Hollywood is Excavating its Graveyard to Solve its Movie Star Problem

Chris Evans playing Gene Kelly is part of an intriguing, and somewhat troubling, Hollywood trend.

[Co-published on Geeks Vibes Nation.]

It’s a rematch years in the making.

Deadline reported last week that Chris Evans is in talks to play the legendary entertainer Gene Kelly in a film produced by Knives Out collaborator Rian Johnson. (The film is not a biopic; it is an original story based on an idea by Evans himself.) The announcement comes a month after Tom Holland revealed that he would be playing Fred Astaire in an upcoming film.

Fred Astaire and Tom Holland

We could be looking at a good old-fashioned awards showdown. Captain America versus Spider-Man – in their first tête-à-tête since Civil War – duking it out for the Best Actor Oscar playing Kelly and Astaire, two of classic Hollywood’s most dynamic performers who are frequently compared against each other for their immaculate footwork. 

It would be a lovely coincidence if anything happening in Hollywood were a coincidence.

Hollywood’s Graveyard Excavation

Evans playing Kelly falls in line with an emerging trend: Hollywood excavating its graveyard for new material. Nicole Kidman’s turn as the beloved comedienne Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos is a significant Best Actress Oscar contender. She would follow Reneé Zellweger’s winning performance as Judy Garland in Judy. Ana de Armas – Evans’ Knives Out co-star – is playing Marilyn Monroe in Netflix’s Blonde. Meanwhile, director Luca Guadagnino will revive Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn through Rooney Mara for Apple TV+.

While biopics have driven awards campaigns for decades, Hollywood has hesitated 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 was an awards success, while Kidman’s Grace of Monaco and Faye Dunaway’s Mommie Dearest were decidedly not. Now, it seems like Hollywood is going all-in on its legends.

But why?

The “Movie Star” Problem

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

Until the early 2000s, studios relied on actors and meticulously groomed personas to drive a film’s commercial success. Compelling plots and interesting characters mattered, but audiences showed up to theaters for their favorite stars in most cases. Not too long ago, Angelina Jolie, Will Smith, and a pre-couch jump Tom Cruise could sell movie tickets with just their image and name, regardless of the plot. Consider: how much did I, Robot or Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s success depend on the affable magnetism of Smith or the explosive chemistry between Jolie and Brad Pitt? A movie star’s bankability also helped them acquire more challenging work to bolster their prestige credentials and attract awards. (Cruise did Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia between Mission Impossible runs.)

Today’s landscape is drastically different. Studios have shifted heavily towards intellectual property and franchises to drive ticket sales. As a result, actors have become less essential to box office success. The Today’s landscape is drastically different. Studios have shifted heavily towards 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 2021’s box office – is a compelling case study. Evans’ cumulative box office gross ranks him as one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood history. Remove his Marvel films and Knives Out, an ensemble murder mystery film also starring Daniel Craig, is his most successful film. His Marvel commitments have limited his opportunities, but audiences weren’t exactly clamoring to see him in Gifted or Snowpiercer. Evans isn’t alone. There are some exceptions (Scarlett Johansson comes to mind), but the box office numbers for several actors firmly entrenched in the franchise often don’t translate to other projects.

The “Movie Star” Today

Chris Evans in Avengers: Infinity War and Knives Out

Hollywood’s reliance on IP also adversely 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 the picture of a charming, engaging personality who isn’t afraid to be publicly vulnerable (he has spoken openly about his struggles with anxiety). His filmography doesn’t reflect that, nor does it showcase the range and depth that we’ve come to expect from A-list stars.

It’s a widespread industry issue. Holland’s non-MCU films have been either safe action-adventure projects, like the upcoming Uncharted, or overly serious dramas that fail to leverage his unique ebullience, like The Devil All the Time. Dwayne Johnson is his own franchise, playing the musclebound action hero in a dirty white t-shirt with such frequency it has become a meme.

This isn’t to say that high-profile franchise actors cannot showcase range. The MCU is filled with multiple Oscar nominees and winners. Johansson landed two Oscar nominations in 2020 for Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story, the latter co-starring fellow nominee and Star Wars star Adam Driver. However, their franchise roles loom large over their other performances even when they have the opportunity. People are just as likely to see Black Widow and Kylo Ren as they are Johansson and Driver, just as they were surprised to see Evans pull off playing the unrepentant villain in Knives Out.

It’s a twisted paradigm. Audiences see roles before they see stars, and actors locked into these roles aren’t incentivized to take the risks that once burnished their stardom. Meanwhile, actors outside the franchise system face a massive uphill battle to prove their bankability. Studios will eventually run out of good IP to adapt. Without movie stars to spur audience attendance, the films they deprioritized in favor of the blockbuster adaptation will continue struggling. It’s one reason why traditional box office draws are shifting to television or streaming services.

The “Movie Star” Solution

Ana de Armas in the upcoming Blonde (Courtesy: Netflix)

Hollywood appears to be telegraphing the charisma of old stars onto current ones. On paper, it’s a solid strategy. The industry gets to tell stories about itself and leverage the enduring popularity of its legends to bolster its current stars. They can remind audiences why movie stars existed in the first place. Actors taking these roles have the compelling challenge of embodying the personas of beloved icons and proving their mettle.

Unfortunately, this solution is a Band-Aid for a deeper existential wound. Reviving Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn won’t serve Tom Holland, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, and Rooney Mara in the long run. Even if they turn in Oscar-worthy performances, it won’t help transition them into the legends they are looking to inhabit. It also invites the intense scrutiny that nearly led Kidman to pass on playing Lucille Ball. One false step could be humiliating, even ruinous for them (a greater concern for Holland and de Armas given their age). Hollywood needs to push its A-list actors to develop their personas and craft and build audiences around them.

What’s Next?

I am interested to see Evans channel his latent theater kid energy into a potentially career-redefining performance; same for Holland. I actually think they could pull it off, and it would be something to see Captain America and Spider-Man duke it out at the Oscars for playing two Hollywood legends.

The question is, will they be given the same treatment a generation or two from now? Will Hollywood still exist in its present state to grant the opportunity?

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