PITY, for a moment, George Clooney. In recent months, he's been on virtually every magazine cover except "National Geographic," quoted at every industry event, his ubiquitousness parodied even on the comics page. Part of this is simple marketing -- the man has two movies out: small, politically challenged films, one of which he co-wrote and directed, that mark his determination to be more than a potential casino owner and Hollywood glamour guy.
But part of it is the disturbing fact that in this year's awards season, he's the only player with any kind of real "It" factor.
"I am, as you know, a huge star," he deadpanned to an audience gathered for a recent screening of "Good Night, and Good Luck" at the Writers Guild Theater.
True, and if the entertainment industry isn't careful, he may be the last one. This year's Oscar hopefuls are littered with terrific male leads, but no one is going call Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Strathairn, Joaquin Phoenix or Heath Ledger a big movie star. And with the exception of "Walk the Line," this year's acclaimed films were notable for, if nothing else, their lack of female leads. So, heading into Oscar season, George Clooney, who probably won't even be up for an acting category, is pretty much the Man.
And it isn't just the Oscars. In 1995, two actors (Toms Cruise and Hanks) made the top 10 of Premiere magazine's annual Hollywood Power List. Now there are none -- Cruise was Premiere's top thespian in 2005 at No. 14, followed by Mel Gibson and Hanks. Not until No. 18 did a post-baby boom actor (Will Smith) get a nod.
Who killed the movie stars? Conversations with dozens of Hollywood insiders result in a forest of pointed fingers. Certainly, the entertainment media are blamed for their obsession with tearing down talent as fast as it blooms, but so is the death of the midlevel movie, the dismantling of the studio system, competition from television and the Internet, the enormous paydays with their just as enormous expectations, not to mention the sometimes questionable behavior and talent of the young stars themselves.
But most agree that Julia Roberts, Hanks and Cruise were among the last able to hit those magical marks -- big box office, critical acclaim and the larger-than-life mystique once required of true stardom.
"If you ask someone to name a real movie star, most of them would be old," says producer Dean Devlin. "We don't have enough real movie stars because there's been a devaluation of craft on all sides."
That's precisely what veteran bad guy Christopher Lee said recently when he took to the British airwaves to condemn the new generation of "stars" as no more than disposable pretty faces. The fact that, at 84, he was recently named by USA Today as the star with the biggest box-office take in 2005 surprised Lee not at all. "There are quite large numbers of very young men and women ... [who] are playing very large parts in huge films," he told UKTV, "and they simply, through no fault of their own, don't have the background and the experience ... to pull it off."
This is a problem. During the last year, the entertainment industry has run around like baffled participants in a multibillion-dollar game of Clue trying to figure out what went wrong at the box office, blaming everything from the proliferation of iPods to the price of popcorn.
They seem intent on overlooking the fact that although some people will navigate parking at the cineplex to compare the gore factor of CGI-enhanced battle scenes, most are there to see a good story played out by movie stars -- those larger-than-life, light-up-the-screen actors who make it worth $10 and two hours. Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Berman, John Wayne. Or more recently, people like Robert Redford, Paul Newman, John Travolta, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda.
Some of those folks are still working -- once upon a time, being a movie star, like being a Supreme Court justice, was for life -- but they aren't considered young enough to play leads. Unfortunately, the folks who were supposed to replace them haven't shown up yet. Some come close -- Sean Penn, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Johnny Depp, even the two halves of Brangelina -- but most are over 40 and few seem nascent icons.
Meanwhile, the marquees are beset by an ever-changing Parade of Young People -- Jude Law, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Lucas, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Gwyneth Paltrow -- attempting to juggle box-office clout and poignant performance, familiarity and overexposure, personal lives and professional images.
"It isn't that there aren't any movie stars," says veteran publicist Dale Olson. "There are. It's the longevity that is the issue. What happens today is that there are a handful of stars who get everything they want for a short period of time and then kind of disappear."