Hollywood has often relied on its $20 million men - stars who can "open" films, immediately bringing in two or three times their prodigious salaries - to motivate moviegoers during the two bonanza weeks of Christmas and New Year's. This year will test their power to reach adults as well as children during Yuletide.
Many of the stars who usually play quarterback to commercial franchises have chosen to go deep and get serious. For example, we'll see Will Smith as an IRS agent with a guilty conscience in Seven Pounds. Tom Cruise, in Valkyrie, takes on the real-life heroism of Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the most famous plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Brad Pitt creates a character from a fantasy figure who is born an old man and de-ages as the years go by in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an adaptation of a little-known F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. And Leonardo DiCaprio delves into Mad Men territory with the long-awaited adaptation of Richard Yates' celebrated 1961 novel about a troubled 1950s marriage, Revolutionary Road, co-starring his Titanic true love, Kate Winslet, as his bride.
Add 007 Daniel Craig co-starring with Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell in Defiance, the tale of the Bielski brothers, Jewish resisters to Nazi conquest who established their own free village in Belarus, and you've got a lineup of Tinseltown's most intriguing, influential and, yes, bankable male stars lending their talents to productions that attempt to carry historical weight, moral earnestness and/or literary pedigrees with liveliness and grace.
This Christmas season's panoply of marquee-name art and entertainment includes other box-office draws in more predictable outings, such as Keanu Reeves in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in Marley & Me, Jim Carrey in Yes Ma n and Samuel L. Jackson in The Spirit, while a slew of our most honored actors return in roles sure to win critical attention, such as Sean Penn as the United States' first openly gay elected public official, Harvey Milk, in Milk, and Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams as embattled clerics in Doubt.
This apparent glut caused Variety to headline its Hollywood preview story "Holiday Heartburn: Crush of star-driven Yule pics raises studio angst." As noted by the trade paper's reporter, Pamela McClintock, the Christmas period usually brings a swarm of releases on the specialty side, but in 2008, the major studios have doubled their typical output of lavishly promoted end-of-year releases.
McClintock warned, "Moviegoers will have to choose carefully if they want to avoid drama and death; three of the world's biggest stars play characters who kick the bucket."
She went on to ask, "Considering the state of the country, will more serious storylines work, or will lighter fare prevail ... do people want to laugh or cry?"
It's understandable that Hollywoodians grow antsy when stars stray from their usual turf. After all, Pitt's most popular movies have been caper comedies such as Oceans 11-13 and that garish piece of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Cruise became a brand name with action romances such as Top Gun and a franchise leader with the Mission: Impossible films.
Yet audiences often reward stars who dare to stretch themselves and pique their fans' curiosity. It's predictable that Variety would ask, "Will they even be willing to cry for Will Smith, 'the world's biggest box-office star?' " But no one is in better position to set the industry's collective mind at ease, because no one has a better track record at pulling off changes of pace than ...
These days when Smith commits to serious projects he holds nothing back - his performance in the title role of Michael Mann's Ali marks one of the great transformations in American movie acting. Unlike many performers who start out as comedians, Smith hasn't become over-reliant on audience response, and audiences reward him by responding to his authenticity.
When Ali did not click at the box office, Smith still put it forward as his best work, proving himself the kind of performer a strong, individual director like Mann would love to have on his team every time out. (Mann served as a producer on Smith's schizophrenic summer blockbuster Hancock.)
Smith first collaborated with his Seven Pounds director, the talented Italian Gabriele Muccino, on 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness, the fact-based story of an unemployed, San Francisco homeless man who raised a young boy in the streets while becoming a financial wizard.
The gamble paid off in Pursuit with a gritty tearjerker that grossed more than $162 million in the U.S. and in its own docudrama fashion echoed classics like Bicycle Thieves. Smith's Seven Pounds co-star Rosario Dawson told Entertainment Weekly of this new collaboration: "No matter how macho you [are], you're gonna be crying."
Then there's Smith's off-screen pal ...
