A-Listers Are Aging, With No Heirs Apparent

Being an A-lister today isn’t really much of an achievement

Last month, I shared (okay, delicately ranted) my thoughts about studios pushing poor product to the masses (sale on actors and movies, aisle 5).  I thought I’d gotten it out of my system, but with the NYC temps hitting triple digits, I’m finding myself hot and bothered again, this time about the aging of movie stars and the lack of replacements in the wings.

Being an A-lister today isn’t really much of an achievement.  It’s almost like a British courtesy title, handed out to just about anyone who’s a recognizable name in credits and looks good on the red carpet.  There’s no special criteria other than the ability to photograph well and have certain bland likeability. 

Despite screaming fans and raving tabloid cover stories, most of today’s “stars” will be forgotten before the end of the decade.  With the news cycle on Twitter speed, we get bored of people before we ever really get a chance to know them.  And since they’re not that interesting to begin with, they get swallowed up the vast 24/7 machine that creates them.

Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, there were only a few true A-listers.  In fact, to be one, you had to meet certain hard and fast criteria: huge box office draw in the US and overseas, tremendous likability, a willingness to promote yourself without seeming whorish and oh, yeah, having a quote that could finance a small South American country for a year. 

This was the era of Ovitz and $20 million asking prices, a time when saying Cruise, Washington or Hanks was all that was necessary to make it happen.  There was only one Julia or Demi and if you needed clarification, there was no point in talking at all.  Whatever you thought about their acting skills, the greatest role they ever played was movie star. 

I think we underestimate the amount of effort it not only takes to reach the stratosphere but most importantly, stay there.  Nowadays, studios and PR firms have multiple outlets that constantly need new stories, 24/7.  Back then, a People cover and an Oprah interview was all you had and all you really needed.  They gave gracious interviews, did press junkets with smiles on their faces, posed for fans – all while giving the impression that yes, this is the greatest job on earth and they were having the best! time! ever! 

Despite all the science in the world, stars get older too.  And their audience, once so passionate about their movies, about them, cares a little less or not enough to go see them.  What we often fail to realize is that as much as we create and need celebrities, like Santa or the Easter Bunny, they need our faith in order to exist. 

Without an audience, without screaming fans, without us, they’re just very attractive rich people with too much time on their hands.  Some have other interests, like producing or directing that save them the indignity of being rejected by the very people who used to worship them.  Others find roles that we’re willing to accept them in, that embrace their newfound maturity (or at least their biological age).  They recognize that their audience has aged with them and that they need to make movies for grown ups now. 

Julia Roberts actually acts nowadays — and not just through her smiles.  Tom Hanks has done some amazing work as a producer while continuing to act.  But most seem to flounder, unable to understand this new world that they had a part in creating but that they’re no longer the center of. 

Tom Cruise is the perfect example – instead of more "Collateral," he’s wasting his time with "Knight & Day" – because he can’t let go.  Or evolve.  That’s really at the core of what a movie star is – they have this magical ability to become whoever they need to be, not just in a role but in the ultimate role of a movie star.  

There are only a handful of names that earn this kind of fame today — George, Matt, Sandra, Angelina, Brad, Will – names that generate the coverage, sometimes generate box office blowouts and sometimes even win awards.  They’ve been movie stars for years and are great at it but they lack the consistency of the group that came before them. 

They’re also all in their 30’s and 40’s and there’s no one coming up behind them that even comes close. 

There are many flavors of the moment – name anyone in a "Twilight" movie, Amanda Seyfried, Channing Tatum, Zac Efron – they’re all famous already and trying to be even more so but none of them have that indefinable but undeniable magical quality that draws you in, for life.

In 1998, Vanity Fair put a relatively unknown but heavily promoted actress on the cover and declared her the New It Girl.  This was before blogs and Twitter so it was a very big deal.  She was 26 and on the cusp of becoming a huge star.  Her name was Gretchen Mol.  Don’t know her?  Exactly.  It wasn’t the times or the ginormous paychecks that made A-listers out of movie stars.  A lot of it was luck, much of it was us but a significant part of it was them.  And what’s missing today is more of them.