Hollywood digs cemetery to solve movie star problem

It’s a revenge that has been brewing for years.

According to Deadline, Chris Evans is in talks to play legendary artist Gene Kelly in a film produced by Knives Out collaborator Rian Johnson. (The movie is not a biopic; it’s an original story based on an idea from Evans himself). The announcement comes a month after Tom Holland revealed that he would play Fred Astaire in an upcoming film.

We could see a good old fashioned showdown. Captain America vs. Spider-Man – in their first one-on-one since Civil war – compete for the Oscar for Best Actor as Kelly and Astaire, two of Hollywood’s most dynamic performers who are frequently compared to each other for their impeccable footwork.

It would be a beautiful coincidence if everything that was happening in Hollywood was a coincidence.

Evans playing Kelly is part of an emerging trend: Hollywood is digging its graveyard in search of new material. Nicole Kidman’s turn as beloved actress Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos is a strong contender for the Oscar for Best Actress. She would follow Reneé Zellweger’s path with her Oscar-winning performance as Judy Garland in Judy. Ana de Armas – Evans’ Knives Out co-star – plays Marilyn Monroe in Netflix Blond. Meanwhile, director Luca Guadagnino will be revive Oscar-winning actress Audrey Hepburn via Rooney Mara for Apple TV +.

While biopics have animated award campaigns for decades, Hollywood has been hesitant to produce projects around actors and actresses, despite their stature in the public imagination. There are countless films about politicians, musicians, Silicon Valley CEOs, athletes and the infamous. The catalog of Hollywood biopics, especially successful ones, is noticeably smaller. My week with Marilyn has been an awards success, while Grace of Monaco and classic camp Dear Mum were decidedly not. Now it looks like Hollywood is banking on its legends.

But why?

Will Smith in Me, Robot, Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Tom Cruise in Magnolia

Hollywood currently has a “movie star” problem. Until the early 2000s, studios relied on meticulously prepared actors and characters to ensure a film’s commercial success. The gripping storylines and interesting characters were important, but audiences showed up in theaters for their favorite stars in most cases. It wasn’t that long ago that Angelina Jolie, Will Smith, and Tom Cruise could sell movie tickets with just their image and name, regardless of the plot. Consider: how much do you have I robot Where Mr and mrs smithWill s’s success depend on Smith’s affable magnetism or the explosive chemistry between Jolie and Brad Pitt? The bankability of a movie star has also helped him acquire a more stimulating job to strengthen his prestige credentials and attract rewards. (The cruise did Eyes wide closed and Magnolia between Impossible mission short.)

Today’s landscape is radically different. Studios have turned heavily to intellectual property and franchises to drive ticket sales. As a result, actors have become less essential to box office success. The Marvel Cinematic Universe – which accounted for a third of the 2021 box office – is a compelling case study. Evans’ gross box office gross ranks him as one of the highest grossing stars in Hollywood history. Remove his Marvel movies and Knives out, a murder mystery set film also starring Daniel Craig, is his most successful film. His Marvel engagements limited his opportunities, but audiences weren’t really clamoring to see him in Gifted Where Snowdrops. Evans is not alone. There are a few exceptions (Scarlett Johansson comes to mind), but box office numbers for several players who are firmly entrenched in the franchise often don’t translate into other projects.

Chris Eans
Chris Evans in Avengers: Infinity War and Knives Out

Hollywood’s reliance on intellectual property also negatively affects actors and our perception of what makes a movie star. Evans is undeniably talented and popular. His promotional appearances and social media presence paint a picture of a charming and engaging personality who isn’t afraid to be publicly vulnerable (he has spoken openly about his struggles with anxiety). Her filmography does not reflect this, nor does it show the range and depth that we expect from top stars.

It is a widespread problem in the industry. Holland’s non-MCU movies were either safe action-adventure projects, like the upcoming Unexplored, or overly serious dramas that fail to take advantage of its unique exuberance, like The devil all the time. Dwayne Johnson is his own franchise, playing the muscular action hero in a dirty white t-shirt with such frequency that he has become a even.

That’s not to say top-tier franchise players can’t feature lineup. The MCU is filled with several Oscar nominees and winners. Johansson landed two Oscar nominations in 2020 for Bunny Jojo and Marriage story, the latter co-starred and co-starred Star wars star Adam Driver. However, their franchise roles weigh heavily on their other performances, even when given the opportunity. People are just as likely to see Black Widow and Kylo Ren as Johansson and Driver, just as they were surprised to see Evans playing the unrepentant villain in Knives Out.

It’s a twisted paradigm. Audiences see the roles before they see the stars, and the actors locked into those roles have no incentive to take the risks that once tarnished their stardom. Meanwhile, players outside the franchise system face an uphill battle for prove their bankability. Studios will end up lacking a good IP to adapt to. Without movie stars to boost audience attendance, the films they deprioritized in favor of successful adaptation will continue to struggle. This is one of the reasons why traditional box office prints are turning to television or streaming services.

Ana de Armas as a blonde
Ana de Armas in Netflix’s Blonde

Hollywood seems to have found a solution: to telegraph the charisma of old stars to those of today. On paper, it’s a solid strategy. The industry can tell stories about itself and leverage the enduring popularity of its legends to strengthen its current stars. They can remind audiences why movie stars existed in the first place. The actors who take on these roles have the overwhelming challenge to embody the beloved icon characters and prove their mettle.

Unfortunately, this solution is a dressing for a deeper existential wound. Reviving Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Marilyn Monroe will not serve Tom Holland, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas in the long run. Even if they give Oscar-worthy performances, that won’t help them become the legends they seek to inhabit. It also invites the scrutiny that almost led Kidman not to play Lucille Ball. One misstep could be humiliating, even ruinous for them (a greater worry for Holland and de Armas given their age). Hollywood must push its leading actors to develop their personality and their skills and to create an audience around them.

I’m interested to see Evans channel his latent theatrical energy into a performance that potentially redefines his career; ditto for Holland. I actually think they might pull it off, and it would be something to see Captain America and Spider-Man go head to head at the Oscars for playing two Hollywood legends.

The question is whether they will receive the same treatment in a generation or two? Will Hollywood still exist in its current state to provide the opportunity?

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