theory Thursday: Leonardo DiCaprio is the Last Traditional Movie Star

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: November 11 is Leonardo DiCaprio's birthday.
Theory: Leonardo DiCaprio is the last movie star.

Left to right: DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby
Over the course of film's rich history, there hasn't been anything as integral to assuring a film's success as that of the movie star. I'm not talking about who gave the best performance, though that usually helps. I'm talking about whose face can be thrown on a billboard and almost assuredly be recognized by the common man. There have been a handful of actors throughout history that have earned the title of movie star. While it's not exclusive with the movie icon, they definitely have some overlap. A movie star is the type of person that a studio wants in order to guarantee a profit at the box office, largely thanks to previous patterns of success. In a sense, this is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

While franchises have been around since the very beginning - staring with serials before evolving into duo pictures, such as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney - they have quickly become the norm for movie culture. If one has any confusion, simply look at this past summer and the various films that opened big. They were almost exclusively franchise films; sequels to other surefire hits. In a sense, this idea has replaced the concept of the movie star. It's no longer an actor that we care about. It's the product. Sure, a lot of people know various actors by name, but that doesn't mean what it used to. While there are performers who earn millions, you're unlikely to call them anything but by their franchise's character names. For instance, Jennifer Lawrence will likely be Katniss Everdeen (of The Hunger Games) to the general public. Robert Downey Jr. will likely be Iron Man (of The Avengers) as well. Even if they bring in a lot of money, they're actors known for characters that bring in money, not actors whose name brings in the money.

Which is what makes Leonardo DiCaprio an interesting name. He hasn't really starred in any major franchises. In fact, he's predominantly been the poster boy for fun Oscar movies (trust me, he is) over the past 15 years. He makes a fraction of what Downey Jr. or Lawrence makes in their franchise films. Yet, he is without a doubt the last of the movie star mold. He may not be the greatest actor, nor does he seem like the type to bring in the big bucks. However, I defy you to think of how DiCaprio is not a movie star. If one is to simply go off the notion that an actor turns a profit on a movie because of his name, then he very well may be a strong candidate for this category.

DiCaprio in Titanic
To backtrack, there are a lot of household name actors that could possibly qualify as turning profit because of name. Yet, it is difficult to think of one who draws as much attention for the smaller films in their resume. For instance, Johnny Depp is arguably among the most iconic working actors. You'll definitely turn out to see him in any Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. However, current trends show that he isn't capturing the interest elsewhere. Even if his latest, Black Mass, remains an exception to the rule, one can look at a few films from the past five years (The Lone Ranger, Mortdecai) and find evidence that he's not as much of a draw as he used to be. True, he likely could draw almost a guaranteed billions from his collaborations with Tim Burton, but his recent output has shown that he's at least waning. Even Lawrence isn't without her faults. Her film Serena bombed just earlier this year. You likely didn't even know it existed. Yes, she did over $250 million on 2013's American Hustle, but that's arguably thanks to an ensemble than her individual effort.

What makes DiCaprio a particularly interesting case is that he doesn't seem to need franchises to promise success. His big movie this year is The Revenant, which itself looks like a big gamble for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He has been mastering the Christmas Day movie release for sometime. Before this year, he's had three films open on this date (The Aviator, Django Unchained, and The Wolf of Wall Street), and all have grossed over $100 million in just national grosses. This isn't to discredit the rest of the year, which includes big films such as The Great Gatsby, Shutter Island, and Inception. Even if he doesn't gross the highest, he definitely has consistently released original films that warrant name recognition. 

Yet the most interesting part of it all? He hasn't been "labeled" quite like his co-stars. As mentioned, Lawrence is Katniss, and Downey Jr. is Iron Man. Even Depp has a handful of monikers he's been called, including Edward Scissorhands, Captain Jack Sparrow, and The Mad Hatter. While this is more indicative of having successful characters, I think that DiCaprio simply being "Leo" is itself a miracle, considering that he starred in one of the highest grossing films of all time with Titanic. Somehow, he hasn't been labeled Jack Dawson in quite some time. That also hasn't stopped him from being a noteworthy, profitable celebrity in the almost 20 years since that film came out. Still, there's a strong chance that people want to see The Revenant became of DiCaprio. It's likely that even his co-star Tom Hardy will be called "Mad Max" (from Mad Max: Fury Road) by those trying to place who he is. Don't get me wrong, a popular character is an effective way to get recognized nowadays. It's just not the way to become a traditional movie star.

True, DiCaprio has "a model" that he follows. He's known for playing eccentric rich people. That is, in a sense, just like playing a character. However, it's more of a traditional archetype than what franchises nowadays do. Even if it's indistinguishable on paper to put The Great Gatsby next to The Wolf of Wall Street (cautionary tales about rich white men who like to party), there's something to his energy and portrayal of these types that keep audiences enticed. We come for his personality. At the end of the day, that's essentially what a movie star is: a personality. Maybe Downey Jr. can be fun at press junkets, but he'll usually be Iron Man - largely because that's the predominant character he has been playing for close to a decade, with very few exceptions. Even if Lawrence has some more leeway since she has been successful outside of franchises, I still think that her David O. Russell movies have prestige and ensemble built in that just so happen to emphasize her strengths.

I also think that the living movie stars who continue to work have just waned a little bit over time. Some have simply grown irrelevant, thrown into quality indie work. Even others, like Tom Cruise, don't promise the box office that they once did. As much as he's successful in the Mission: Impossible movies, he famously starred in Edge of Tomorrow - a film that ended 2014 by being considered to be "underseen" by its fans. Cruise can have a hit here or there from an original property (Oblivion), but they're not as guaranteed. Even more prestige actors, such as Tom Hanks, have become better known for franchises like Toy Story and the Angels and Demons movies in later day careers. It doesn't diminish their good work, but it seems more like an acceptance that a different model has become the norm.

I am sure that this whole theory sounds blasphemous to most. After all, there's actors earning several millions more than DiCaprio. Maybe even Lawrence will prove to be profitable when The Hunger Games ends this year. However, there's few names that have dictated constant box office draw as that of DiCaprio. Even the better performers, like Meryl Streep, Michael Fassbender, or Brad Pitt, have more recent blunders than he does. It could just be that he's more selective about his work in the past decade. It could just be that he's sought out by more prestigious directors. However, I do think that there's something to his singularity in a career by avoiding the typical route of his peers. Even his Titanic co-star, Kate Winslet, has gone to movie franchises with the Divergence series. Yet DiCaprio somehow remains anticipated, like clockwork, every other Christmas.

Maybe it's wrong to say that the movie star is dead. The traditional take, however, is pretty close to extinction. In 10 years, it's likely that no movie will be "blockbuster" successful because of an actor's name. At most, there will be household names that people have a fondness for. However, I don't know that even that will make non-franchise films stand out. It's already happening. Actor Chris Pratt has starred in two of the most successful films of the past two years (Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World). Yet, as seen recently in Billy on the Street, he's not as recognizable as you'd think. DiCaprio is so famous that even the nickname "Leo" is likely to draw familiarity. Name another actor with a consistently successful track record that has that. It's pretty hard.

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