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The End of Leading Men

Why do A-list actors' films keep flopping?

American men aren’t sure what it means to be an American man anymore. And any who think they are sure will be readily disabused of the notion by opening almost any old paper or magazine, in which their confused identities are sure to be under discussion. This alleged masculinity crisis was best laid out in last year’s sharply reported The End of Men, and this summer it spread to the silver screen, too: We are a nation without a new generation of bona fide male movie stars.

This is not actually a crisis, of course, unless you happen to be a studio head, an agent, or a Sandra Bullock love interest whose abdominals have more sharp lines than his scripts typically do. Nor is it the first time Hollywood has faced such a predicament: In 1953, the Times ran a handwringing article on the dearth of leading men. But the current state of male stardom is setting off all kinds of special alarms in the entertainment press and the industry.

In July, The Wolverine, helmed by supposed movie star Hugh Jackman, opened to relatively underwhelming figures. 2 Guns, last weekend’s big Mark Wahlberg/Denzel Washington vehicle, underperformed too, but not as epically as The Lone Ranger’s flop in July. That movie featured another supposed movie star, Johnny Depp (Hollywood’s third-most valuable, according to Vulture), and movie-star hopeful Armie Hammer. “Tumbleweeds blew through theaters playing The Lone Ranger over the weekend, calling into question Johnny Depp’s star power,” fretted the Times. This calamity came just one week after Channing Tatum’s White House Down took in a disappointing $25.7 million its opening weekend. “[D]oes he even deserve his A-list status?,” wrote Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan. And summer movie season started with After Earth, an appallingly bad Will Smith star vehicle that failed to connect with audiences, prompting The Independent to wonder, “Is Will Smith’s reign at the summer box office over?”

Why all the performance-anxiety when it comes to male leads? Yes, male movie stars tend to be more bankable than their female counterparts, and so it’s not great for the business as a whole if there are fewer of them. But that doesn’t entirely explain the endless, nervous parsing of what Channing Tatum’s stardom or (non-stardom) means. This isn’t solely a crisis about profits; it’s a cultural identity crisis. We go to the movies to see heroes doing heroic things, unlike the small screen, where the episodic nature of television has given way to the rise of the anti-hero. The emphasis on actors being able to singlehandedly, swaggeringly “open” or “carry”  or “rescue” a  movie seems like an extension of that wish. And now movie stars, like sports and political figures before them, have let us down. Or maybe not “us,” but more specifically, America’s men. Hollywood movies are made to appeal to a male audience, after all. It’s not so much that women are rejecting Hollywood’s vision of what manhood is; it’s more that American men don’t know who they want to be any more.

Nowhere is the deep cultural yearning for a male star clearer than in profiles of Tatum, the industry’s latest great white hope, whose working-class appeal was buffed up for the art house crowd with Magic Mike. A 2012 Times profile on the actor was an extended fugue on the post-studio system leading man, but it also offered hope: “Mr. Tatum’s industry fans say he appeals to women in part because he’s attractive but not so stunning as to appear unattainable. At the same time his down-to-earth attitude, mixed with a whiff of immaturity, helps male moviegoers see him as a buddy instead of competition.”

Similarly, Rich Cohen, writing in Vanity Fair this summer, described the actor as “a pretty boy with a hint of menace. We all knew guys like that in high school. A big guy. A gentle giant. Six feet three inches in boots. The gridiron monster with a sensitive soul.” He is normal-ish—“we all knew,” cuts across a pretty wide swath—and yet still aspirational, the jock everyone sort of wanted to be. Jonah Hill is quoted saying of the first time he met Tatum, “I remember thinking, I know who that guy is. I’ve never seen him in anything, but that guy is a movie star.” White House Down director Roland Emmerich had premonitions, too. “Once in a while, somebody comes along who is a movie star,” he says. “Will Smith was like that, where you said, ‘Oh my God, there’s nobody bigger.’ I had the feeling Channing will be the same.” All they want is for America to feel it, too. If not for Tatum, then for someone. Culture writers have become like the mothers of steadfastly single 35-year-old women: what’s wrong with that one? So picky!

