You Must See 12 Years a Slave, and You Must See It in The Theater


But not for the reasons you think.

In today’s movie economy, we tell people “they must see something in the theater” when something indelible, something crucial to the film itself, would be lost without seeing it in the theater.  This season’s unanimous theater must-see is Gravity, with its gorgeous, revelatory use of 3D.  But the maxim also applies, albeit less regularly, to a certain type of comedy film — rewatch Borat or even The Hangover without a theater full of infectious laughter, and you have a profoundly different experience of the movie.

You must watch 12 Years a Slave in the theater, but not for aesthetics, and not for some sort of communal energy.  You must watch it in the theater for a very simple reason: once it’s on DVD, or streaming, or AppleTV, it’ll be all the harder to decide to see it.  It is a sad, devastating, incisive, and fiercely important movie and, to my mind, the very best of the year.  And those are the hardest movies to get yourself to watch on a Friday night on the couch.


We all want to watch these movies on a Friday night at home.  These are the movies that stick around in Netflix queues for years or, once delivered to your home, get so dusty that Netflix eventually emails to ask if you’ve lost the DVD.  You want to be the sort of person who watches A Separation, or 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, or The Hurt Locker, something that everyone’s told you you should see, but when it comes down to it, you just keep choosing that week’s DVRed episode of Scandal or the latest relatively innocuous hipster rom-com (see: Drinking Buddies). 

Don’t get me wrong: my use of “you” here not somehow excluded myself from this practice.  You do it, I do it, many, many people do it.  And it’s not because you’re morally weak so much as fortified by choice: when there’s so much out there to choose instead, and you’re already in your pajama pants and have a glass of wine in your hand and want to be asleep by 11 pm, the laws of inertia are simply against you.  9 times out of 10, you will choose the thing that will not challenge and fundamentally alter your world view.  Again, it’s not because you’re lazy, it’s because submitting yourself to art that alters you is hard.

Someone once told me that the way to judge whether a piece of art is “good” or not is whether or not you’re a different person when it’s over.  You don’t have to be a profoundly different person, but a person who sees him/herself and the surrounding world in a different way, however slight.  And 12 Years a Slave isn’t simply good art — it’s the very, very best sort of art, it’s frankly criminal not to watch it, and since I’m still recovering from seeing it earlier today (and weeping, uncontrollably, for the last thirty minutes of the film), I can only tell you to read Wesley Morris’s superlative review on Grantland.

But please, just for a moment, be honest with yourself: when you decide to go to a movie, it’s intractable.  You could get to the parking lot or the ticket window and suddenly change your mind, but the inertia, in this case, is against you: you will go to the movie you decide to see.  All you need to do is tell someone else that you’d like to go, and then you’re accountable, just like telling someone that you’d like to go running at 6 a.m.

And when you’re in the movie theater, you can’t check your phone, you can’t turn it off, you can’t retreat, and a  film of this caliber deserves that.  12 Years a Slave isn’t just aesthetically beautiful; it’s morally and politically necessary.  Set yourself up to the path of least resistance to seeing it: even if you only see one movie a year in the theater, let it be this one.  Sometimes it’s hard to choose to consume the things that matter most, in no small part because it’s difficult to submit ourselves to media that indicts and questions the status quo, whether that relates to the present, the past, or the cathartic, hope-inducing narratives that depict it. Make this one small thing easier for yourself: see it in the theater, and do it now.

A Concise Case for Leo: The Perfect Gatsby


Did you know that Baz Luhrmann, he of Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge fame, has been filming an adaptation of The Great Gatsby?  You didn’t?  You’ve obviously not been following me on Twitter or Facebook, because I’m nuts for it.

Luhrmann can be an acquired taste — some are alienated by his fearlessness when it comes to excess.  (I’ve been writing about German Expressionism lately, and in some ways, he’s the perfect collision of German Expressionism and postmodernism, combining the surreal, the squalid, and the pure — and coming up with something sneakily political).  Some dismiss Luhrmann as pastiche, but they are blind to the massive, pulsing heart that structures and motivates all of his work.

And he’s perfect for Gatsby.  If you haven’t read Gatsby since high school, you need to return to it.  I’ve returned to it twice in the last three years — one for a class I was taking, once for a class I was teaching — and its magic endures.  It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, mournful — a knowing harbinger of the America that was to come.  And at its core: excess, regret, love, and a reverence for surfaces.  Luhrmann’s forte.

When the trailer for this Gatsby went live earlier this week, there was, of course, much ballyhoo.

Anxiety, judging from the trailer, that it’s going to be one long music video.  (My guess = the beginning scenes of the trailer are clips of a big, bombastic opening number — a Luhrmann trademark).  Complaints about casting, dormant since the initial decisions were announced, were given new life.  [My favorite casting quip from The Hairpin's lengthy discussion:  "I want [Kan]Ye As Gatsby, Rick Ross as Nick Carraway, Amber Rose as Daisy Buchanan, and Wocka Flocka as Tom Buchanan].

And no small amount of disdain for DiCaprio as Gatsby:

 I’m betting it’s all DiCaprio’s choice. Homie wants that Oscar so bad he can taste it’s smooth golden skin and he angstily reasons that history=GRAVITAS.

I like Leo just fine, but just still don’t think he’s that great an actor. He is very good at having a nice face to look at, and very good at furrowing his brow and looking concerned, but that’s about it. The fact that he’s been cast in SO MANY really excellent movies and hasn’t won an Oscar yet suggests that others share my point of view.
Again, I don’t think he detracts from movies or anything, he’s just never been the one to make a movie really sing for me. But I’m happy to keep looking at him!

He’s not that great! I mean, I understand he’s Marty’s new golden boy, but Leo, even Scorcese didn’t get an Academy Award until The Departed.

Ugh! Leo is going to way too brow furrowing to be Gatsby! Gatsby was cool, collected, understated. That’s what made it so crazy when he did show emotion–and it was basically all of his mysterious sexiness. Leo is going to over dramatize this role to death! Gah!

I WAS the girl with the Leo posters, I will admit. I love me some floppy haired blond boys. But he was the only crush that stuck because, in my opinion, he is an excellent actor. But you’re right about the brow furrowing, and I sort of feel like he’s trying to hard to be Serious Actor, Not Hearthrob?

I admit: DiCaprio is quite the brow-furrower.  And as my friend/former colleague Colin Tait has pointed out on this blog, he’s just emerging from a period of serious “beard acting.”  I’m sure he wants an Oscar.  He does choose he roles very deliberately, and seems to value the dramatic over the light or comedic.  He’s become a very particular and very serious sort of actor.

Which is part of what makes him UNBELIEVABLY PERFECT FOR GATSBY.  Here’s the truth: DiCaprio’s star image bears remarkable, if imperfect, resemblance to that of Gatsby, one of the most well-known (if often misunderstood) literary “stars” of our time.

Let’s break it down.

Gatsby is: 

A self-made man (nouveau riche) who has eschewed his initial image (a nice Midwestern boy) because it was too boring, too flatly attractive, to win the interest of the thing (Daisy) he desired.

DiCaprio is: 

A self-made man  (movies stars are totally nouveau riche) who has eschewed his initial image (teenage heartthrob) because it was too boring, too flatly attractive, to win the interest of the thing (talented directors) he desired.


Gatsby is:

Preposterously wealthy because of success in a business he wishes not to remember, beautiful, stereotypically-American-attractive.

DiCaprio is:

Preposterously wealthy because of success in a business he wishes not to remember (heartthrob days), beautiful, stereotypically-American-attracive.


Gatsby is:

Obsessed with clothes, but only when they serve his purpose.  A means to an end.  Looks exquisite in a tux.

