At this point it’s hard to imagine Die Hard starring anyone but Bruce Willis. But when film producer Joel Silver was searching for the lead role of his 1988 summer blockbuster, the list included just about every leading man in Hollywood at the time. Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were among the prospects. The last two had worked with Silver in 1987 on Lethal Weapon and Predator respectively, both massive action hits.
Silver was contractually obligated to ask seventy-two-year-old Frank Sinatra first, since Sinatra had starred in a film that was legally considered a quasi-prequel. But after Sinatra turned down the role due to his age — a gesture that’s hard to imagine in 2023, with a new Indiana Jones starring eighty-year-old Harrison Ford currently in postproduction — Silver had a deep bench to choose from.
Hollywood didn’t just have actors then. It had movie stars. And everyone agreed on who they were, which is one of the category’s defining characteristics. We still have a few movie stars today — but the problem, as the Harrison Ford example shows, is that they’re the same ones Silver had to choose from thirty-five years ago. We’re running the old movie stars into the ground, and we aren’t making new ones.
Large action epics and superhero franchises routinely break box office records, but while their stars get massively rich, they seem to remain comparatively impotent. Today’s panoply of symmetrical muscle-bound actors who all quip in the same cool masculine tone may star in movies, but they’re not movie stars.
That the decline of the movie star has happened concurrently with the rise of comic-book films seems somewhat paradoxical, considering that comic books themselves provide the raw material for the making of great action heroes. Whether it’s an alternative interpretation or backstory or the introduction of new characters altogether into shared universes, comic-book fans welcome and even expect novelty and spontaneity when it comes to superhero protagonists. And yet today’s superheroes are dimensionless and lacking individuality, making it difficult for up-and-coming actors to truly endear themselves to audiences by playing leading roles.
This gulf between comic books and comic-book movies owes partly to how many more moving parts are in film production versus comic-book publishing. But it owes an even larger part to the matter of financial risk. Making movies is risky, and executives shy away from anything that seems unstable, including the differentiating features that give films and characters their individuality. The result is that every trace of human input in the art of acting, from unique physical characteristics to temperament, is minimized in order to maintain a homogeneity that fulfills studio-mandated near certainties. Financial backers like certainty, because they like to know ahead of time that their investment will be profitable.
In the pursuit of profit, studios have thus opted for safety and sameness. In the process, they have achieved something useful for their bottom line and dull for the rest of us: intellectual property has replaced the need for movie stars.
What Is a Movie Star?
An actor at work gives themselves to the project and inhabits the inner world of the character on the page. The craft has evolved as stage acting has given way to the Golden Era of Hollywood and on to New Hollywood, but that basic devotion to embodying the character has remained the same.
Changes in style and technique in acting owe largely to technology. For example, stage acting requires broader, more exaggerated mannerisms than film acting, since audiences aren’t able to see close-ups of actors’ faces. Similarly, early film, with its cumbersome cameras with film stocks that necessitated more light to even make an image visible, required less naturalistic acting and stage direction than the films that came later. As technology has brought cinematic images closer to reality, acting has transformed to become more naturalistic.
According to the film theorist André Bazin, an important component differentiating cinema from theater is the audience’s participation. In theater, there is a covenant between the actor and audience that what one is witnessing is a fabrication, and the audience in the presence of an actor must knowingly participate in the abstraction. When one views a film, there is a much less rigorous intellectual exercise underway, and thus audiences are able to more directly relate themselves to the characters they’re watching. A theater actor is the singular wellspring of drama on the stage, whereas in film drama derives from an actor’s presence and relationship to whatever else is on screen. It is through this relationality that film audiences come to personally identify with a film’s hero.
As film technology has evolved more, identifications have become more seamless and intense, creating perfect conditions for the rise of unique, beloved, universally recognized movie stars — actors who have the talent and presence to make the most of the medium and tap into that capacity for identification. But as intellectual property (IP) has come to dominate the film industry, it has also begun to interfere with the characteristics of acting that lend themselves to movie stardom. If an audience’s draw to films becomes ritual consumption of the IP instead of authentic attachment to the stars and the characters they portray, this delicate balance of personal resonance and intellectual connection is disrupted. Audiences become shareholders of a sort, members of a fandom tasked with keeping the franchise alive. As a result, audiences end up connecting with the business of film rather than the art of it.
The movie star is an actor whose presence strengthens that bond of identification through an immediate familiarity to the audience. In this relationship, a movie star’s value-add is their ability to join any project and confer not only a standard of quality but act as a guarantor of the audience’s connection. With franchise filmmaking, this is no longer necessary, and may even be considered a hindrance. Consequently, the rise of franchise IP-based filmmaking has seemed to reverse that process of ever-deeper identification in film acting, while also retaining nothing about what made stage acting so powerful.
