In the March issue of GQ, the great Mark Harris debunks one of the most prevalent theories in Hollywood today: that movies stars are dead, replaced by recognizable characters like superheros, YA heroines and even pirates.
As Harris writes: "We still need movie stars. And perhaps more surprisingly, we still have movie stars -- lots of them, and arguably a more talented and interesting variety than at any time in the past thirty years. But they play by new rules, and they have to navigate an industry that often seems hostile to their very existence."
Harris brings up the ships-passing-in-the-night careers of Channing Tatum and Taylor Kitsch, two nouveau stars who were everywhere in 2012. Last year, Tatum was the focal point of three wildly different genre films -- "The Vow," "21 Jump Street" and "Magic Mike" -- all of which overperformed at the box office and with critics; Kitsch, meanwhile, starred in two blockbusters ("Battleship" and "John Carter"), both of which failed to live up to the lofty expectations set by massive budgets (each cost over $200 million). His best effort last year was the already forgotten Oliver Stone film "Savages." Writes Harris:
"A star convinces us that he's filling a void we didn't know was there; he makes us believe that until he came along, the movie world of which he is now at the center was somehow incomplete. [...] But movies like 'John Carter' and 'Battleship' pull an actor away from the specific and toward the generic."
Which, at least on the surface, is why Kitsch is not a movie star right now, while Tatum is the next great leading man. Perhaps, however, there's another reason: Tatum worked with Steven Soderbergh and Kitsch did not.
Quick, run down the list of biggest male movie stars from the last 20 years: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr. and, now, perhaps Tatum. What do half of the names on that list have in common? They all made films with Soderbergh at key points in their careers.
To wit: Before appearing in Soderbergh's "Out of Sight," Clooney was on the cusp of becoming a cautionary tale for TV stars who wanted to make the switch to movies. (Clooney starred in the underwhelming quartet of "From Dusk Till Dawn," "The Peacemaker," "One Fine Day" and "Batman and Robin" between 1996 and 1997.) After "Out of Sight," Clooney led box office hits "Three Kings" and "A Perfect Storm." Then -- following the well-received "O Brother Where Art Thou?" -- Clooney reunited with Soderbergh to play the title character in "Ocean's 11." The film grossed $450 million worldwide. It remains his biggest hit ever.
Speaking of "Ocean's 11," between 1995's "Seven" and the 2001 film, Pitt had made nine movies in a row that failed to top even $70 million at the box office (this includes outright flops like "Meet Joe Black" and "The Devil's Own"). After working with Soderbergh, four of Pitt's next five films crossed $100 million at the domestic box office, and the fifth film -- "Babel" -- was a Best Picture nominee.
Back in November of last year, Damon noted that he had a "couple movies that didn't work, and some of them had big enough budgets that people care, and so basically my phone just stopped ringing." The dry spell occurred after the 2000 flops "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "All the Pretty Horses." Damon's next film? "Ocean's 11" in 2001, which was immediately followed by "The Bourne Identity" in 2002. His phone started ringing again.
Then there's Tatum: Soderbergh can't take all the credit for Tatum's 2012 -- after all, both "The Vow" and "21 Jump Street" hit $100 million before "Magic Mike" arrived in theaters -- but "Magic Mike" was the first film that sold Tatum as "Channing Tatum, Movie Star." As Harris notes, if we're still talking about Tatum in 30 years, it's "Magic Mike" that will be remembered; it's his "Saturday Night Fever," his "Risky Business." (This is to say nothing of what Soderbergh did for "Magic Mike" co-star Matthew McConaughey.)
If there's a formula, then, for becoming a movie star in the last 15 years, at least one portion of it is tied almost symbiotically to Soderbergh. (Depp and Downey, for instance, became stars by playing popular characters; Hanks and Cruise were leftovers from the late 1980s; Smith is his own cottage industry altogether.) Which is a great tidbit for future leading men hoping to join the A-list, save for one little problem: Steven Soderbergh is now retired. The guy who has been one of the most influential star-makers of the last quarter century is not making any more movies. (At least for now.)
So, who will find the next great leading men? Certainly not Peter Berg or Andrew Stanton, the directors, respectively, of "Battleship" and "John Carter." Certainly not whoever directed "The Vow." Certainly not the next superhero franchise. (Sorry, Chris Pratt.)
Still, Harris is right: Movie stars aren't dead. Without Soderbergh, however, they just might be harder to find.
This story appears in Issue 42 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, March 29.