We’re Out of Movie Stars. Whose Fault Is That?

There are fewer films now that allow an actor to grow a persona and a Tom Cruise level of stardom. It’s a crisis, and the movies know it.

Credit…Mengxin Li

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By Wesley Morris

Obviously, two of the year’s biggest movies are just the second installments of franchises that could go on long after we’re gone. One of them is actually calling itself “Wakanda Forever.” But I’m watching us devour both it and “Top Gun: Maverick” and see a referendum on a more pressing matter: stars and the movies’ disuse for them.

Heading into “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” the stress and suspense, at least as far as I could tell, had everything to do with the absence of the first movie’s star. It made one of Chadwick Boseman. The second lured us in to inspect the void his stardom left. It memorializes, eulogizes, celebrates him — the Marvel logo that flickers by near the start of these movies as montages of its roster (Thor, Iron Man, Hulk and everybody else) has become a light show devoted to Boseman. Then the movie goes on for more than another two-and-a-half hours, plenty of time not simply to mourn this man but to miss him. There’s more to recommend about it than a vacancy. Nonetheless, inquiring minds — millions of them — wanted to know: Who’d dare try and fill that costume?

“Maverick” is the opposite: a void clogged with light. When Tom Cruise returns, triumphant, to a packed warship at the end, he’s greeted with the kind of ecstatic cheering you tend to see when your team wins a championship after a 100-year drought or extras get liberated in one of those imperialist Hollywood blockbusters. Except … they’re military professionals! But that kind of ridiculous passion must be ours. This is the planet’s highest-grossing movie of 2022 by many miles. The original was a hit in 1986 but not as commandingly as this. And Cruise has never appeared to mean as much to us as he does now. Some of that excitement seems like a problem of scarcity. And maybe “Maverick” made us nostalgic for more abundant times.

There are fewer movies, and even fewer of the kind that once allowed an actor to develop a persona over time, to turn into a Tom Cruise: movies about people in jams, in danger, in panic, in pursuit, in heaven, in heat, in Eastwick and Encino and Harlem and Miami, in badlands, lowlands, heartlands, wastelands. Blockbusters, bombs and sleepers. They were relatively inexpensive — middlebrow was one name for them — and they told stories about original characters, not mutations of intellectual property (not always, anyway). And many of the people in them were what we call stars. Folks who were all a little more something than the rest of us — grittier, wittier, prettier, sillier, fitter, wilder, braver, funnier, franker, tougher, loonier, louder.

I mean, we’ve still got stars. And we’re clinging to them. We came out to see Viola Davis as an African queen in “The Woman King,” which spent a week at the top of the box office. I, at least, went for the sensation of catching her in bad-mama-jama warrior mode, and she overdelivers.

The stars are clinging, too. This should be a story about how good Miles Teller is in “Maverick.” But I can’t write that. Because Cruise is better — better in “Maverick,” better at being Tom Cruise than Miles Teller is at being Miles Teller. This isn’t Teller’s fault. Even though the mustache he wears looks as if it’s being sucked into his nostrils, he’s obviously got something. Take the scene where he does some courageous improvisation while airborne and winds up crashed behind enemy lines. When Cruise tracks him down and asks what he was thinking, Teller gives him just the right amount of bewildered exasperation to crack the theater up. “You told me not to think!” he says. I laughed until I frowned: There’s, like, 15 minutes left. Where’s this guy been the last two hours? Where everybody else is in “Maverick”: beside the point — the exclamation point that is Tom Cruise.

I get why this movie was greeted with all kinds of national relief when it opened on Memorial Day weekend. It’s the only thing all year that a plurality of my friends had gone to a theater to see, and had gone back to for second and third helpings. For one thing, anytime the movie’s in the sky, it’s a real kick — it’s sexy the way those jets all but make out with one another. But the real draw is Cruise, who hovers near the peak of his Cruiseness: vulnerable and impervious, sly and earnest, charmingly obnoxious‌‌, obnoxiously charming.

He turned 60 in July, yet he’s retained the toothy gleam of a freshly sashed Eagle Scout. And though that face betrays no reasonable concept of time, the years have accrued in our sense of his value. “Maverick” is the culmination of a four-decade investment we’ve made in him. Whatever “Tom Cruise” means, it took a string of movies to educate, seduce and string us out, for us to understand that all the grinning and intensity and motion would amount to a persona that can withstand any humiliation (synchronized bartending, firing by protégé, masked orgies, “The Mummy”) because the movies themselves are rigged for his triumph. Triumph is stardom’s luxury.

