Stars' earning power rises and falls to match box-office performance


HOLLYWOOD -- Call it star power, box-office persona, or simply heat.

This Christmas season, Kevin Costner again proved he is an actor who has it. So do Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and Macaulay Culkin -- when his parents aren't around.

On the other hand, the luster seems to be coming off Eddie Murphy, and Steve Martin should stick to comedy. Robin Williams should survive the failure of "Toys." And, Jack Nicholson's is such a dominating presence on the screen that he remains hot despite an occasional "The Two Jakes" and "Man Trouble."

That is the consensus in Hollywood as the new year begins, after a season that gave audiences hits like "A Few Good Men," "Home Alone 2" and "The Bodyguard" along with disappointments like "Toys," "Leap of Faith" and -- for sheer expectations -- "The Distinguished Gentleman."

In a time of economic recession, Hollywood depends on perhaps a dozen actors who will draw audiences because of their name or because audiences enjoy seeing them in a certain kind of role -- in industry jargon, they can "open" a film.

And there are even fewer actresses who fit this criteria -- Julia Roberts and Barbra Streisand. Some believe Sharon Stone could vault into this select group.

When it comes to box-office appeal, Mr. Costner showed in Warner Bros.' romantic thriller "The Bodyguard" that he has that screen charisma that brings people of all ages to the theaters.

For Mr. Costner, the rewards could be staggering. Sources said he could eventually reap $20 million to $30 million, provided the movie goes on to earn $200 million worldwide, as some now project.

"The movie was lacerated by the critics, nonetheless America said, 'We are going to ignore your opinions because we want to see Kevin Costner -- bad haircut and all,' " said entertainment attorney David Colden. "He's much like Gary Cooper, in that he is the type of movie star women like to see in a romantic lead and men can either project themselves onto or don't feel threatened by. It causes both men and women to go see the picture."

"The Bodyguard" has brought in about $109.2 million in 10 weeks.

Mr. Gibson, like Mr. Costner, also retains considerable heat. Although "Forever Young" was flawed, the movie is expected to gross more than $50 million, industry officials estimated, a tribute to Mr. Gibson's drawing power.

Only a few months ago, people wondered if Mr. Cruise's career had been damaged by "Far and Away."

Those doubts have been quashed with the success of "A Few Good Men," which has grossed an estimated $114.6 million through this pastweekend. One industry source said the feeling around town is that Mr. Cruise is most attractive when he plays "callow boys who get religion," like he did in "Risky Business," "Cocktail" and "Top Gun." Mr. Cruise is also expected to profit handsomely from back-end deals. He was paid $12.5 million against 15 percent of the gross, which means he could earn millions over his up-front fee depending on how well the film does.

Mr. Nicholson, of course, is considered one of the premiere actors in Hollywood. His performance as a by-the-book Marine Corps colonel in "A Few Good Men" has garnered rave reviews. But his role as the late Teamsters leader in "Hoffa" was not enough to make the movie a hit.

Mr. Nicholson is considered such a mega-star that a career hiccup like "Hoffa" is not going to prevent him from continuing to be offered plum roles -- he made $500,000 a day for 10 days' work in "A Few Good Men," according to industry sources.

Macaulay, meanwhile, has proven with "Home Alone 2" that his star appeal is no fluke. The child star made only $100,000 and had no points in the original "Home Alone"; for "Home Alone 2," which has taken in an estimated $161.1 million, he reportedly was paid $5 million and 5 percent of the gross.

While Disney hyped "The Distinguished Gentleman" as a return of the old Eddie Murphy, the movie about a con man who becomes a congressman just didn't take off as the studio had hoped.

Whatever the reason, alarm bells went off at Paramount, where Mr. Murphy was set to begin filming "Beverly Hills Cop III." Studio chief Sherry Lansing postponed production of the film for eight weeks after costs began spiraling toward $70 million, including Mr. Murphy's $15 million fee.

Mr. Murphy "reached the point where his career needs to be resuscitated," one industry observer said. "We no longer think of him as a fresh, funny guy. Now, he's seen as an arrogant person talking down to us, running around with a big entourage. He needs to be humanized."

The acid test for Mr. Murphy, the industry believes, will be if "Beverly Hills Cop III" succeeds.

As for Mr. Martin, the fact that "Leap of Faith" has performed below expectations probably means he will not get to stretch himself as an actor in the near future, industry sources said, and he could be forced to return to more familiar roles that are in line with his comedy presence.

Industry sources say Mr. Williams cannot be blamed for the failure of Barry Levinson's "Toys," the surrealistic fable that many believe overwhelmed Mr. Williams' talents. And he captivated audiences as the voice of the animated Genie in "Aladdin."

But where are the actresses? Ms. Roberts hasn't been seen since "Hook" last Christmas, and Ms. Streisand does not provide a steady stream of films. With her steamy role in "Basic Instinct," Ms. Stone is one of the most sought-after actresses, now commanding $5 million to $6 million, but Hollywood isn't sure. They are waiting to see how the thriller "Sliver" does this year.

Geena Davis is on the ascent after "A League of Their Own" became a smash hit, but the thinking is that she is not yet capable of "opening" a movie by herself. Michelle Pfeiffer's only blockbuster was "Batman Returns." The verdict is yet to come in on Demi Moore. Susan Sarandon does well, but does not have box-office heat.

"I think people [who make films] are scared to push women to the top of a movie," said entertainment attorney Peter Dekom. "They are looking for insurance. The movie business is so risky today, people who spend millions don't want to create vehicles for women and find out that it doesn't work."

"There is no woman Arnold Schwarzenegger, there is no woman Kevin Costner, and that's a shame," Mr. Dekom said. "But there will be. 'A League of Their Own' did $107 million at the box office. It's a mega-hit. It's filled with women and has a woman director. Don't tell me women can't be in mega-movies."

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