DiCaprio is:

Dismissive of clothes (please, I beg you, see his go-to frat outfits in all candids of him ever) but recognizes how his fan base appreciates him in nice ones.  A means to an end.  Looks exquisite in a tux.


Gatsby’s name:

Is known throughout New York, but no one knows who he is.  He is a concept more than an actual man.

DiCaprio’s name:

Is known throughout the world.  But apart from some advocacy for the environment, very, very little is known about his private life.  He is a concept more than an actual man.  (You could say this for all stars, but it’s particularly true of DiCaprio.  You need a big, monster star to play this part — someone with charisma, tremendous fame, but something missing).


Gatsby attracts:

Beautiful, perfect women in droves, but seems unsatisfied with them all.

DiCaprio attracts:

Beautiful, perfect women — models! more models! Blake Lively! — but seems unsatisfied with them all.


Gatsby desires:

Affection and adulation from the object of his desire (Daisy) — the driving force of his life.

DiCaprio desires:

Affection and adulation from the object of his desire (Scorsese, Eastwood, The Academy) — the only (visible) driving force of his life.

Gatsby is best friends with Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire)

DiCaprio is best friends with Tobey Maguire (played by Tobey Maguire)

As emphasized above, the role Gatsby is not meant for a good actor, or even a character actor.  He must, must be played by a super star — but a superstar whose private life is elusive.  Robert Redford was, at least on the surface, a perfect fit for the role – he had the same tan, blank Americanness.  But that film fell flat, in part because it was bloodless, and the script was a hack job.  This adaptation does not run that risk.

What remains to be seen — and, in my opinion, what will make or break the film — is if DiCaprio can pull off the underlying insecurity that so pains Gatsby, that bubbles up from beneath the calm, controlled exterior when Daisy comes around.

We see that perfect, controlled Gatsby several times in the trailer, most exquisitely at right about the 1:10 mark — and approximated in the production still below.

We have to see Gatsby in his element to understand how out of it he is when he enter’s Daisy’s world.  We have to see him with the same swagger and gravitas as he has in, say, Catch Me If You Can, so that we can see him disassembled, brought to the point of confusion and near-delirium of Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island.  We need an actor who can be both at once.

And for those of you who think DiCaprio is a bad actor.  Maybe he is.  But that’s even more perfect, because Gatsby himself is a bad impersonation of a Jazz Age man, a Midwestern con artist posturing as a blue blood.  His bad acting is what makes him so tragic, so iconic.

I, for one, think DiCaprio is an amazing actor — good enough, I think, to be a bad actor at life….and a perfect Gatsby.

The Parameters of Indie Stardom


When people hear that I do celebrity studies, one of their favorite things to do is ask if so-and-so is a star.  Is Jeremy Lin a star?  Is Brad Pitt a star?  Is Tom Cruise still a star?  How do you know?

If you’ve been reading the blog for awhile, you’re familiar with the definition:  a star is a performer whose fame is based on textual lives (for actors and actresses, the way they appear in films; for a basketball player, the way he performs on the court) and their extra-textual lives (everything they do, say, and represent off the court).  We also think of stars as people who can “open” in some way — a baseball star brings bodies to seats in the same way that a movie star (used to) bring bodies to seats.  (Now, our real “stars,” at least financially, are pre-sold properties, such as The Hunger Games).

The Brange: Not Indie Stars

So Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney….Reese Witherspoon, Matt Damon, Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington — they’re still (arguably) stars.  And can have an entirely different conversation about television stardom, and how it functions differently (and works to set a certain type for a performer even more effectively than a definitive star role.  Jennifer Aniston, for example, will never escape Rachel, no matter how far Friends may seem in the rearview mirror).  (For more on television stardom, and if such a thing actually exists, see earlier posts on Aniston and Katie Holmes).

My favorite indie pairing: Laura Linney & Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me

But what of indie stardom?  What of Michelle Williams and Laura Linney, of Paul Giametti and Mark Ruffalo, of Joseph Gordon-Levitt?  What do we do with these stars who star in little pictures that do little business (but are generally critically acclaimed) and reveal strategic bits of their extra-textual lives to match their “indie” picture personalities.  Their involvement oftentimes marks the difference between an independent film getting picked up for theatrical distribution or going straight to IFC or video-on-demand.  They are powerful forces….just on a smaller scale.  So how does an indie star “mean” differently than a mainstream star?  And does it matter?

First things first: we need a little specificity of language.  “Indie” has come to mean many things over the last two decades — some people think “independent” means produced independently (i.e. outside of the major studios), some people think it means financed independently, others think that any film that makes it into an actual movie theater (that is not at a film festival) cannot be “indie.”  Personally, I like Michael Newman‘s take, beautifully laid out in his book Indie, in which he approaches “indie” film not as a production culture, but as a confluence of meanings.  Indie is thus a way of producing a film, but also a way of watching a film, and an expectation for how a film should look and address the viewer.  In other words, lots of things make a film indie, including the actors that appear in them.

Oh hey Joseph Gordon-Levitt, yes, yes I will go see the movie when you have cancer just because you are in it.

When you see the name Joseph Gordon-Levitt attached to a film, you bring a certain understanding of how that film was most likely financed, the type of film it will be, what it will demand from you as a viewer, and even what it will look like.  To wit: it will not be a big-budget production, but it will still look professional (his name attached to a project helps garner a modicum of funding); the narrative with be nuanced, quirky, and/or not follow traditional plot rules, and it will make me feel double-capital-E Earned Emotions.  I will watch it in a small, art-house theater or via Netflix, and my significant other will come watch it with me because even though there’s a romance, or it’s sad, and it’s indie, so it’s okay.   The previews before will most likely be for other indie films starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt himself or Patricia Clarkston.  They won’t have the cheesy voiceover preview guy, because Indie film consumers hate voiceover cheesy guy and the way his presence screams commercial film — instead, the previews might be in a foreign language, or the film might just have an elegant piano score and LOTS AND LOTS of those weird feathers in the shape of a horseshoe with lots of film festival names inside, some more esoteric than others.  While we watch this film, we might have artisan popcorns or classic cocktails, depending on whether or not we’re in Austin and watching it at the Violet Crown, surrounded by other early 30-something intellectuals and elderly but engaged matinee-goers.  In which case, we probably biked there.

You get the drift: indie films cater to a specific audience, and that audience values specific attributes in their stars.  An indie star can’t look like Channing Tatum.  It’s just not possible; he’s just too built, too Ken-faced.  An indie star has to be schlubby and everyguy (Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman), skinny and emo-looking (Gordon-Levitt), or, if the star’s a woman, untraditionally beautiful (Williams) or older-and-ravishing (Laura Linney, Clarkston).  Beautiful women often break-out in indie film and then break-away, as seems to be the case for both Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Olson.

So an indie star needs to appear in indie pictures, broadly conceived.  But the indie star must regularly appear in indie pictures.  Indie pictures are the main component of their star image — the thing that he/she seems to mean.

And, as a result, the core of the indie star’s image is prestige.  The actor doesn’t act for the money or the glamour, but for the love of acting.  And with discernment, at least in today’s culture, comes prestige.  The less interested you are in making profits, the more interested you are in plot development and, by extension, the more serious you are as an actor.

Mark Ruffalo looks very uncomfortable at the Big Movie Star Avenger Party

So here’s where it gets interesting: because the indie star connotes prestige, his/her involvement in a non-indie production adds prestige.  Thus Mark Ruffalo’s involvement in The Avengers makes the film seem less exploitative, and Patricia Clarkston’s role as the mom in Friends with Benefits ups its pedigree.  Indie stars gain renown for their powers of discernment — Gordon-Levitt, for example, best known for his stint on Third Rock from the Sun, went back to Hollywood in his early 20s with the contingency that he would only make “good movies.”  While all of the films that he’s made since returning have not, necessarily, been turned out as “good movies,” they’ve all at least tried to be good movies.  Stop-Loss tried really, really hard to be a good movie, which is more than I can say for 90% of Hollywood blockbusters.