Audiences are not meant to connect with the new comic-book movie protagonists as imagined alternate selves. They’re meant to connect with intellectual property as members of a stable consumer base. Audiences are fickle, but fandoms are reliable, which mitigates risk and acts as a better indicator of future profits.
When acting has been reduced to stewarding IP, there’s little need for actors to have unique characteristics or styles. In fact, it’s better for investors if they function as empty vessels for stories much bigger than them, ones that can be endlessly iterated long after they’re out of the picture.
Method Acting and Celebrity
The advent of New Hollywood’s move to more realistic acting is often attributed in part to Lee Strasberg’s method, wherein the actor attempts to ground their character’s emotional state in their own personal experiences, and is trained to tap into them. This approach, called method acting, stands in direct contrast with the approach of more traditional theatrical actors, who built their characters through signature physicality rather than empathic emotionality.
The transition to method acting was the living embodiment of Bazin’s concept of the distinction between theater and film acting. Theater acting is an intellectual exercise for the actor and the audience, while film acting is a more instinctual means of identification. Strasberg’s approach provided a method for tapping into that instinct.
The rise of method acting in Hollywood occurred in tandem with the birth of the modern celebrity. This is no coincidence. Consumerism, marketization, and various industry strategies certainly played a major role in the rise of twentieth-century celebrities, but we can’t overlook the evolution of the craft itself. As method acting was based upon a much more personal connection between the actor and the character, audiences in turn felt stronger connections to characters and the actors who played them. This process naturally stoked curiosity, and mass media and celebrity gossip followed suit.
This balance of personal connection had to be tempered with a sense of separation. Just like a stage has a proscenium, films have the edges of the frame, and the conflict between the audience and these barriers is inherent to filmmaking. The tabloid press was the industry’s first strategy for making money off people’s frustration with those edges and the desire to trespass them. Another defining characteristic of the movie star exists in that in-between space: people desperately want to know about their personal lives, but some things are off-limits, no matter how hard the tabloids try to dig up the dirt.
Increasingly, however, nothing is off-limits. With the advent of social media, the industry has pivoted to a strategy of intentionally making actors more relatable and accessible outside of their performances. Actors are often required to have online personalities that encourage fandom cults, and blur the lines between their person and personae. That accessibility obliterates the mystique that is necessary for the creation of a movie star.
Female actors have always had to fight harder to maintain that mystique than their male counterparts. Marilyn Monroe, for example, was a particularly adept student of Lee Strasberg, who said in his his eulogy of her:
Others were as physically beautiful as she was, but there was obviously something more in her, something that people saw and recognized in her performances and with which they identified. She had a luminous quality — a combination of wistfulness, radiance, yearning — to set her apart and yet make everyone wish to be a part of it, to share in the childish naivete which was so shy and yet so vibrant.
Marilyn Monroe’s use of method acting, which drew on her personal experience, allowed audiences to connect with her vulnerability and feel close to her. But this only made them want more — and they felt entitled to it. Because she was a woman, the tabloid press was eager and able to exploit audiences’ “wish to be a part of it” in uniquely damaging ways. Female stars have always had to try harder than male stars to maintain the balance of relatability and mystique that elevates an actor into a movie star and keeps them in the category for life.
Now actors of all genders are voluntarily tipping the scales themselves. As modern celebrities take to social media to integrate their personal lives into their brands, their fame increases, but the tension between relatability and exclusiveness that used to characterize movie stardom starts to disappear. It has never been easier to become a celebrity — and this forecloses on the possibility of ever becoming a star.
The Last Action Heroes
The action films of the 1980s were an expression of hypermasculinity in the wake of defeat in Vietnam. The Cold War, the beginning of the decline of the American working class’s share of power, and the introduction of austerity that would strip away the gains of the New Deal and the Great Society were all beginning to reshape America’s cultural sentiments about itself. So when the mid-to-late 1980s rolled around, producers like Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer managed to read the moment and strike a chord with stars like Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise — two actors whose career paths chart the polar extremes of the remaining options for movie stars.
In the context of the release of Die Hard, the novelty of a character like John McClane was that he was an everyman thrust into an extraordinary situation that forged him as a hero. This stands in stark contrast to many tentpoles released today, especially superhero films in which characters — who we already know possess superior abilities — are made to feel relatable via their sense of humor or the fact that they have the same pop-culture sensibilities as their audience.
