It’s an oft-repeated maxim that “great films” simply cannot get made anymore the way Hollywood is currently set up. For instance, in a recent Rolling Stone interview, Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad) said this in response to a question about why television is currently having a golden age:
You could do a whole piece about that. I think the answer is multi-fold, but back in the Seventies, when Hollywood was a source of storytelling for adults, you could have movies like Five Easy Pieces that would never in a million years get made by a major studio. You could no more get that made now than you could send a rocket to Jupiter tomorrow. That kind of storytelling was abandoned by Hollywood, because Hollywood’s economic model is just different now. It’s a model in which only big tentpole sequels and cartoon movies get made, and yet there’s a huge appetite for stories about adults. And, because that appetite exists and it keeps going unslaked – if that’s the right way to put it – by Hollywood, it had to migrate elsewhere and it migrated to television.
Judging from all of the horrible movies that get made and do very well, and all of the great movies that are confined to shoestring budgets, this seems like a reasonable sentiment. Or is it? Vulture released a list of Hollywood’s 100 Most Valuable Movie Stars today, and it contains more substance than I expected it to.
When compiling the list, Vulture took the following factors into account: domestic box office, overseas box office, studio value, and Oscars, as well as media-related metrics like magazine covers and tabloid value, and that tough-to-measure value of “likeability.” Even with that mixture of highbrow and lowbrow criteria, the top 20 includes such heavy hitters as (in descending order): Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Clint Eastwood, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, and Liam Neeson. Most of these actors have done some big budget blockbuster fare, but they’re all known primarily for their great work in the realm of “storytelling for adults.”
Looking at the whole entire list, and applying my own (admittedly subjective and picky) criteria for who makes films vs. who makes movies, I’d say about 37 of the 100 most “valuable” stars are serious actors with at least a couple of great performances under their belts. It’s not as high a percentage as I’d like to see, but I thought it was going to be much lower. The number creeps a little bit higher when you allow for goofy (but at least kind of funny) comedies of the type pulled off by Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig.
Of course, the number of actors who’ve never been in anything dumb or shallow is pretty close to none (okay, maybe Meryl Streep is safe), because they have to pay for their mansions somehow. And then there are the less impressive people on the list, like Blake Lively, Kevin James, Kristen Stewart, etc. There is also a middle-brow group of people like Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway and Daniel Radcliffe who are best known for their appearances in blockbuster movies, but not necessarily dumb ones. Just because something is mainstream doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dumb, and really great films still have the potential to be commercially successful. (Off the top of my head, I’ll name J. Edgar, The Descendants, and Inception.) Maybe this is evidence that fun, escapist entertainment and high fallutin’ films about the human condition can peacefully co-exist. It’s certainly true in my own life as a movie watcher; sometimes I want to think really hard, and other times I’m tired or depressed and just want to be entertained. I would still like to excise the Twilights of the world from the pack, though. Because while not all mainstream movies are dumb, quite a few of them are.
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