Which brings us to the question of blockbuster involvement.  What happens when Gordon-Levitt appears in G.I. Joe?  Nothing.  Why?  Because the vast majority of people who know his name — as an indie star — didn’t go see G.I. Joe.  It’s simply not the target audience.  Maybe a few die-harders did (I know that it made me look at it twice before deciding it, in all likelihood, would suck big time; reviews tell me I am not wrong).  And to the majority of people who did go see the film, which, for all of its bad reviews, did make a bundle at the box office, he was just another handsome supporting guy.

Indie stars can also anchor prestige television.  See Steve Buschemi in Boardwalk Empire, Toni Collette in United States of Tara, or Don Cheadle in House of Lies.  They have the scent of big-screen stardom on them, but going to TV isn’t a sign of decline, as some have (mistakenly) viewed what’s become of the likes of Alec Baldwin. Rather, appearing on HBO or Showtime show built around them is an extension of their pre-existing prestige.  Ironically, stars of small, relatively low-budget films usually land on expensive, high-production-value television.

Indie stars get it both ways: they get recognition, but without the paparazzi frenzy that accompanies wide-scale superstardom.  They don’t make as much money, but then again, they don’t have to spend as much money employing and guarding themselves from the publicity apparatus.  They are associated with class and prestige, despite the fact that the films they appear in cost a fraction of the truly lavish and expensive Hollywood pictures.  When one of their films only makes a million dollars — but garners a ton of buzz — it’s a success.  When a film doesn’t make it out of the gate — recent examples include Hesher or Patricia Clarkston’s Cairo Time — it doesn’t really matter, because the film didn’t cost much to make and will probably make back its budget in ancillaries, because people like me like to rent movies with indie stars and watch them on a Saturday night with a bottle of wine.   (And by “rent” I mean “stream them on Netflix.”)

When an indie film does succeed, whether by making money or creating a lot of buzz, then the indie star can parlay that success into an appearance in a larger film (Gordon-Levitt’s role in Inception) and, potentially, bring more fans back with you to the small-scale productions you enjoy.

Not anyone can be an indie star.  You need to be distinctive, but not too distinctive.  You can be somewhat weird looking, but only if you’re really, really talented, and usually only if you’re male.  You have to balance really off-the-wall passion projects with slightly more mainstream yet still-labeled-as-indie fare (500 Days of Summer, for example).  You can’t do too many mainstream projects, lest you be labeled and hounded like a “real” star (see: Ryan Gosling) and you can’t do too many things in general, lest you be labeled as a publicity hound and a fraud (see: James Franco).

Hey Gos, I really still want to think of you as an Indie Star, but is it really true?

It might be easier to be an indie star: you’re not on the cover of the gossip mags every week, and you don’t need an entourage.  You can probably lead a more normal life than, say, Brad Pitt.  You don’t make as money, but you have more freedom.  As a whole, your products probably suck less.  But you also have to maintain a very specific career path, never deviating too far from a specific set of expectations, types of films, and behavior in your extra-textual life (running a website for independent filmmakers, starting a lady blog, dating other indie stars, getting behind environmental causes and blogging about them at Huff Post).

Independent stardom sure looks circumscribed.


A Brief Note on Coach Taylor’s Emmy Win


I’ve mostly written the Emmy’s off.  They generally favor the mainstream over the truly great, a trend best evidenced by its complete snubbing of The Wire over its five-year run.

But when Kyle Chandler won the Emmy last night for Best Actor in a Drama Series, beating out Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Timothy Olyphant (Justified), and Hugh Laurie (House), I jumped up and did a totally ridiculous and embarrassing little dance.

Because here’s the thing: Hamm might, indeed, have deserved the award.   What he did with Don Draper over this tortuous/quasi-redemptive fourth season was truly a marvel.  Beschemi was so masterful at reconciling the powerful and the vulnerable in Boardwalk Empire, and Olyphant finally proved that he could act (and wear the shit out of a pair of pants).  But I don’t want to think of this in terms of Chandler being “better” or “more deserving” than the others in his field.

Rather, I just want to think of this win as a celebration of and a benediction for Chandler specifically and Friday Night Lights more generally. I’ve written on Why We Watch Friday Night Lights before, and everything that I said about the first three seasons remained true over the course of the final two.  In fact, everything got better.  If you’re already on board, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  If not, you probably think the show is about football, or about high school, or about small towns that have been forgotten.  It’s about all of those things, but only obliquely.  It’s really about class, and race, and a marriage, and what it’s like to live in a place where life is by turns bleak and beautiful.

But because of network bumbling and mis-marketing, it was never the hit.  Or maybe because of its heart, and the way it refused (except in the first half of Season Two), to stoop to sensationalism, it never could have been a hit.  Like My So-Called Life before it, it was just to beautiful to live.  But by hook or by crook, FNL managed to eek out five seasons — none of which are perfect, but all of which made me feel and think more than any other show on television.  It’s a quiet show, and the acting on it is equally quiet.  But my hope is that this win, this awareness, might push you to let it speak to you.

So try it.  The first episode of the first season is not necessarily what the rest of the season will look like.  There will be football, but there will be much, much more.  And then you, too, will become an FNL proselytizer, buying “Dillon Football” t-shirts (I totally own one) and unironically using phrases like “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.”

And for those of us who know and love Friday Night Lights — TEXAS FOREVER.  My only sadness is that Mrs. Coach couldn’t have shared in Chandler’s glory.

This Week in Arguments: Top 24 Female Stars?


In Bill Simmons’ very Bill Simmonisy article on the Movie Star in today’s Grantland, he makes the argument that 1.) Stars are sold as stars even when they haven’t actually earned the designation (his example: Ryan Reynolds). 2.) The only “real” movie star, as in the only star who consistently brings in huge audiences, is Will Smith, but
3.) Will Smith is a chicken shit when it comes to actually doing anything risky or awesome (at least since Six Degrees of Separation, his first role post-Fresh Prince) and that the fact that he’s the “only” movie star betrays something unsettling about the way that Hollywood (and its audiences) work.

This is all true, and I like the article, in part because it illuminates what a well-placed gossip-generating bit can do for an actor (marriage to ScarJo = tremendous rise in the Ryan Reynolds “stock”) and because it grapples with a question that has confounded analysts, academics, and audiences alike: what makes a star? Is it pure box office gross? Is it charisma? Is it audience affection? How do we define “movie star,” and why does it matter? (It obviously does, otherwise we wouldn’t hash it out so often).

And because this is Bill Simmons, he also employs an elaborate sports metaphor to get at the point he’s trying to make concerning pop culture.  In this case, it’s quarterbacks and all-stars.

Reynolds has three things going for him: he’s likable and handsome; he dated and married Scarlett Johanssen at the peak of her buxom powers (getting a nice Us Weekly career boost out of it); and he works in an industry that doesn’t have nearly enough leading men. The third point matters the most. I’d compare the “leading man” position to the NFL’s quarterback position — we need 32 starting QB’s every year regardless of whether we actually have 32 good ones, just like we need 40 to 45 leading men every year regardless of whether have 40 to 45 good ones. That makes Reynolds someone like Alex Smith: he’s a no. 1 draft pick, he has all the tools, you can easily talk yourself into him being good … and then, six games into the season, you realize that you’re not making the Super Bowl with Alex Smith….