It’s hard to see it now, post–Die Hard, but at the time Willis was considered a relatively physically diminutive actor, known primarily for his acerbic role in the television show Moonlighting. Casting him as an action hero was considered so risky that the studio initially advertised the film by not even featuring Willis on the posters. It wasn’t until the film was a hit that they included his face. But the director John McTiernan was confident that Willis had the “everyman” temperament to make audiences relate to his character, and that this process of identification would make for an even more powerful hero arc. They were right.
Two years before Die Hard, another action movie star was minted when Tom Cruise played the lead role in Top Gun. His character Maverick was a cocky, charismatic fighter pilot who embodied the United States’ confident late–Cold War posture. The movie was a fantasy of the end of history: Maverick’s character nearly caused what would in real life have amounted to World War III simply because he wanted to show off. In the movie, the United States is so ascendant that there are no geopolitical consequences to his hubris. This triumphant attitude became emblematic of action films from the late 1980s to the early 2000s — until 9/11 jump-started another wave of paranoid war propaganda.
The storytelling and acting methods of Top Gun and Die Hard tapped into something deep in the American psyche, and transformed Cruise and Willis into bona fide movie stars. But where are our movie stars now?
Once an actor has reached star status, their star power is an asset that, like capital itself, must be reinvested or else risk atrophying. Movie stars have always walked a fine line, careful to keep working while not attaching themselves to projects that will hurt their brand name. Many of them also hit on a clever strategy for maintaining income as they waited for acceptable projects to appear: they did advertisements overseas.
Before the widespread use of the internet, celebrities who were protective of their star power could do ads overseas for extra money without much risk of American audiences associating them with tawdry or low-rent acting work. But once it became impossible to do these ads covertly, the jig was up: movie stars had to come out of the closet as working actors who appear in advertisements, something they’d always done, but discreetly.
In time, more movie stars began to make lucrative deals with domestic brands as ambassadors. This, in addition to social media making movie stars more approachable, has begun to erode the last vestiges of a star’s mystique. Consider the transactional nature of the app Cameo, which allows users to spend hundreds of dollars to have a celebrity send them a personalized video. If a movie star is cemented by their ability to command a broad relatability while retaining some degree of separateness, then reducing them to sending customizable happy birthday videos is an indication of their winnowed utility. There can be no movie stars in the age of Cameo.
Like overseas ads, the phenomenon of direct-to-video action films was once an easy way for struggling stars to make money without risking a box office flop. The formula was simple: take a low-budget B film script, shoot in a country or state with low labor costs and/or tax credits, have a movie star shoot for only a couple days in order to get the film funded with foreign presales based off of their international appeal, and then release the film in theaters overseas — and into the bargain bin at Walmart domestically.
With the decline of the home video market, however, films had to evolve for streaming. Enter the modern so-called geezer teaser. The idea is that cheap, disposable films could be funded through questionable means by hiring an aging actor for a short time, using their face on the poster, and then using the money that would be generated with their star power to make the film. It’s almost unnecessary for these films to even turn a profit when released on streaming. Stars like Mel Gibson, Robert DeNiro, and Nicolas Cage have each taken a turn, but they must be careful not to overdo it and lose the credibility they spent a career developing. That is, unless they don’t plan on acting for much longer.
In March 2022, Bruce Willis suddenly announced his retirement from acting. In the following months, stories of his declining mental state trickled out to paint a picture of his being taken advantage of by producers for years. Since 2011, he’s had fifty-seven credits completed or pending, most of which are disposable films of the type described above. It’s not totally clear when the decline started, but it seems pretty obvious that with fewer and fewer choices afforded to stars who aren’t attached to franchise vehicles, Willis made a calculation to wring out as much as he could from his celebrity before retirement.
The career of Alec Baldwin, which was recently put on ice after he shot Halyna Hutchins on the set of the low-budget Western film Rust, can also be understood through the lens of declining options for movie stars. BondIt Media Capital, which was a financier of both Rust and numerous Bruce Willis films of the last decade, helps finance low-budget films that don’t meet the criteria of the diminishing pool of acceptable studio films. It’s a smart business model, cashing in on aging movie stars’ remaining cultural capital while it lasts. It may not be glamorous, but it allows someone like Baldwin to turn a quick buck without much effort.
The problem is that BondIt Media Capital and others like it are interested in only one thing: maximum return on investment. That means they’re also chasing tax credits and relaxed labor laws. The result is not only poor-quality filmmaking but also chaotic, slapdash, and ultimately unsafe movie sets. The incentives of the film industry are not only devaluing the legacy of the remaining actors who neglected or failed to join a franchise, but they’re putting crews in harm’s way with smaller budgets and films headed by unscrupulous producers. As movie stars navigate the deteriorating prospects of the film industry, it’s becoming clear that the crews who make these films will bear the brunt of the decline.