The piles of money that rolled in for “Maverick” led some in the press to conclude that, after the film industry’s pandemic-induced collapse, the movies were back and, rightly, that the reason was Cruise. But we’re gathering to witness the end of stardom, not its resurrection. Cruise remains a star. But who else in “Top Gun: Maverick” is? The movie itself is about Cruise’s lastness, his otherworldliness. Its best scene comes early, after Cruise has flown a military jet past its breaking point and plunged from just near outer space. Disheveled and engulfed in his parachute, he staggers into a greasy spoon in what may as well be Mayberry and asks the stunned diners, “Where am I?” And an innocent little Opie looks up from his plate and says, with precision timing, “Earth.” Cruise’s stardom isn’t even familiar to Middle America anymore. It’s alien.

The plot seeks our pity. His hotshot fighter pilot from 1986 is now a has-been conscripted into teaching younger hotshots the moves for the ludicrous military assignment that caps the movie. One of them is Teller. But it doesn’t matter. Cruise concludes that he’s the fairest of them all. The kids will just have to gather ’round for story time. Once he’s up there, though, hogging the ball, all I could say was: makes sense. Nobody takes over a movie the way he does. “Maverick” works as a metaphor for that, too. It knows what we came for, and it’s not Miles Teller.

This, again, isn’t Teller’s fault. It’s the movies’. There are few of the kind of films that would allow him to build a persona that we’d all be clamoring for in 36 years. Billy Eichner tried to write himself into a romantic comedy, a genre as essential to American movies as milk is to cheese but a genre the studios have resisted for most of this century, as a sort of onset lactose intolerance. He called it “Bros” and got himself cast as one of the leads, a daffy podcaster who falls for a sporty suit (Luke Macfarlane). And when it sank at the box office, people blamed homophobia.

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Exactly!, I almost said.

Then I remembered something. I’m not straight, and I didn’t see it. Neither did most of the not-straight people in my life. My guess for this movie’s poor showing would start with some of the posters and billboards. They confused me. Two adjacent backsides, in jeans, the hand of one man covering the rear pocket of the other. Whose asses are these?

One was implied to be Eichner’s. Strange that more of the posters wouldn’t simply share that. But omission like that is its own anxious disclosure: Who the hell is Billy Eichner? I mean, I know. He’s the comedian who’s given us “Billy on the Street,” a minutes-long antidepressant in which Eichner’s a runaway stallion dragging along some famous person and interrupting the promenades of regular New Yorkers. You watch it and think, “Antic comedy? Yes. Ro-mantic comedy? I don’t know. Let’s see.”

The movie itself is about how antic-versus-romantic he is. But most of the ads I encountered weren’t selling Eichner at all. They were selling a milestone (the first closet-free gay romantic comedy from a major studio) — but one made by people whose previous movies peal with gay paranoia. Eichner isn’t positioned as the star of this thing. His gay identity is. So of course if the movie fails, it feels like a political crisis.

But the real crisis is something else, and it’s right there in those anonymous butts: We’ve run out of movie stars! And the lackluster showing of “Bros” — in theaters, anyway — makes me think Eichner won’t get many more chances to become one.

I saw a “Bros” subway ad mounted on a duplex billboard alongside a poster for Julia Roberts and George Clooney in “Ticket to Paradise,” a straight, strait-laced, straitjacketed romantic comedy that banks on about 50 combined years of stardom but has no idea what to do with it besides brag. But Roberts and Clooney took their chemistry to the media. They seemed enthusiastic, if not about the movie then certainly about each other. And even though that poster told on them (they’re looking past each other and whoever the Balinese is carting them around this paradise; “White Lotus” vibes), it also tells you exactly what you need to know about this thing. It’s got two veterans whose stardom is a story that evidently still sells itself. The movie’s a hit.

The success of something like “The Woman King” makes sense, too. A lot of us left the house to see Davis slay. And, based solely on the charisma and sheer kinetic force of the women alongside her — Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Adrienne Warren — we got much more than that. It’s a vehicle for Davis to strengthen her bond with us, with art rather than social media; here’s another enhancement of her persona’s approach to leadership. I didn’t think I could like her more before I got to the theater, and yet there I was, my awe redoubled. It’s an original-enough popcorn movie — starring women no less, Black women — and man, does that feel rare.