…..A good way to think about it: You know how 24 players make the NBA All-Star game every year? Those are the stars for that season. Just because Richard Hamilton made the 2008 All-Star team doesn’t make him an All-Star in 2011. Things change. Careers go up. Careers go down. You pick another All-Star team. It’s really that simple.  Of course, Hollywood can be confusing because someone can feel like an All-Star without ever having a good “season.” Reynolds is the best example.

Later in the piece, Simmons takes the idea of the 24-person all-star team and extends it to Hollywood today.  Going on the unscientific and unspecific combination of movie-opening, visibility, pay-check, and leading-man-placement, there are 24 stars today:

Smith and Leo; Depp and Cruise; Clooney, Damon and Pitt; Downey and Bale; Hanks and Denzel; Stiller and Sandler; Crowe and Bridges; Carell, Rogen, Ferrell and Galifianakis; Wahlberg and Affleck; Gyllenhall (it kills me to put him on here, but there’s just no way to avoid it); Justin Timberlake (who became a movie star simply by being so famous that he brainwashed us); and amazingly, Kevin James.12 All of them can open any movie in their wheelhouse that’s half-decent; if it’s a well-reviewed movie, even better.

With the exception of Kevin James, I’m pretty much on board, and I like the way he’s put them in pairs that make some sort of weird sense.  Except, as noted by one commenter on the blog’s Facebook page [seriously, join, just do it], this list has no women.  Now, I don’t think that Simmons doesn’t think that there aren’t female movie stars, but he never explicitly said “I’m talking about male stars.”  Maybe it’s that he doesn’t see enough movies with major female stars and considers it outside of his realm of expertise.  Maybe that would’ve doubled the length of the article, and he was, after all, talking about Ryan Reynolds and Will Smith.  Whatever.  What matters, at least for this post, is that we’ve got our work cut out for us.  I’m going to start with some sure-things, and then we’ll have to duke it out for the rest.

SO LET’S DO THIS, KIDS.  TWENTY-FOUR FEMALE STARS.  But maybe we’ll rank them somewhat differently?  Going for a score of 50?  Totally unscientific but maybe ballparky?

Category 1: Bankability/Box Office Grosses (10 points)

Category 2: Charisma/”Movie star quality” (10 points)

Category 3: Gossip/Visibility (10 points)

Category 4: Prestige/Diversity of films/Oscar bait (10 points)

Category 5: Endurance/Tested-and-True/Even-your-parents-know-who-this-person-is (10 points)




1.) Angelina Jolie

Bankability: 8.  Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wanted, Salt

Charisma: 10.

Gossip: 10.  Do I need to explain this to you?

Prestige: 9. A Mighty Heart, other indie stuff from early career, massive points for global philanthropy efforts.

Endurance: 8.








2.) Sandra Bullock

Bankability:  At the moment, 9.  The Proposal and The Blind Side both hit it out of the park.  Riding that wave with adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close with Tom Hanks.

Charisma: 7.

Gossip:  A year ago, this was a 10.  Today, an 8.

Prestige: 5. I don’t care if she won an Oscar and was all gracious, she still plays the same character over and over again, which is the opposite of “prestige” and what truly makes stars interesting.

Endurance: 10.  Speed and Hope Floats to the present.  All ages love this woman.

TOTAL:  39





3.) Meryl Streep

Bankability: I can’t believe I’m typing this, but 9.  It’s Complicated, Julie & Julia, Mamma Mia, The Devil Wears Prada — lady’s got PULL.

Charisma: 7.  She’s not a movie star so much as a phenomenal actress, which means that the charisma gets a bit sublimated in favor of the performance.

Gossip: 1.  Which is the fascinating thing about Streep: a movie star with very little extra-textual information available for consumption.

Prestige: 10.

Endurance: 10.










4.) Julia Roberts

Bankability:  Used to be a 10, now a 7.  Eat Pray Love did well, but Duplicity made everyone question her value.  Before that, hadn’t opened a film on her own since Mona Lisa Smile.

Charisma: 10.  Yes, horse mouth, etc. etc., but you can’t deny what this woman has.

Gossip: 5.  She was gossip’s dream girl for most of her 20s and 30s, but is now super boring.

Prestige:  5.  Like Bullock, an Oscar in a role in which you play a slightly different version of your star persona does not equal prestige.

Endurance:  10.  After a hiatus to have children, seems to be back in the game.  Arguably the only one on this list who’s been a true powerhouse at the box office.









5.) Cameron Diaz

Bankability: 6.  Unreliable; seems to have made some poor choices. Bad Teacher, What Happens in Vegas (barf), sure, but also My Sister’s Keeper (poor Alec Baldwin), The Box, and the misfire that was Knight and Day.  Even The Holiday (which I kinda secretly like?) was no hit.

Charisma: 7.5 (Funniness is not necessarily movie-star-ness)

Gossip: 8, although I hate that it has everything to do with A-Rod.

Prestige: Used to be a 9, now about a 5.  Remember Being John Malkovich?

Endurance: 9. The Mask was in 1995.

TOTAL: 36.5








6.)  Reese Witherspoon

Bankability: 6. Sweet Home Alabama, Legally Blonde 1 & 2, Walk the Line, Water for Elephants, but also a bunch of stinkers: Just like Heaven, Rendition, Penelope, Four Christmases, How Do You Know.

Charisma: 9.  That face.

Gossip: 6.  Much more interesting when she was with Jakey G; a handsome agent is so borrrrrrring.

Prestige: 7. Oscar for Walk the Line, amazingness in Election.  Needs another curveball.

Endurance: 8.  Remember Man on the Moon?  A Far off Place?  Girls got legs.

TOTAL:  36





7.) Natalie Portman

Bankability: 4. Sure, Black Swan, but Your Highness, Brothers, Hesher, No Strings Attached, and The Other Woman all underperformed and/or bombed.  Thor also did well, but I wonder how much that had ot do with Portman (I didn’t even really know she was in the movie?)

Charisma: 7.

Gossip:  5.  Smart move with the baby-daddy; too bad he’s such a creepazoid. Not like she’s going to sell the baby pictures any time soon.

Prestige: 10. Her movies may not always do well, but the girl’s got guts. Still on the Oscar-high.

Endurance: 8.  Picking and choosing ever since The Professional, but still young.










8.) Rachel McAdams

Bankability: 7.  She’s not quite strong enough to open a picture on her own — see Morning Glory and State of Play – but she’s getting there.  Good showings in The Notebook, Red Eye, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Sherlock Holmes.

Charisma: 10.  They don’t call her the next Julia Roberts for nothing.

Gossip: 8.  Much higher when she was with The Goz, but we’ll settle for the relationship with Michael Sheen.

Prestige: 7. Attempt at arthouse with Married Life, nothing that’s really stretched her, save the recent turn in Midnight in Paris, which was so deliciously unlikable.

Endurance: 5.








9.) Kate Winslet

Bankability:  5.  The woman does not make blockbuster films.

Charisma: 7.  Something in the eyes.

Gossip:  4.  Split from Sam Mendes?  Yawn.

Prestige: 10.  Even an HBO remake of Mildred Pierce.  All prestige, all the time — in fact, maybe she’d do well to do a non-prestige pic?

Endurance: 8.  I loved you in Titanic and Sense and Sensibility, young Kate!

TOTAL:  34







10.) Anne Hathaway

Bankability: 6.  Hasn’t really proven herself as a leading actress who can pull in audiences — both Devil Wears Prada and Bridewars had major names other than hers.  Love and Other Drugs was a disappointment.  We’ll see how One Day fares.

Charisma:  God I cannot stand her, but 8.

Gossip: After the engaged-to-embezzler-business, nothing much.  6.