It would seem that compared to Willis, Cruise has weathered worsening industry conditions quite well. Top Gun: Maverick revitalized a beleaguered theatrical film landscape by reminding people that movie theaters are where you can still see genuine spectacle. Like every actor of his pedigree, Cruise finally decided to reboot his most important role — and somehow, he managed to not only avoid the pitfalls of that task, but to build upon what made the original Top Gun work. The plot was well-worn, and the ending was telegraphed from a mile away, but Cruise is a genuine action star, and Top Gun: Maverick made it undeniable.
Cruise broke with tradition in a reboot like this, which typically allows the younger generation to shine in the third act. Instead Cruise stayed in the lead — just like his character Maverick, who knows he’s the only one who can complete the task because he’s the only pilot who’s been tested in this way. It made for thrilling filmmaking, but it was also bittersweet. Watching Top Gun: Maverick, you get the sense that you really are watching one of the last great movie stars in action, and there’s no one lined up to take his place.
The Rise of IP, the Downfall of Cinema
When Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) became a smash hit, Warner Bros. responded by giving more control and a bigger budget for its sequel, Batman Returns (1992). Its seems Warner Bros. forgot that it was working with the director of Beetlejuice, and was surprised when the sequel was darker and less family friendly. In reaction it ousted Burton from the franchise, a story that illustrates the process of exiling auteur filmmakers — and indeed all original and unique interpretations — from franchise filmmaking.
In order to market Batman Returns and offset how much more money it was costing the studio, Warner Bros. made a deal with McDonald’s, including Happy Meal merchandising. Once McDonald’s saw a rough cut of the film, however, it realized that it was marketing a film to children that had far more violent and sexual content than it had anticipated, and tried its best to create some distance from the film itself while still fulfilling its obligation.
McDonald’s made Batman-themed toys separate from Burton’s design in an effort to not seem as if it was drawing children to the more mature film. Its efforts weren’t enough — by the time the film came out, children had already collected toys and commemorative cups and were insistent on seeing the film. When their parents took them, they were shocked by the graphic violence and sexually suggestive content.
The children had purchased a family-friendly version of a toy based off of a film adaptation of a comic book that they were not technically supposed to watch. They had become unknowing participants in the struggle for intellectual property primacy in film, a struggle that has come to dominate the entire industry in the decades since.
Once it came time to think about the next film in the franchise, Burton was edged out, and Joel Schumacher’s campier, more marketable, child-friendly vision was arranged for production, alongside a host of Happy Meal toys. Michael Keaton, who had played Batman in the previous Burton films, backed out, citing creative differences with Schumacher’s vision. The franchise moved forward with Val Kilmer in Batman Forever (1995), and then recast Batman with George Clooney for Schumacher’s last Batman film, Batman & Robin (1997).
This evolution maps the development of the modern film franchise. Directors are now expected to make films that fulfill studios’ broader cross-platform marketing and merchandising goals. The role of the movie star, meanwhile, is reduced to providing the mere physical embodiment of a character for studios and parent companies who are solely concerned with acting as custodians of profitable intellectual property.
Try as they might to bring originality to the roles, actors are once again being compelled to change their craft under practical constraints. The previous generation’s smash hits are more or less passive income for a dwindling group of conglomerates trying to squeeze as much profit out of them as they can. Not only does this reduce opportunities to shine for young and aspiring actors, but it has begun to put pressure on a graduating class of senior citizens who still possess a star quality that can only be betrayed by the body it resides within.
The film Blade Runner 2049 provides a nice metaphor for the state of Hollywood movie stardom. Harrison Ford spent much of the last decade and a half being dragged back to reboot the roles that cemented his legacy as a movie star, only to half-heartedly upstage every actor to whom he was ostensibly passing the baton. Blade Runner 2049 avoids this trap by not making the mistake of trying to replace his character, Deckard, with Ryan Gosling’s. In fact, the film’s tension is built upon Gosling’s character, Joe, slowly realizing that he, a replicant, may be Deckard’s son born from a miracle human/replicant conception. This false delusion is fed by memories that Deckard’s actual child has imparted to Joe through a process of making replicants feel more human.
Toward the end of the film, Joe journeys to find Deckard alone in a casino in an irradiated Las Vegas. The two fight in a venue playing a hologram of Elvis, taken from his performance during the end of his life when the real Elvis was essentially forced by his management to perform in humiliating fashion until he withered away. It’s a perfect backdrop for a showdown between a genuine old movie star and an up-and-comer. The latter must come to terms with the fact that he’s just a simulation of a type of hero the world needs but no longer makes anymore.