In the past two years, Cruise has earned back a lot of respect and credibility since his public meltdown in 2005. Cruise distinguished himself as an ambitious senator in Lions for Lambs, exuding the hollow yet impermeable confidence of a salesman who always sells himself. And, as studio boss Les Grossman in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, he displayed a knack for getting under the skin of an egomaniac, who, in the funniest moments, danced like a grotesque bobble toy to the rhythm of his own meanness and power.
It will be fascinating to see whether Cruise can translate the dexterity of these high and low ironic parts into a heroic role like Claus von Stauffenberg, a man described by historian Roger Moorhouse as having "drive" and "charisma" as well as tiptop "organizational skills." During service in the 10th Panzer Army in North Africa he "lost his left eye, most of his right hand, and two fingers of his left," and was "riddled in the back and legs with shrapnel," yet within three months was back with a position in the Reserve Army. One contemporary also called him "rude" and "boorish" and "a swashbuckler" who set himself up as assassin as well as strategist "to overcompensate for the inferiority feelings engendered by his mutilation." Can Cruise encompass these complexities? At least he got the right director to help him out: Bryan Singer, who won awards for The Usual Suspects and in his two X-Men movies caught all the metaphoric value of misfit superheroes without getting all lugubrious about it.
No big star has been more widely pursued by top filmmakers than ...
He's overripe for a role that will fully engage his intelligence and humor and encourage him to bring out his star power without embarrassment. Years ago, in Spy Game, Robert Redford and Pitt brought out the best in each other and matched each other, wattage for wattage, as a 30-year CIA man and a former protege who went rogue. Pitt appears to respond well to direct challenges, and in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button he co-stars with the formidable Cate Blanchett. In addition, Fitzgerald's short story about a man aging backward, much admired by William Faulkner, is one of those whims of genius, like R.L. Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that's more poetic than dramatic or even novelistic; the film will succeed only if its makers, like those who made the best Jekyll and Hyde movies, have fleshed out the concept with vivid personality and incident.
Again, the presence of director David Fincher in the driver's seat inspires confidence. Fincher and Pitt both were at their most persuasive and incendiary with Fight Club. With Zodiac, Fincher underwent his own transformation, from the stylized and stylish thrill-seeker of Se7en and The Panic Room to hardboiled humanist.
Pitt may graduate from popcorn-movie idol and celebrity to major actor with Benjamin Button. One man who made that transition almost immediately after his first giant successs 10 years ago is ...
The co-star of the most financially successful Christmas movie (and just plain movie) of all time, Titanic, DiCaprio has become at once the most reliable and surprising of youngish Hollywood stars. Ever since he suddenly and extravagantly came of age, first as a con-man in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can and then as the title character in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, he's made a specialty of capturing the roiling thoughts and emotions of conflicted men of action, whether as a South Boston tough guy in The Departed, a Rhodesia-born diamond-hunter in Blood Diamond, or an Arabic-speaking CIA man from the American South in Body of Lies. Revolutionary Road doesn't just reteam him with his Titanic co-star, Winslet. It brings him back to the smaller-scale filmmaking in which he earned his reputation as a child actor (with What's Eating Gilbert Grape and This Boy's Life). And it does so in one of the most difficult forms to pull off: the domestic period piece. Has there ever been a movie masterpiece in the Cheever-Updike-Yates vein of marital-discord fiction? Maybe the TV film Too Far to Go, an adaptation of Updike's Maples stories. It would be a fitting holiday irony if director Sam Mendes came up with one as if in penance for his snarky, woefully overpraised American Beauty. And it would be another one if ...
Craig ... Daniel Craig
Yes, 007 his own bad self, wins back the art house bona fides he earned with movies such as the controversial May-December erotic drama The Mother with Defiance. Even the great Sean Connery had problems shedding his sleek super-secret-agent skin when he first tried other roles (he's a disaster in Hitchcock's Marnie). And there's a question whether Defiance director Ed Zwick (Glory), can make a war movie without heavy-handed point-making and moralizing.
But if Zwick gives Craig the showcase he deserves - and Muccino, Singer, Fincher and Mendes do the same for Smith, Cruise, Pitt and DiCaprio - Christmas 2008 may be a time when actors prove to studios and producers that they can broaden their audience when they extend themselves. Here's hoping that these stars don't merely dazzle - they illuminate.