Prestige:  Rachel Getting Married was a brilliant choice for her star brand..  Plus Becoming Jane, in which I can nearly stand her.  8.

Endurance:  Princess Diaries! 6.






11.) Scarlett Johannson

Bankability: 6.  She’s a big part of Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, but she’s certainly not the franchise.  Hasn’t carried anything big since The Nanny Diaries, which wasn’t a huge success.  Lots of supporting roles in ensemble pieces.

Charisma:  Once there, now faded.  See my earlier piece.  6.

Gossip: 8.  Divorce from Ryan Reynolds, dalliance with Sean Penn.

Prestige:  8.  The roles in Lost in Translation and Ghost World will carry you a long way.  Plus Woody Allen’s new muse.

Endurance: 6.







12.) Halle Berry

Bankability: 3.  A string of real bombs: Frankie & Alice, Things We Lost in the Fire, Catwoman, with only the X-Men and Bond Girl roles in between to anchor her.

Charisma: 7.  Beguiling.

Gossip: 7.  Oh gawd the Gabriel Autrey saga.  Plus a baby that’s fifty times ridiculously adorable.

Prestige: Struggling to get her films seen, still an 8 — and with an Oscar.

Endurance: 7.







13.) Kristen Stewart

Bankability: 7.  I realize that this is all tied to the Twilight franchise, but we’ll see how she works outside of it.  I do think she has at least the pull of RPattz or Taylor Lautner, both of whom are considered burgeoning stars.

Charisma:  5.  Lip-bitting is not charismatic.

Gossip: 9.  Very smart move, that falling in love with Edward/RPattz-ness.

Prestige: 8.  Lots of risky, financially unsuccessful, but laudable projects, including Runaways and Adventureland (you guys, watch this movie).

Endurance: 3.  Again, so much remains to be seen.








14.) Emma Stone

Bankability: 7, which could very quickly become a 9.  This girl is ON: after the success of Easy A, she’s in Crazy Stupid Love with The Gos, The Help (pre-sold up the wahtosee), and then the new Mary Jane in Spider-man. She is on the brink of something BIG.

Charisma: 9.  She’s got it.

Gossip:  8.  Lots of gossip about potential hook-up with Andrew Garfield, her new Spider-man.

Prestige: 3.  Nada.  The Help is not a prestige picture just because it’s about race relations, people.

Endurance:  2.








15.) Mila Kunis

Bankability: 5.  Totally unproven; up next in Friends with Benefits, which looks like it might hit big.  We’ll see.  Also a movie with Mark Wahlberg, but no huge franchises or projects on the horizon.

Charisma:  8.  Holy shit yes.

Gossip: 7.  Rumored hook-ups with Timberlake.  Long term relationship with Macaulay Caulkin now over.

Prestige:  5.  Lesbian sex scene = prestige?  But it was in Black Swan…..

Endurance: 2.

TOTAL:  27









Alright. I got 15. We need 9 more.  Give me your submissions, ratings, and reasoning?  I’ve missed a bunch — Drew Barrymore, Kate Hudson, Kristen Wiig (???) — but tell me who else?   I want to make it clear that there are at least 24 all-stars to go with the males in play.  [Or, alternately, fight with me.  I'm ready.  Bring it.  I dare you to say that The Other Boleyn Girl was a good movie.]





Five Crotchedy-Ass Questions about X-Men: First Class

McAvoy v. Fassbender; Decision: Fassbender

First, a caveat.  I was totally prepared to love this movie.  Every year one blockbuster surprises me — Star Trek, the first Iron Man, the first Pirates, etc. — and I was ready for this to be this year’s pleasure.  I’m not a die-hard X-Men fan, and I haven’t seen X-Men 3 or Wolverine.  But I do love the central premise, and watched the shit out of some X-Men cartoons on Saturday mornings circa 1990.  Which I guess means that I’m a pretty perfect peripheral target for this film: a woman who likes movies, goes to blockbusters when they’re reviewed well (as this one was), and has a moderate investment in the genre.  If this movie got a bunch of people like me in the seats, it’d could become a veritable phenomenon, doing even better than its predecessors.  But I won’t equivocate: I was pretty sad about how bad this movie was.  I’m sure there are answers to some of the crotchedly-ass question in the original text of the comic book, and I don’t begrudge a movie for attempting to follow its source material.  But you’ve got to make it work, and work it did not not. And so: are there answers to these questions?

5.) IS THIS MOVIE FROM 1962 OR 2011?

There’s a tremendous amount of period confusion going on this film — hairstyles, body types, clothing choices, and art design.  Some outfits (especially the ones for the women) take advantage of the ’60s go-go aesthetic in order to highlight the legs/breasts of January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, and Zoe Kravitz, but apart from Darwin’s leisure suit and Beast’s glasses, there’s little to place the men in the decade.  And the hair?  Havoc and Banshee both look like they just got styled for an Abercrombie shoot.  A movie doesn’t need to be perfectly historically accurate to be good, but this is just shoddy work.

See what I'm talking about?


No seriously, how would a twenty-something woman get a high placed job in the CIA in 1962?  How is this even *slightly* plausible?  And then once she’s there, could her role be more vacant?  Am I supposed to buy that there’s chemistry between her and Professor X?  When she shows up on the mission I seriously said to myself HOW THE F DID SHE GET THERE?  This should not happen with a major character.


There are several moments — mostly within Kevin Bacon’s “inner sanctum” — when I’m pretty sure that this movie is making a joke about bad Bond films from the ’60s.  The sipping of champagne, January Jones’s bad acting, Kevin Bacon’s earnestness, the matching outfits –


Plus the incredible moment when McAvoy reads Jones’s mind and a montage of missiles making their way across a giant world map materializes.  (This is hard to describe, but if you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about — I laughed *really* loudly).  Now, in the case of Black Swan, I loved the debate over whether it was camp or not, whether it was trying to be camp and therefore not camp, etc. etc.  I also like when a genre refuses to take its conventions too seriously (see: Iron Man).  But again, this movie can’t decide if it’s campy or very serious, a Guy Richie-esque series of montages (see: the training segments with the split-screens) or a straight-up super hero story.  Two very disparate tones, one jumbled movie.


I love Jennifer Lawrence, and despite the inanity of January Jones’ star persona, I do like her particular brand of bad-acting in Mad Men.  (I especially enjoy how the writers/directors use it to convey the fact that Betty Draper was/still is trying to act a certain part in life, and her inability to convincingly play that part). And Rose Byrne shouldn’t be appearing in this movie so close on the heels of Bridesmaids: I keep expecting her to serve me some giant Parisian cookie.  As Anne Thompson notes, the women in this film are under-developed, poorly-directed, seem to be bad actresses, or all three.  Female super-heroes can be sexy, they can be stubborn, but don’t make them so sucky.  I wouldn’t want to be any of these women.


Am I right or am I right?


McAvoy v. Fassbender; Decision: Fassbender

James McAvoy is one of my star boyfriends.  But in this movie, I couldn’t care less about him — and giggled each time he did put his finger to his temple in arch concentration.  He’s supposed to be our hero.  This is a HUGE problem. Can the next movie just be a pre-prequel when we follow Fassbender before he arrives in Switzerland?

Do you have even more crotchedly-ass questions to add?

Ten Simple Reasons to Go See Bridesmaids


10.)  KRISTEN WIIG KRISTEN WIIG KRISTEN WIIG. I cannot overstate how good she is, how good the writing is, how crucial her unique sense of timing and deadpan is to the narrative.  She is this movie, and I hope it makes her an enormous star.  I would totally not mind seeing pictures of who she’s dating and what she looks like when she goes to the grocery store.  I want her haircut, I want her to be my best friend, I want to go on a plane ride with her.

