I watched a dreadful movie last night, really dreadful. But here’s the interesting thing: even though it was a terrible movie, with a creepy plot, I didn’t turn it off and walk away. Instead, I watched it from beginning to end. Why? Star power.
The movie was a Rock Hudson/Doris Day classic from 1961 called Lover Come Back. Rock and Doris play feuding Madison Avenue ad executives. Although billed as a romantic comedy (it is Rock and Doris, after all), Rock’s character can best be described as sociopathic. In order to win clients, he’s willing to pour alcohol into people, pimp women, lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate. As one of his lies, he pretends to Doris to be a naive scientist, and she falls in love with him. When the truth is revealed — when she learns that Rock has lied to her and has confirmed the fact that, in his real identity, he’s a terrible human being — she still loves him.
If this was a modern movie, I would have walked out in the first half hour, with my husband calling after me, “You hate everything.” I’m not sure I hate everything, but I definitely hate watching creepy, whiny, modern Hollywood actors play distasteful roles. I have better things to do with my time.
Why, then, did I stick around for this movie? Star power. Rock Hudson is wonderful. Even though I know he was gay and that the macho man thing was an act, what an act. Every time he was on the screen, all I could think of was how gorgeous he was. He epitomized tall, dark and handsome, with his towering height, perfect face, deep voice, and, despite all that manliness, a warm, puppy-dog charm. He took a despicable character, and through the force of his own personality, made him lovable.
Doris Day was no slouch either. She looks exactly like a beautiful petit four, with her platinum hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks and, most importantly of all, that radiant, sunny smile. She spends a large part of the movie huffing and mincing, but it doesn’t matter. Get her together with Rock, and after about five minutes, that husky voice relaxes, the radiant smile bursts out, and Rock smiles at her in return. Sigh….
I can’t think of any modern actor who is so delightful to spend time with that I’d stick around for what is otherwise a boring movie. There are some actors I like more than others, but if the movie is bad, they don’t have enough charm to hold me to my chair. Take Anne Hathaway, for example. She’s a very talented young woman, who can appear delightful, sing and even do splits. When she’s in a good movie, I enjoy watching her. But when she’s in a bad movie, one that sees her emoting and posing and baring her breasts . . . I am gone. Despite her many talents, she is only as good as her roles.
The same is true for Meryl Streep. For years, I’ve really thought that there must be something wrong with me, because I do not like Meryl Streep. I readily concede that she’s hugely talented in a technical way as an actress, but I find her boring. Once I’ve finished admiring how beautiful she imitates someone, such as Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher, there’s not usually that much left to enjoy. She’s like a high-end, carefully scripted Rich Little or a not-very-funny Frank Caliendo. It was such a relief, the other day, to read Steve Dowty’s post positing that Streep is, in fact, a very talented mimic who brings little warmth or charisma to a role. She’s workmanlike, but no star:
Streep is perhaps the exemplar of the modern Hollywood theory of acting, which holds that the perfection of the craft lies in the total immersion of the actor in the character. This is “The Method,” which began to take over Hollywood in the late 40s, and really hit its stride when Marlon Brando burst onto the scene, alternately mumbling and screaming, in 1951. Since then actors have competed to become as invisible as possible, hiding behind accents, tics, quirks, foibles, or disabilities, or simply mimicking the voice and mannerisms of a real person.
When Streep acts, no matter the role, every single word and gesture looks perfectly studied, considered, and prepared, as though she’s trying to give the story a manicure. She hasn’t the knack of convincing the audience that what they’re watching is actually happening. We can’t believe that what we’re seeing is real, and often it’s precisely because the excellence of the mimicry calls attention to the essential falsity of the situation.
By way of contrast, Jimmy Stewart never completely left himself out of his characters (which was okay, because we liked him). He was always, in his voice and mannerisms, Jimmy Stewart, even when he was called George Bailey or Rance Stoddard or Elwood P. Dowd. But Stewart had the ability to make any film seem like a hidden-camera documentary, capturing events as they happened. Even if the characters never rise much beyond the level of Archetype or Everyman (and here’s another interesting question: what’s wrong with that?), it’s the ability to achieve the impression of spontaneous action that made great actors of Stewart and others like Lionel Barrymore.
Without a good script, Streep offers nothing worth sticking around for. There is no there there.
John Nolte has latched onto the same problem with his suggestion that Hollywood can cure its woes and become a money-making machine again. Aside from such obvious points as making movies people want to see, and telling stars to stop insulting their audiences, Nolte tells Hollywood to bring back the star:
You can trace most of Hollywood’s problems back to the death of the movie star. At first, the industry was thrilled with this development. No movie star meant no big payday, no ego, and none of the baggage too many stahs carry with them. The industry also found that, at least for a while, they could get away with this. Audiences were still packing theatres to see pre-packaged brands developed from high concepts, comic books, novels, and television shows. Sequels, remakes, and prequels were still sure-fire. Who needs to pay Tom Cruise $30 million to run around with CGI’d dinosaurs when just as many people will pay to see Jeff Goldblum do the same?
This was all well and good until the “brands” ran out. Now Hollywood is down to “The Green Lantern” and board games like “Battleship.”
Movie stars, on the other hand, are the most reliable brands out there. People come to see them and if you have enough of them and if you keep developing them, the inventory is limitless. From the 1920s straight through to right around 1990, if you built it with movie stars, audiences would come. Hollywood didn’t need to rely on “brands” because they built pictures around their stars.
Having been charmed by Rock, I’ve now told TiVo to look for his films. No matter how bad they are, I’ll probably stick through to the end, just to see him. After all, I do the same thing with films starring Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Fred & Ginger, and myriad other class acts from the old days. Watching all of them was sheer pleasure, no matter the usually foolish scripts.