A fertile land mass of American moviemaking has gone arid — has been allowed to go arid — in order to plumb the depths of so-called intellectual property. We still get whiffs of the old stuff. Denzel Washington keeps finding variations on long-fuse/short-fuse magnetism — adding misanthropes and the maladroit to his menagerie. He’s also 67. Since 1989, he’s starred in a movie — often two — almost annually. And most of those movies were hits. Forty chapters in the story of a persona. Those are, more or less, Cruise’s stats, too. Hollywood doesn’t release nearly as many movies now; careers seem shorter or at least more diffuse, the films they comprise less robust in their thematic diversity. So no actor currently under 40 is poised to get anywhere near those numbers.

What, really, would we lose without that kind of longevity, without meaningful movie stardom? A mirror? A beacon? A road map? A portal? This isn’t a matter of discovering who we want to be but letting the movies show us who we think we are. Stars haven’t always had to pour themselves into playing superheroes. They’ve used that power to play us — people. Now, there could be a kind of justice in that power reaching its terminus. Good riddance to a system that imported the worst of this country’s prejudices and principles into its dream factory. Rampaging capitalism. Improbable whitenesses, indefensible Blacknesses. Few Asian or Mexican or Arab or Native American characters anyone had ever met, because, for starters, the actors playing those parts were often white. Our prolonged exposure let stars embed their glamour, their style and their managed perfection within our psyches, to forge the sort of warped identification that invites, say, a curious Black boy in Philadelphia to fancy himself an insufferable Southern belle on a wrecked Georgia plantation.

Which is to say that I can know all of this and still believe that half a century of Clint Eastwood movies (dozens of them) is as a good an explanation of the United States as any piece of public policy. He’s his own legislation. Of course, a young me watching him in “Sudden Impact” or “Pink Cadillac” or “A Perfect World” wouldn’t have known any of that. I would just have found the mere quarry of him absurdly watchable. And if what we’re also talking about is an energy of absurd watchability, maybe it migrates across time, from the silent era to the classical system of the 1930s and ’40s, to the ruination of the ’70s and the indulgent ’80s and reactionary, revisionist ’90s. Right now, it flourishes somewhere else entirely. On TikTok, a galaxy of starlings. Social media stardom runs on evanescence. You need attention for movie stardom. And we might have run out of patience for that.

Bad timing, I’d say, since, for more than a decade, we’ve been drowning in actors who could reward that attention, actors who, over the course of a hearty career, could also serve as good an explanation of this place as Eastwood. Consider this drought in a moment that has never felt richer with hands in want of batons: Teller, Alden Ehrenreich, Simu Liu, Issa Rae, Finn Wittrock, Hong Chau, Dane DeHaan, Zoë Kravitz, Raúl Castillo, Jay Ellis, Kumail Nanjiani, Tye Sheridan, Dave Bautista, Regé-Jean Page, Alia Shawkat, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Max Minghella, Rachel Zegler, Jake Lacy, Daisy Ridley, Kelvin Harrison Jr., O’Shea Jackson Jr., Tiffany Haddish, Quvenzhané Wallis, Marsai Martin, Jeremy Pope, John Boyega, Ariana DeBose, Teyonah Parris, Nicholas Hoult, Gina Rodriguez, Christopher Abbott, Jonathan Groff. The movies aren’t set up to keep them stars in 30 years. For more than one of these names, the movie-star ship has sailed.

This really does amount to a crisis. And the movies know it. In “Maverick,” the comedy is that no one’s as qualified as Cruise. For a couple of weeks in August, our No. 1 movie was “Bullet Train,” an intermittently funny, mostly tedious crime-thriller that requires Brad Pitt to fight younger prospects — Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Zazie Beetz and Bad Bunny — ‌and casually kill most of them. They want what he’s got: a briefcase full of money, but his stature, too. Pitt’s low-stress, impervious-to-everything style needed 30 years and almost that many movies for him to achieve an ease with himself that can harmonize wisdom and vacancy. All the hand-to-hand combat stands in for Pitt’s self-preservation.