9.) If you have ever been a bridesmaid, this film is like post-traumatic therapy, manifesting all that is obnoxious, tiresome, difficult, and bank-breakingly opulent about the bridesmaids process.  It also speaks to the undergirding reason bridesmaids exists — because women love and need each other — and emphasizes how more important that is than the bridal shower invitations.

8.5) Jon Hamm with his shirt off.

8.) An adorable love interest with a Irish accent. But obtaining said love interest is NOT the sole focus of the narrative. This is so. Incredibly. Refreshing.

7.) If you are a boy, or if you are trying convince a boy to go see this film, rest assured, they will like it.  Several boys in my life with distinctly boy-centric media tastes have already declared it “REALLY REALLY FUNNY,” “so good,” and “the best film of the year.”

6.) Demonstrating her increasing irrelevancy, Nikki Finke made a bet that if the film grossed over $15 million its opening weekend, she’d “leave Hollywood reporting forever.”  She was wrong — the film is going to make at least $20 million, second only to Thor — and while I doubt she’ll actually leave Hollywood reporting, I like to see her stubbornness (and wrongheaded reading of the film: it’s not about women burping and farting; it’s about women being funny, and there’s a total of one scene with burps and farts) laid bare.

5.) “Bridesmaids doesn’t treat Annie’s single status as a dire character flaw worthy of triage: she’s simply going through a rough patch and has to figure things out, as in real life.” – Manohla Dargis, NYT.

4.) Women are funny, and as obnoxious as this may seem, we — men and women alike — need to place our vote at the box office that we like seeing women being funny.  Otherwise, I’m telling you, we are doomed to decades of Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl rom-coms.  This is our future.  Change it.

3.) The film has been broadly sold as a The Hangover for women.”  I hope this gets people to see it, but I also think it’s a misnomer.  There are Judd Apatow aspects to this film — especially evident in the scene supposedly inserted by Apatow himself involving scatological humor — but don’t be fooled.  The humor is rooted in Wiig’s sensibility, which, to my mind, is much more interesting and hilarious than the Apatow/Hangover brand of humor.

2.) Lab puppies and Wilson Phillips.

1.) See it because it’s fucking hilarious.”  - Dana Stevens,

Why Katherine Heigl Can’t Change the Conversation


Note: The following is post a co-production with my best friend and partner-in-crime, Alaina Smith, who has previously authored/collaborated on posts about Dooce (alias Heather Armstrong) and “Does Maybe Gaybe Matter?”

In 2009, Katherine Heigl gave a series of interviews while promoting The Ugly Truth that were perceived as whiny and critical of those who had helped her become famous. In return, she was the subject of a harsh backlash from the media and colleagues. Annie wrote about the position she found herself here, questioning whether or not she was Hollywood’s “New Shrew.” Since then, things haven’t gotten much better. As an agent quoted in a June 2010 NYMag article explained:

“She still green-lights studio movies. And personality aside, she is a movie star. [But...] producers are telling us, ‘We can’t go back to any male lead she’s ever worked with.’ And that’s because she’s a goddamn nightmare. It’s a shame, because she’s talented. She has a shot at being Julia Roberts, but she’s headed towards becoming Jennifer Aniston — someone who works regularly, but who could have been a superstar.

Heigl in costume for The Killers

Heigl, her manager-mother, and the publicist who eventually fired her couldn’t seem to do anything counter her bitchy reputation. This June’s Killers wasn’t pre-screened for critics (a fate usually reserved for the likes of Saw 17 and other bombs), eventually earned a 12% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and grossed $45 million domestic and $45 international on budget of $75 million. Add in 50% of that cost for advertising and promotion, and you’ve got a film firmly in the red. Heigl’s image – and perceived ability to open a film – went from bad to worse.

As Vulture explained, “As a whole, her post–Knocked Up movies have been competent, successful, familiar, and undistinguished — all of which you might say about Heigl herself. There will always be starring roles for pretty blondes who are delightfully ditzy and can chew their lips emotively on cue. However, there will also always be blondes like that, too.”

As Annie noted in her previous post about Heigl, we want our stars to be grateful for their success. Heigl broke that rule. She seemed to be just fine with the fame and fortune that came along with her explosive success as America’s new rom-com princess – but refused to embrace that role outside her screen appearances.

After her breakout roles in Grey’s Anatomy and Knocked Up, audiences thought she was a fresh new face. Heigl seemed to feel she’d put in time and was entitled to what she’d achieved (she’s been working steadily since she was 14). She also refused to pander to the minivan majority in her personal life – she shunned dating her co-stars for marriage to a singer, adopted a special-needs baby from Korea in 2009 with relatively little fanfare (by Hollywood standards) and lives in Utah when she’s not working.

The image rehabilitation People photoshoot, featuring husband Kelley and daughter Nancy

Over the last few weeks, however, she began promoting Life as We Know It. This time, the media blitz included a mea culpa interview on Letterman and a fairly fawning article in the New York Times, entitled “The Unwilling Diva,” which was filled with quote after quote defending her professionalism and talent. While Heigl is on the offensive to prove her likability, willing colleagues, including her co-star Josh Duhamel – were rallied to defend her with compliments seemingly designed to tick off each black mark against her. Good on you, KatherineHeigl’s new publicist.

Playing Mom for Life as We Know It

Life as We Know It opened moderately well – it beat out Heartland fodder Secretariat in its first week – and has now grossed 28.6 million domestic on a budget of $38 million, and seems to have decent legs. Add in international grosses (which won’t be tremendous, but will probably come close to the overall domestic take) and you should have a moderate success.

As Anthony D’Alessandro reported over at Thompson on Hollywood, this was what Heigl needed. Life is not a flop – more importantly, it’s good for Heigl’s image. A movie about the trials and tribulations of parenthood, where a career gal’s brittleness is tempered by the twin forces of a rosy-cheeked baby and the love of a good man? A perfect way to “melt” a star who went from America’s princess to ice princess overnight.

D’Alessandro maintains that Heigl’s best move is to stick to small-budget rom-coms like Life in the future. But ultimately, Heigl’s un-likability stems not only from her perceived ungratefulness, but her constant effort to convince us she is *not* the shrew she plays onscreen. Since 99% of female roles in romantic comedy fall into the “beautiful but rigid and neurotic foil for the male lead” (think Jennifer Lopez arranging the cutlery on her TV dinner tray in The Wedding Planner), more of the same likely will not catapult Heigl to the next level of stardom.

And while Life and Heigl’s recent media appearances might have helped to work her way back into female audience’s hearts, it does very little to counter the sentiment that she’s not worth a big-star paycheck. As is, she’s just not blockbuster material, and certainly can’t demand the paycheck of Julia Roberts, who, even at age 42 and years from her halcyon days post-My Best Friend’s Wedding, still propelled Eat, Pray, Love to a worldwide gross of $166 million (on a budget of $90 million).

Several commentators have speculated that Heigl needs to be in a good, serious, well-respected movie – and have a good, well-respected director talk positively about her. Heigl’s upcoming projects have promise, and represent strong departures from the types of character she has previously played. As if to say: “So, America, you’re not sure if you can stomach me as a romantic heroine? How about a bounty hunter? Or a English nurse who goes back in time to 18th-Century Sexy Scotland?”

Heigl "acting" at repentent in the photo for her Times mea culpa

However, Heigl has persisted in making the worst mistake anyone in show business could ever make: having a family member as your manager, agent, or publicist. Tom Cruise proved this to be forever true when he fired inveterate publicist Pat Kingsley and hired his sister, leading to the Tom-Kat/Couch-Jumping/MattLauer-arguing fiasco, but it certainly holds for Heigl as well: your mom is in no position to give you objective career or image advice. Also, as many have averred, it remains to be seen whether she actually can act.

