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Reese Witherspoon and Tom Hanks.
A bold claim sits in the midst of a lengthy new piece in The New Yorker about Ben Stiller, "Funny is Money: Ben Stiller and the dilemma of modern stardom." The author, Tad Friend, contends that "plenty of people who were big stars 10 years ago now are not." Fair enough on the surface, right? Well, take a look at the list Friend posits: Keanu Reeves, Mel Gibson, Demi Moore, Tom Hanks, Reese Witherspoon, Russell Crowe, Nicolas Cage, John Travolta.
Someone deigns to suggest that Tom Hanks is no longer a star? What? And why are we counting down the days until Witherspoon has her third baby if she's not a star? Friend's proclamation seems to exist where two main tenets -- the definition of a star and the perception of who is a star -- intersect. "A star, to the industry, is someone who can dependably get a film to 'open,'" Friend wrote. "A star to the rest of us, is the person our eyes are always drawn to on screen."
To that end, some of the names on the list do make sense. Demi Moore, sure. Her last big film, "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" was definitely a disappointment, and she hasn't had top billing on anything substantial since "G.I. Jane."
Reeves is almost 10 years removed from "Matrix Revolutions" and "Matrix Reloaded," which both opened in 2003 and made a combined $420 million domestically. But, "Revolutions" made only $48 million its opening weekend, perhaps an indicator that he wasn't carrying films like he once was.
Crowe is a slightly more complicated case: "3:10 to Yuma" in 2007 definitely didn't light the box office on fire (it grossed only $70 million worldwide) but doesn't the film's two Academy Award nominations count for something? (On a side note, Crowe does have nearly half a million Twitter followers. If Crowe and the studios he's working with can harness this following for any of the five films he's got coming up between now and 2014, maybe his star rises somewhat?)
Mel Gibson, with all his ancillary controversies might be in a category all his own, but even if you set his temper aside and look at the numbers, Gibson hasn't had a film open at the No. 1 spot since "Signs" in 2002. It seems certain that Gibson has become more spectacle than star and once the scales tip in that direction, it's tough to get them back.
The names on the list that maybe deserve some special dispensation are Witherspoon, Cage and Hanks. As Witherspoon's pregnancy tracking proves, you can still have star quality without a massive box office hit. Her most recent film,
"Water for Elephants" "This Means War" made $54 million domestically, but if you look at her last 10 years' worth of films, even the biggest hit, "Sweet Home Alabama," was only a $127 million movie. We aren't talking about a leading actress who was opening billion-dollar franchises and suddenly isn't covering the budget. Witherspoon is just a solid, steady star (with an Oscar under her belt) which will likely give her career serious longevity.
As for Cage: his "Saturday Night Live" persona might be the most interesting thing he's got going right now, but that's just here in the United States, where his films don't do nearly as well as they do internationally. Did you see "Season of the Witch"? Me neither, but enough people saw it in foreign markets that it earned $66 million there, while the film only made $24 million at home.
And then there's Tom Hanks. The man who made "Big" big, and led "Toy Story" to hold the title of most successful animation franchise, ever -- he will always be a star, even if "Larry Crowne" was unwatchable for vast, vast swaths of the population. And maybe that's the thing about stardom: once yours shines brightly enough, it never totally fizzles out. If you are able to remain "the person our eyes are always drawn to on screen," what's on the screen isn't always of paramount importance.
What do you think? Have you scratched Hanks off your star list, or is there someone who deserves to be on the list who isn't? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.