The lost action heroes

Has Hollywood written off the A-list?
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The Independent Culture

The film actors who are attracting the most enthusiastic reviews this Oscar season are not to be found in Hollywood, or even in the movies, but thousands of miles away in a modestly budgeted production of a Sam Shepard play on Broadway. This might be awards season in the movie industry, but when it comes to current productions, there is nothing on screen to match the adulation being poured over Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly, both of them veterans of the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, as they take alternating turns at playing Austin and Lee, the two brothers in Shepard's play True West.

Their complementary performances have been likened by The New York Times to a prize-fight, "the season's most exciting slugfest by far". The Circle in the Square theatre is booked out for weeks. And while there is nothing unusual about prominent film actors making a splash on stage (think of Dustin Hoffman in Death of a Salesman a few years ago), the fact it is Messrs Reilly and Hoffman causing a stir is curious, to say the least.

Both of them are about as far from the classic image of a movie star as one can imagine. Neither is particularly dashing in looks - in fact, both are distinctly chubby - and neither tries much to give a good account of his physical attributes. As for cultivating an on-screen persona, Hoffman has been particularly fearless in playing repellent characters (including the masturbating computer engineer in Happiness and the snobbish Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr Ripley).

In other words, unlike Paul Newman and Robert Redford and the other sexpot male stars of times past, the pair's appeal is based entirely on their electrifying acting talents. And as such, they could just be the new kings of Hollywood.

The truth is, something very odd is happening to the image of the leading man, and it's not only hits on Broadway that bear this out. Just take a look at the list of best- actor nominees for tomorrow night's Oscar ceremony. Of the five, only Denzel Washington is true matinee-idol material. The others, not so long ago, would have been placed firmly in the category of character actors, not leads. Kevin Spacey may have a fascinating face but he is nobody's idea of a classic good-looker; Russell Crowe is way too tortured and angst-ridden to have carried the Hollywood blockbusters of old; as for Richard Farnsworth, at 79 the oldest nominee ever, he has been stuck with bit-parts his whole career until now.

But where the character actors are triumphing, the more conventional leading men seem by contrast to be treading water or even floundering badly. Harrison Ford suffered a big-budget bomb last year (Random Hearts) and has dropped out of the lead in Steven Soderbergh's upcoming drug-trade movie Traffic. Jack Nicholson has not worked in three years. Leonardo DiCaprio made heavy weather of choosing his lead role in The Beach, only a modest box-office success, and is now agonising once again over what he should do next.

Bruce Willis had a better year, thanks to the runaway success of The Sixth Sense, but that was a shoestring project he picked for love of the craft. His supposed blockbuster, The Story of Us, co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer, fizzled and died in a few short weeks.

Perhaps the most successful of Hollywood's A-list men last year was Tom Cruise, but that success came largely by breaking the A-list rules. First he took 14 months out to appear in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut - hardly mainstream material, despite the big marketing push from Warner Bros - then he took a massive cut in pay to play a macho sex guru in PT Anderson's distinctly arty ensemble piece Magnolia, a role for which he stands to win an Oscar as best supporting actor.

As Peter Bart, the editor-in-chief of the trade-bible Variety, wrote recently, "No one's taking up a collection for unemployed superstars, but their absence reminds us of a phenomenon that has agents and studio executives worried. At a time when Hollywood, more than ever, depends on star-driven vehicles, it's getting harder to put the stars together with the vehicles."

And it is not just the actors who are undergoing a radical change. Much of Hollywood's top talent is seemingly in a crisis of one sort or another. James Cameron, director of the most successful movie of all time, Titanic, has yet to name a follow-up project. Quentin Tarantino, hailed as the face of the next wave in American cinema a few years ago, has all but vanished. Even Steven Spielberg, the most revered man in Hollywood, with the apparent freedom to do exactly as he chooses, has only just made up his mind what film to make next (the Kubrick work-in-progress A.I.) after a three-year hiatus, the longest in his 30-year directing career.