So, Heigl’s got her work cut out for her. It’s far, far more difficult to rehabilitate an image one than to ruin one. Her recent film and appearances aside, Heigl has not successfully erased negative public perception – nor has she re-established herself as “greenlight” star.

She needs an addition to her picture personality that will force people to reconsider their already formed opinions, and she needs a makeover – not just a new haircut, but a new “stars, they’re just like us!” persona. Right now, we’re still willing to read about her, but usually because we’re waiting for the next incriminating thing to come out of her mouth. It’ll be fascinating to see how, or if, her image can evolve. If not, it’ll be yet another testament to the difficulty of changing the narrative of star image once it’s been set in motion.

Emma Stone: Star on the Brink


A few weeks back, David Poland, industry observer and long-time writer/analyst/blogger for Movie City News, tweeted something to the effect that being around Emma Stone is incredibly exciting. Not because she’s gorgeous, because she’s not, not exactly, or even because she’s funny, which she definitely is, but because she has a certain energy around her, eminating from the fact that she is about to become the next big American movie star.

I can’t find the Tweet, but I can rest assure that he posted it, as I immediately had to go to the Google machine to figure out exactly who she was.  I mean, I knew the name, I had a vague idea, but she’s by no means household.  With the picture, ah yes, I saw – and even more, with the audio, I recognized her immediately.  Stone possesses a distinctively husky voice — think ScarJo meets Lauren Bacall — and when you hear it, you remember all the other times….most likely her mini-star turns in Superbad and Zombieland.  If you’re a Stone aficionado, or maybe just like crappy movies, you’ve also seen her in The Rocker (poor Rainn Wilson, I really do hope he gets a film career), Ghost of Girlfriends Past, and using her voice alone in the stink-bomb that was Marmaduke. And, ahem, House Bunny? She was also featured on the cover of Vanity Fair’s Young Hollywood issue — and if memory serves, she was the one girl I didn’t immediately recognize. But VF’s issue is equal parts hot-now and hot-future-tense, and they seem to have chosen wisely.

Because what you really need to know is that Poland is right: this girl’s got something.  She’s not just beautiful: Jennifer Aniston she is most definitely not. She’s hilarious, but not in the “unruly woman” way that generally excludes many female comedians from mainstream success (whether Rosie O’Donnell, Margaret Cho, Roseanne Barr, even Kathy Griffin).  Her body is that of a star; her face is that of a star.  And she’s got charisma – loads of it.  She’s a flirt in interview, but not in a cloying way.  She young, she’s hungry — four movies in the can over the last 18 months, 1 in production, 2 slated  – and if Easy A hits, and all signs seem to point to the fact that it will, she’ll be the next big thing.

Here’s the trailer for Easy A — (my favorite line is the very last one)

Most are likening her to Lindsay Lohan, pre-breakdown.  Easy A will  “do for her what ‘Mean Girls’ did for Lindsay Lohan,” according to Moviefone, while “the world needs a new ‘Mean Girl’ to shake up the Fall movie season: get ready for Emma Stone.”  Moviefone (and others) have also labelled her the new ‘It’ Girl — a banal (if fitting) title that deserves some history.

The very first ‘It’ Girl was Clara Bow, and boy, she was something.

She was a star of silent cinema — along with Joan Crawford, one of stars “made” through a “star search” fan magazine contest in the mid-1920s.  She came to Hollywood, slogged through a few pictures, and became a sensation via her role in  It (1927).  Sounds like a monster movie, but It referred to a undefinable certain something — an ‘It’ quality, according to screenwriter/popular author Elinor Glynn — that separates some girls from the others. Charisma, sure.  But what she’s really talking about is sex appeal.  (Dorothy Parker famously quipped, concerning Bow, “It?  Hell, she had those.).  Click here for my absolute favorite scene from It — if you watch to the middle, you’ll see what exuberance and pure joy she takes in being onscreen.  I always show It when I teach — in part because Marsha Orgeron has a fantastic essay on the way Bow’s star image embodied the consumer culture of the 1920s — but also because students are always struck by how modern Bow seems.  In contrast to, say, Garbo, Bow looks like you could dress her in some contemporary clothes and she’s still be a star today.

Garbo had an ethereal quality, and the only person I can think of with a similar presence onscreen — and dexterity with little more than the face, the eyes, the voice — is Tilda Swinton.  And neither Garbo nor Swinton are ‘It’ girls, although they are so much else.  But Bow was the beginning of a long lineage of female stars, all of whom have wed charisma, a sense of vivacity, sex appeal, and a certain modernness, as if these girls forecast the future of female stardom and what young starlets will aspire to in years to come.  The best examples: Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, (maybe Racquel Welch), and, most recently, Julia Roberts.  (Lindsay Lohan was there too, but has been put on reserve). They’re not traditionally beautiful, but that’s part of what’s captivating: the representation of something unique, seemingly unmanufactured, the flaw that proves the rest immaculate.

My name is Rita Hayworth: red heads have more fun!

You’ll also note that all of these women — Stone included — were red heads, either for the role that made them famous (for Roberts, see all-important auburn curls of Pretty Woman).  Indeed, Bow’s red hair was such a phenomenon that sales of henna skyrocketed.

Redheads are unique; they’re sexy.  They’re ugly ducklings as teenagers and blossom into something voluptuous.  Their marginalization helps them find humor in the everyday, in being different.  They’re feisty, they don’t have a lot of girlfriends, they like to play.  Mind you, I’m not saying that red heads really ARE these things — but that’s what red hair, especially dark, auburnish red hair, signifies.  (Kathy Griffin’s hair seems to signify something else entirely, as does Lucille Ball’s — something unruly.  It’s as if the the slight touch of brunette in the auburn hair makes these charismatic women tread the line between normal and exotic and end up flat-out sensual).  You’ll also note that many of these women (post-Bow) were not natural redheads — Hayworth’s studio had her “Latin” hairline electrolysized and her black hair changed to red, while Emma Stone, a natural blonde, admits that she wasn’t getting any work as a blonde…went brunette, had to go red for Superbad, and has been cast as a redhead ever since.

Part of this is a matter of fit – Stone’s dead-pan, husky-voiced persona seems to fit with that of a redhead.  It’s also a peg on which the rest of Hayworth, or Stone, or Roberts’ star image can be draped — and something that defined/will define each of them for the duration of their respective careers.  When they deviate from red, it’s weird: see Hayworth’s much maligned performance in The Lady Shanghai, in which her chopped blonde hair feels like punishment from her angry then-husband and director of the film, Orson Welles.  Or Julia Roberts’ dismal career after she ditched the hair in the mid-’90s — so dismal that when she attempted a comeback with My Best Friend’s Wedding, she declared “my hair is red and curly just the way you guys like it — please come see this movie!”

The way we like our Julia Roberts

These red heads are equal parts girl-and-guys’ girls: girls don’t hate them (see: Megan Fox); they might even like them.  (The girl girls hate?  The Amanda Bynes and Sarah Jessica Parkers of the world). And bonus: guys DO like them.  Julia Roberts may not be a sex symbol now, but she was hot stuff in 1990.  Same goes for the rest of the bunch.  Which means that while Stone will draw in women — Easy A is tracking extremely well with teenage girls, according to The Wrap, probably in part because of the presence of Gossip Girl fav Penn Badgeley.  But it will also draw men, and not just kicking-and-screaming boyfriends.  That’s what makes an It Girl: multi-quadrant appeal.