There have been great white hopes before, as Grantland’s Bill Simmons pointed out in 2011 on “The Movie Star,” an essay predictably rife with sports analogies. The movie star is our quarterback, he says, and “[W]e need 32 starting QBs every year regardless of whether we actually have 32 good ones, just like we need 40 to 45 leading men every year regardless of whether we have 40 to 45 good ones.” Which is how we end up with Ryan Reynolds, “someone like Alex Smith: He's a no. 1 draft pick, he has all the tools, you can easily talk yourself into him being good … and then, six games into the season, you realize that you're not making the Super Bowl with Alex Smith.” The reason Hollywood thought that Reynolds was a star is that US Weekly writes about him; the reason that US Weekly writes about him is that his love life is interesting. Bill Simmons, though he refers to “Scarlett” quite familiarly, by her first name, does not seem to have much respect for the acumen of the people (many of them women) who buy US Weekly. Ryan Reynolds’ movies tanked, he points out. And they still tank two years later: R.I.P.D. led the Atlantic Wire to declare him a “former” movie star.

Studios get the vast majority of their profits overseas these days (70 percent, according to 2012 data), which means that the men who star in the biggest blockbusters tend to be focus-grouped to appeal to non-American audiences. That represents a complete reversal over previous decades, when 80 percent of Hollywood’s money came from domestic box office. To have our ideal of American masculinity dictated by foreigners—in economically-threatening places like ever-looming China, the no. 2 ticket-buying market on earth, no less—probably exacerbates a generalized, free-floating national anxiety about our fall from hegemony. But! That’s not the whole story. While some newer stars test unexpectedly well overseas (Kevin James is apparently quite popular in Germany), as one industry insider told Vulture, “’Foreign buyers buy ‘yesterday,’" –i.e., established stars, like Bruce Willis. “They don’t buy ‘tomorrow.'” In other words, the taste-making onus still falls on Americans, who can’t seem to agree on what it is we want from male movie stars.

This splintering of tastes seems to puzzle a lot of men.  It is no accident that George Clooney—who in many ways is more of a throwback to a previous era, one in which there was such a thing as a movie star—is the one man consistently trotted out as an example of modern movie stardom. For instance, in a recent Atlantic essay, Benjamin Schwarz bemoaned a general, recent lack of charm among American men. By way of illustration, he offered up Clooney as the one modern worthy of inclusion in a gallery of greats that includes Carey Grant, Clark Gable, and William Powell. “That there exists only one choice—and an aging one—proves that we live in a culture all but devoid of male charm,” he declared. Schwarz conveniently ignored the fact that Ryan Gosling, to call up one easy example, might be considered charming by a specific slice of the population (the one writing and reading The New York Times, for instance), and that The Rock might be considered charming by another. American society, and American tastes, have never been more striated. There is no single vision of the masculine ideal. 

That, really, is what the hunger for a male star is about. The script that’s missing isn’t a good one for Matt Damon or Channing Tatum, it’s the script for the regular guy, who can’t even reliably look to the big screen for clarity about what he ought to aspire for anymore. Or maybe he can, if he looks a little harder. In GQ, Mark Harris decided not to mourn the death of the male movie star, but to celebrate “the new and improved” one. “The modern male movie star needs to be fluent in the ways of Hollywood—but as a second language, the first being his own passions and convictions and interest in his craft,” he writes, citing the one-for-them, one-for-me approach favored by stars like George Clooney. The movie star has evolved, he implies. If audiences are uninterested in these more interesting stars, like the aforementioned (and mentioned and mentioned and mentioned) Tatum … well, their loss. “[T]o equate stardom with mere bank-ability ruins the fun—unless your definition of fun is long and tortured analytical discussions of whether Tom Cruise is 'still a star,' even though nobody wanted to see a man that short play Jack Reacher or, for that matter, see a movie titled Jack Reacher," Harris argued. The new American movie star has to be OK with writing his own script whether it has mass appeal or not, in other words—and so does the new American man.