Earlier today, Paul passed me an article by Bill Simmons (for ESPN’s grantland.com) concerning Hollywood, entitled “The Movie Star.” Now, Simmons might be the most famous contemporary sportswriter – he certainly is in Boston – but (to my knowledge) he is not also a film industry expert. But I do very much like his writing, and I’ll read anything recommended to me by Paul. Still, I wasn’t immediately sold when I read this paragraph early on:
Any sports fan knows he or she will be in situations (at a wedding, at a bar, at work, wherever) in which they’ll get into friendly arguments about things like “The Lakers should trade everyone but Kobe for Dwight Howard” and [you'll] sound like a fool if you aren’t prepared. That’s the real reason we suffer through talking-head shows, sports radio and all the crap online — not just because we’re addicted to being sports fans, but because we’re trying to learn material to use later for our own benefit. Being a movie fan doesn’t work that way.
Spoken like a sportswriter, no? I, surrounded by movie buffs, constantly read up on Hollywood and the film industry from as many perspectives as I can (in large part to avoid sounding like an idiot). Isn’t that why, after all, I was reading this article? But the larger point made was actually a good one: competitive sports, particularly with today’s complex (bordering on ridiculous) analysis, offer pretty good answers to questions of comparative success, or whether someone’s work is improving or declining, or which players are most essential to a successful outcome. Hollywood – particularly because many would argue that good and successful (using box-office return as the barometer) aren’t one in the same – offers much more spin and far fewer answers.
But here’s where Simmons got me:
I believe there are 24 male movie stars right now, a funny number since that takes the NBA All-Star analogy full circle. But here’s the list: Smith and Leo; Depp and Cruise; Clooney, Damon and Pitt; Downey and Bale; Hanks and Denzel; Stiller and Sandler; Crowe and Bridges; Carell, Rogen, Ferrell and Galifianakis; Wahlberg and Affleck; Gyllenhall (it kills me to put him on here, but there’s just no way to avoid it); Justin Timberlake (who became a movie star simply by being so famous that he brainwashed us); and amazingly, Kevin James. All of them can open any movie in their wheelhouse that’s half-decent; if it’s a well-reviewed movie, even better.
Suddenly, I find myself fascinated; not just by the list itself (which, to my mind, is pretty unassailable) but to the pairings. Clooney, Damon and Pitt. Downey and Bale. Wahlberg and Affleck. Simmons hasn’t just compiled a list of movie stars, he’s classified each of them by type, almost as if, continuing his basketball metaphor, he were splitting them up into positions. The clarity, the effectiveness of it is striking – because it’s not a reflection on their movies (Smith and Leo, as Simmons explains very well a bit later in the article, make antithetical career choices) as much as how the public sees them. Wahlberg and Affleck have rebranded themselves as working class white (as has Boston, their touchstone) while Damon has joined the classy, old-Hollywood throwback actors (as Soderbergh announced so accurately in the Oceans’ series). Again, it isn’t about the movies they make (did Pitt or Clooney ever do an action series like Bourne?) as much as who they sit with in the lunchroom.
Too astute. Simmons moves on to analyzing Will Smith – the last movie star, they say – and his uncanny success.
True story: When Smith was trapped on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air set in the early-’90s, dreaming of starring in movies instead of selling Alfonso Ribiero’s jokes, Smith and his manager, James Lassiter, studied a list of the top-10 grossing films ever. Here’s what Smith told Time Magazine in 2007: “We looked at (the list) and said, O.K., what are the patterns? We realized that 10 out of 10 had special effects. Nine out of 10 had special effects with creatures. Eight out of 10 had special effects with creatures and a love story.”
It’s not quite depressing, per se, because it’s not at all surprising. It will, I can solemnly swear, have no bearing on what I decide to direct (although, if I’m smart, it may have some bearing on what I decide to produce) but I think it a must read, if only to arm yourself for the next conversation you have (at a wedding, a bar, at work, wherever) about Hollywood – because, about this, Simmons is wrong: film people DO think less of you if you can’t talk about this stuff.
Read it all here.