A star knows how to have a good time with a movie this disposable, by making the work seem like a vacation. Disposable movies are a star’s business. They help cement their status between tours de force (sometimes the tour de force is in something disposable). But they tend to hold up, anyway, because they’ve captured some thrilling, attractive, aspirational aspect of the person at its center. Without any middlebrow, non-superhero films — star vehicles, they were called — we’re facing the elimination of being as an art form, the death of tropes, tics and signatures; laughs and struts and accents and turns of phrase; a gallery of light bulbs going “ding” over some actor’s head.

Pitt spends half of “Bullet Train” on the phone with a mostly unseen Sandra Bullock, who plays his boss, and being ogled by Channing Tatum, a passenger. There’s a clubby, cliquey bond among them that dulls the rest of the movie. Who cares about the train? You’d rather watch a comedy about whatever it is Tatum wants to do with Pitt and everything Pitt needs to hash out with Bullock. This is a reconfiguration of what they tried earlier this year with “The Lost City,” a throwback adventure comedy (and a hit) meant to evoke those Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner capers from the ’80s. In a sense, “Bullet Train” is exactly what I should want: a star breezing through a plot. But it made me sad. It’s not interested in new stars. Everybody’s disposable but Pitt.

But he, Bullock and Tatum (one of the last actors to experience a version of conventional movie stardom) are striving to hold on to an industrial tradition in which all kinds of star-driven movies were part of the American moviegoer’s diet. The three of them don’t make many sequels and remain unaligned with any superhero roster. This possibly makes them holdouts and certainly something like conservationists.

That care feels strategic and arguably artisanal now, and it’s evident among their peers. In a burst of pandemic-bound passion, for instance, Ethan Hawke made himself a student of the lives and careers of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The result is a more than six-hour documentary, for HBO Max, loaded with interviews and clips and illuminating, sometimes dazzling insights on persona, performance and fame — on stardom.

Hawke’s ostensible preoccupation is the endurance of a 50-year marriage. He came into a trove of old interview transcripts for a Newman biography: conversations with actors and filmmakers and writers that he uses as narration read by his famous actor friends. George Clooney does Newman, Laura Linney does Woodward.

It’s a poignant sight, watching, say, Sam Rockwell and Zoe Kazan, stuck in their homes, talking about work rather than working, thinking about the intangible particularities of stardom, wondering about the personal toll art can take and the baggage an actor carries to make it.

Hawke has always struck me as too promiscuously imaginative to spend 30 years doing variations on a theme, the way pure movie stars do. But he’s become a sideways star, anyway — spontaneous, boyishly itchy. He was one of a paltry number of actors who had a hit summer movie that wasn’t part of a series or a universe of other titles, as the boogeyman in “The Black Phone.” We’re at the end of something and he knows it. His documentary? It’s called “The Last Movie Stars.”

We’ve entered a strange moment in which major stars’ most captivating, notable, notorious appearances have been in everything but the movies. On the witness stand for Johnny Depp; in an NBC mini-series for Renée Zellweger; for 20 chilling minutes at a White House news conference for Matthew McConaughey; at the Academy Awards for Will Smith — and not even for winning the best actor Oscar.

Then there’s the case of Brie Larson, who more or less went from Oscar winner in 2016 (for “Room”) to exuberant franchise linchpin Captain Marvel. She’s only 33, and I don’t know when I’ll see her play a regular human again. But for a while, anytime I was watching some TV sports event, I could count on seeing her try to sell me a Nissan. Before she won that Oscar, Larson had appeared in a score of movie and TV roles. What kind of star could she be with presumably more access to choicer roles? Well, we’ll never know because where are all the choice roles for her and the half dozen actresses she’d be competing against to play them?

What we’re looking at is a kind of industrial waste. Fewer movies with smaller budgets and lower stakes. Fewer contemporary equivalents to Mike Nichols or Stephen Frears or Woody Allen or Lawrence Kasdan or Martha Coolidge or Fred Schepisi or Nora Ephron or Lasse Hallström or Sydney Pollack or Elaine May or Barry Levinson or Rob Reiner or Ron Howard or Norman Jewison or Nancy Meyers — directors who couldn’t make movies without stars, who didn’t seem to want to make movies without them.

Now we’re looking at a glut of talent with nowhere terribly creative to go. There are the premium cable networks and streaming services. Television is now the land of middlebrow moviemaking. And the likes of Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Kate Winslet have done some of their most daring work there. They’re shrewd. Tom Cruise hasn’t gone near a “True Detective” or “American Crime Story” or “Mare of Easttown” or “Yellowstone.” What does that make him? Naïve? Stubborn? Resolute? Right?

