The night sky is supposedly looking ever darker for Hollywood, for the stars are apparently disappearing. A recent Hollywood Reporter suggests that Leonardo DiCaprio is the last actor whose very presence elevates the film’s status and suggests its high quality. His films rarely flop, and he does not depend on social media, or doing multiple blockbusters a year, in order to maintain his cultural currency. Whilst this may be true, it does not have to be seen as a negative. Rather, it just reflects changes in what audiences want from film.
It certainly does appear that Leonardo DiCaprio is the last truly bankable star in Hollywood, if you go by Tatiana Siegel’s definition from the Hollywood Reporter. A Hollywood star is someone who does not star in franchise films, nor family movies, because they do not need to play it safe. They can take risks, and work on more original projects because their name alone is a hallmark for success. The highest grossing films being released today are no longer sold through the actors in them; rather, they are sold through the brand. The commodity being sold has changed from actor name to series name. “Check out the new Fast and Furious film, or the latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe”, to paraphrase movie advertisers. Whoever stars in the film appears to matter less. It is hard to imagine an original film with Dwayne Johnson or Will Smith grossing nearly a billion dollars. The Fast and Furious and Disney brands power their 2019 movies, not their starlight. There is a reason why Rogue One had “A Star Wars Story”, and why Hobbes and Shaw has “Fast and Furious Presents:”, in their respective titles. Audiences want to see extensions of films they have already seen. They want films set in familiar worlds, with recognisable faces and scores. DiCaprio has never starred in a franchise film, but his films constantly make a lot of money. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood recently had the biggest opening for a Tarantino film; coincidentally (?), it is the first to have DiCaprio on top billing. Despite the four year hiatus, DiCaprio remains a bankable star.
However, this is an outdated definition, reflecting a previous era. There are still big names in Hollywood who can draw audiences with their mere presence. Whilst you could argue people went to see Legend because it was about the Kray Twins, one must remember their story has been told a hundred times. Tom Hardy was the main draw of that film. Despite being a great movie, would anyone have gone to see Mandy if Nicholas Cage was not in it? Both of these actors have starred in a franchise, though. Should they be discounted as Hollywood stars? I think not. Brad Pitt starred in the Ocean’s franchise, meaning he should be discounted too. Yet, the main reason I am aware of, and want to see, Ad Astra, is because he is in it. Starring in a franchise film does not make one less of a star. It is more likely that Tom Hardy wanted to star in Mad Max: Fury Road. It is considered one of the best films of this decade, and perhaps Tom Hardy wanted to be part of what looked like a promising project. Starring in a Hollywood franchise may not be a sign an actor is desperate for popularity. Actors can still find value in starring in a film like Mad Max or The Dark Knight, even if the snobs consider them “mere” franchise films.
Another reason for the decline of Hollywood megastars is because Hollywood is finally becoming more diverse. In the past, only the most privileged were being represented: middle-class, white, straight men were everywhere in the film landscape until very recently. There was a smaller pool of people Hollywood was using in their movies, meaning those rich, white, straight and male actors had more of a chance to develop their “star status”. They were appearing in more films, and had more of a chance to develop a recognisable brand of their own. Now, things are thankfully changing for the better. We are starting to see more films with female leads, more films about homosexual romances instead of just films with heterosexual love stories, etc. There is a more eclectic range of people from different backgrounds leading Hollywood movies, to reflect a diverse and eclectic world. Audiences want to be represented in cinema, and using the same old white, male, straight and middle class stars over and over again, as was done before, is hardly going to lead to fair representation.
Hollywood is changing. There are more actors and from more diverse backgrounds. White, male, straight and middle-class actors are no longer the “go-to” cash cow. They are starring in less movies, and have less of a chance to develop their star status. This is not a bad thing. Diversity in Hollywood has been a long time coming and it is refreshing to see the changing direction of the wind. Hollywood is also changing in that stars are no longer the main commodity being sold. Instead, it is the franchise name or the series title. Whilst there are a lot of bad franchise films, some absolute gems have come from franchises over the last fifteen years or so. As long as a diverse range of talented actors continue to star in moving and valuable films, who cares whether it is a sequel or not?