Is all this just coincidence? Or the result of Hollywood's well-known propensity for unpredictability? Or is it the sign of something more significant? One clear consequence of the loss of direction in the mainstream is the quirky, refreshingly original, often subversive nature of this year's Oscar-nominated movies, which include a critique of the hallowed American family (American Beauty), an attack on US corporate values (The Insider), a wacky headtrip of a film about celebrity and individuality (Being John Malkovich), a comedy of manners about two late-Victorians (Topsy-Turvy), and a slow-moving saga about a lawnmower (The Straight Story). It's just as well American Beauty found its unexpectedly large audience, or else the Academy might have had to contemplate giving its grand prize to a film almost nobody had seen.

Granted, it would be a mistake to declare the star system dead - just look at Tom Hanks, who has hardly put a foot wrong in years, or Julia Roberts, who can score a hit whether her films are good (like the sassy legal drama Erin Brockovich which just opened in the US), so-so (Notting Hill), or awful (Runaway Bride). But true stars like these are increasingly rare, their number and reliability rarely justifying the monstrously large pay-checks they receive.

There is a growing feeling at the big studios that the A-list has largely priced itself out of the market. Cost-cutting is the watchword everywhere these days, and memories of Demi Moore's bloated $12m pay-day for a stinker such as Striptease are still fresh in many minds. As Andrew MacDonald and Danny Boyle, producer and director of The Beach, have admitted, the presence of a star like Leonardo DiCaprio on set skews everything and pushes up costs to such an extent that it becomes a distraction, regardless of the depth of the star's talent.

In the past, this superstar warp effect didn't matter because audiences seemed to respond to big names, big action and big explosions. The so- called "high concept" movie, which should have been called the low-concept movie because it consisted of an idea that could be rendered in 25 words or less, was the crowning triumph of the industry deal-makers in the 1980s, but also the near-death of cinema as an art form.

For reasons of cost, audience fatigue and increased artistic ambition, the high-concept movie nowadays seems to be on the way out. The likes of Godzilla, Armageddon, Wild Wild West and the latter-day Batman films have barely justified their dizzying price- tags in box-office returns. This week, a leading lieutenant of Dreamworks SKG's Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the inventors of the genre, even went so far as to declare that "the high-concept movie is dead".

And in a sign of the times, Disney is embarking on its forthcoming grand spectacle Pearl Harbor with a financing plan more common to low-budget independent movies: it is asking everyone, from director to crew, to agree to work on deferred payments, which is to say their salaries will only be made up in full if the film is a success.

These days, the studios try to steer clear of producing too many films themselves, preferring to leave the nitty-gritty to small independent outfits with which they have struck distribution agreements. What began as a desire to imitate the success of an independent company such as Miramax, now part of the Disney family, has turned into a convenient way of avoiding excessive financial risk; the happy consequence of this has been a far greater audacity and artistic freedom than was ever possible in the more centralised days of the 1980s. And it has eroded the power of stars in favour of the director, the hands-on producer and even that much-maligned Hollywood animal, the screenwriter.

Nowhere is this new atmosphere more apparent than during the Oscars circus. A few years ago, it was the big studio films that went up for Academy Awards; the winners were essentially a perfect expression of what Hollywood perceived its ideal product to be. Now the game has grown much more complicated. The awards have turned into a marketing tool whereby relatively small films can be grown into much bigger ones (look at Pulp Fiction, or The English Patient, or Shakespeare in Love - not, coincidentally, all Miramax pictures).

It used to be that winning an Oscar was the great achievement, and the guarantee of a nice earnings hike at the box-office. Nowadays, the real knack is to be nominated, and then to milk the attention the nominations bring for all they are worth. That strategy accounts for much of Miramax's success and is now widely copied by the other prestige companies in Hollywood such as Dreamworks SKG and New Line.

American Beauty is a case in point: its eight Academy Award nominations have breathed new life into its long theatrical run in America and helped buoy up its success overseas. Now, having received such positive exposure, it probably does not matter much any more whether it wins Best Picture tomorrow night or not.