One thing to love about him is that he loves being “Tom Cruise.” He enjoys showing us his work — the clenching, the air-punching, the running, the running, the running. Basically, he lives for that maximal state of personality engorgement otherwise known as … him.

Cruise seems to know his specialty is on the endangered species list, that the real stars now are intellectual property — remakes and reboots and cinematic installment plans. Thor, not Chris Hemsworth. Spider-Man as opposed to Tom Holland or Andrew Garfield or Tobey Maguire. All those Batmen. It’s possible to behold the stars flying around Avengers offshoots and League of Justice slogs and get a certain astral kick. But those aren’t constellations. They’re salads.

People have left Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” hailing Austin Butler a star. How would they know? Elvis Presley is himself a hunka hunka intellectual property. I, at least, can’t disentangle an actor’s stardom from Presley’s, even though anytime Butler’s quaking onstage, something thrillingly original is happening, an idea. Otherwise, with Elvis, it’s always Halloween. Other people’s stardom is another place where stars are hiding their own. How many Oscars winners owe their win to an interpretation of some icon of politics, history or art? That’s not new. And some of that work is glorious.

What does feel new is that between the biopics and superhero films, these actors aren’t playing many memorable original characters. And that’s what we’re missing right now. The last time Cruise played a guy who wasn’t carrying the umpteenth installment of a franchise or a descendant of movies with a theme park ride was 2017, in “American Made.” And that guy is a plain-old commercial airline pilot who winds up doing flights for the C.I.A. while also moving coke for the Medellin cartel — “Top Mule,” basically.

Cruise has been savvy (cynical, arguably) about where the movies are now. “Edge of Tomorrow,” from 2014, is the freshest, most fun thing he has done in a decade, but since it didn’t make a billion dollars (that’s a real benchmark now), it also reeks of failure. If he gets another script as good as that one, does he decline it? Probably. The business is too risky. The people want more “Mission: Impossible,” more “Maverick.”

In 1986, there was more than “Top Gun” to Cruise. Five months later, he was back, in “The Color of Money.” It wasn’t really Cruise’s film. It was Paul Newman’s, itself a sequel to his pool hall melodrama, “The Hustler,” 25 years later. Here, the washed up maverick is Newman, educating Cruise in comportment, honing his skill at the pool table and showing him how to exploit all of that talent.

Newman was 61, which is nothing like Cruise’s extraterrestrial 60. He’s gray, with wrinkles and some creaks. There’s history in those creases: reserves of sadness, loss, disappointment, shame, hurt, loneliness, eased along by cigarettes and booze. For a veteran star, these are virtues. Currency. And the movie compels you to appreciate the accrual of time — the decades he’s lived, the decades we’ve lived alongside a version of him. How much had he changed? How much had we?

“The Color of Money” is the opposite of that first “Top Gun.” It’s a showcase in allure instead of machismo. It’s also a Martin Scorsese movie (that Richard Price wrote), so the camera Tarzans here and there. But Scorsese knows what he’s got in Newman: meaning. His greatest trick is the amount of time Newman’s face spends behind a pair of shades. Those glittering blue eyes of his seem incongruous with the shabbiness and blight of the movie’s high-risk, low-rent pool hall scene. So Scorsese treats them like two jewels in a vault. And we get to remember what the rest of Newman can do, with stillness and pauses, exasperation, rue and delight.

It’s not as if Scorsese doesn’t know what he’s got in Cruise: bombs bursting in air. Whenever it can, the movie watches Newman watching Cruise, taking him in, absorbing his vulgarity, his volume, his volatility. “Child care,” he growls. But he senses the inevitable, too. “You’re gonna be one of the greats, kiddo,” he tells Cruise, clutching a predictive wad of $100 bills. If you happened to see “Top Gun” in the summer and this in the fall, it’s probable you felt the same.

You would have been watching two different kinds of stars (gravitas and anti-gravity) at opposite stages of their careers. Maybe you would have appreciated how, even though Newman was far from done with the movies, he was passing a baton to another generation of star. Hollywood can’t afford that performance of generosity now. Sorry, Miles Teller. All new bets are off, and Cruise must know it. He spends “Maverick” passing the baton to himself.

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