As proof, take a look at the clips below, one from Chelsea Lately, the other from Jimmy Fallon, both filmed in the last week as part of Stone’s promotional tour for Easy A.  Note her repartee with Fallon — she’s just one of the guys!  She has a filthy mouth/mind, but she’s hot!  But also note the way that while she’s clearly cut of the same cloth as Chelsea Handler, she lacks Handler’s willingless to completely desexualize herself through vulgarity.  Put somewhat differently: Handler is the foil that emphasizes the fact that Stone is equal parts sex and humor; Handler SAYS sex, while Stone suggests it.

[The bit on the Hot Pockets just KILLS me. I too love Hot Pockets, but no telling.]

Stone is not only red-headed, feisty, charismatic, and genuinely funny, but also has solid industry connections.  In an interview with Movie City News (which is pretty hilarious, especially the beginning, when she and Easy A director Will Gluck go back-and-forth), Gluck hints at the fact that Sony “loves her.”  Indeed it does: Superbad and Zombieland were both distributed by Sony-owned subsidiaries; both Easy A and the forthcoming Friends with Benefit (featuring a star-studded cast) are from Screen Gems, Sony’s “genre” arm, e.g. the subsidiary that trades on relatively low-budget, clear-cut genre pictures: teen pics, romances, horror flics, thrillers.  To give you a better idea: Dear John was a Screen Gems picture; so was Obsessed.   Sometimes the formula fails miserably, as in, um, Legion. But when it works, it works incredibly well — Obsessed, Dear John, Resident Evil (and its sequels) have cut significant profit margins.  Some of these films work on the basis of high concept or pre-sold idea, but they also require a charismatic, if not altogether traditional star, with appeal to a specific audience: Beyonce, Channing Tatum, Milla Jovovich, and now, Emma Stone.  I’m not suggesting that Emma Stone is a contract player for Sony; she is, however, a known commodity, and one that they’ve added value to over the last four years, hoping for this very pay-off: a $20 million projected opening weekend on a film that cost $8 million to make.   Just because the star and studio system are things of the past does not mean that the cultivation of stars is purely the provenance of agents and publicists.

The success of Easy A will prove whether or not Stone is ready to move past genre fare.  She’s currently filming the film adaptation of the runaway bestseller The Help, which I very randomly happen to be reading.  it’s a very Oprah-esque book, however compelling, and it’s produced by Chris Columbus’ company, so my hopes are LOW. But if she can somehow make the banal come to life, the way that, say, Rachel McAdams did in The Notebook, I’ll reconsider.  If Easy A if her Mean Girls, or even her Mystic Pizza, then The Help could very well be her Steel Magnolias meets Pretty Woman. She’s hosting SNL in late October, which, to my mind, is always the test of an actor’s true skill and charisma.  After the hoopla dies down and Jimmy Fallon stops saying things like “I’m so excited for you, because you’re going to be like the biggest movie star, like, ever…I’ve got my money on you!”, she’ll have a choice: does she become a spunky rom-com star, or do something truly risky, even unruly?  She’s all of 21 years old.  This girl has something.  Call it “It,” call it multi-quadrant draw — but she’s the closest I’ve seen to true movie star material in a long time.

As final proof: Emma Stone, master of The Shake Weight.

Jen Tries So Very, Very Hard to Get Dirty

Jennifer Aniston Gerald Butler

Biggest post-Oscar celebrity news: the long-anticipated Jen/Gerry W Cover.  Here’s the sneak preview that went viral earlier today, prompting blog posts from both Lainey Gossip (here) and Jezebel (there).  And while Lainey did a nice job of pointing out how posed and awkward Gerald Butler looks, she failed to touch on the real juice of the story, passed along by Jezebel — the entire thing was shot by Steven Klein, the man responsible for the (in)famous W Magazine shoot for Brad Pitt and Angelina, pictured (in part) in all its ridiculous glory below.

Recall, please, that this particular spread was published when Aniston and Pitt were still together, way back in 2005.  Jolie and Pitt were purportedly posing in simple publicity for the forthcoming Mr. and Mrs. Smith. (It’s widely believed that this particular photo shoot was part of what prompted Jennifer Aniston, in her post-break-up interview with Vanity Fair, to declare that Pitt lacked “a sensitivity chip.”  What’s more, as Jezebel points out, Klein is a good friend of Pitt.  And so the plot thickens.

So here’s what we know:

1.) Jennifer Aniston is attempting to add much-needed life to her image following the abject failure of Love Happens.

2.) The Bounty Hunter, starring, of course, Aniston and Butler, opens NEXT WEEK.  Aniston has been cultivating — but not actually confessing to — the suggestion of a romance for months, through formal appearances (Golden Globes gross-out posing, see below) and ‘gotcha!’ paparazzi photos that effectively suggest that she and Butler have been privately vacationing (read: her publicist and his publicist agreed he should be photographed with her in Mexico).

2.) In that film to succeed, Aniston understands that she needs a viable romance, preferably, but necessarily, with her co-star (See, for example, the hoopla over the ‘supposed engagement’ leading up to the release of The Break-Up).  No matter how much John Mayer emphasizes his respect for her, she still doesn’t have a cute relationship to flaunt for the gossip mags and thus keep herself visible.  It’s simple old Hollywood logic, and she (and her publicists) knows it well: the more she insinuates the possibility of a relationship with Butler, the more curious people will be to see their chemistry, and more the film will gross.

3.) Aniston is also attempting to diversify her image ever so slightly.  To my mind, this is the most transparent attempt to ‘Angelina’ herself that we’ve seen.  First off, the film they’re promoting is basically a vanilla version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (just check out the trailer — it’s like Brangelina Lite… far less sexual gravitas and far more stilted attempts at bad humor).

Secondly, there’s the shoot itself.  Oh, look, Jen’s such a bad girl!   She’s stealing money!  Getting arrested! Role playing, how dirty!  (Side note: all images below are screen shots from the W website, as images from the actual spread have yet to be put online — thus the blue lines, which allow you to see how and where to buy the clothes she’s wearing).

Even look at the specific articles of clothing depicted below, all of which she’s wearing in the cover shot.  We’re used to thinking of Jennifer Aniston naked and wrapped in the American flag, as she appeared last year on the cover of GQ.  But Aniston in quasi-burlesque lingerie?  What’s going on here?

The most fascinating attempt to associate Aniston with dirt is, well, quite literal.  The ‘Behind the Scenes’ tell-all, Chris McMillan, Aniston’s long-time stylist, ‘best friend,’ and the man behind ‘The Rachel,’ highlights the dirty details of the shoot, both figurative and literal:

This is not exactly Jennifer as we know her.
We got there and the storyboards were kind of Kim Basinger in
9 1/2 Weeks. Which is even better, because then it started getting good.

How did you arrive at this particular look for Jennifer’s hair?
Well, Steven [Klein] was talking to Jennifer for about an hour and a half while she was doing fittings and her hair dried into this naturally curly head of hair. So we just refined it from there. But it’s not her typical blown-out hairstyle. It’s a little rougher, we liked seeing the flyaways.

What about day two of the shoot?
At the end of the first day Steven came up to me and goes, “Could you please ask her if she could not wash her hair tonight and just show up tomorrow?” I mean, she was rolling in the dirt, it was windy and she had hairspray in her hair.

She said yes to that? Dirty hair?
Yeah, we left her hair dirty. It just created a nice chunky texture. The key to Jennifer’s hair is no matter what you do with it — straight, frizzy, dirty — it looks like it actually grows out of her head. She’s someone for whom her hair doesn’t wearher, she wears it.

This is a rhetorical gold mine.  Main points: Jen conflated with sex star; Jen with a ‘new look’; Jen ‘spends all day rolling in the dirt’; Jen ‘game’ for dirty hair.  Adds up to: Jen, crazy, dirty, up for anything girl!  In other words, not the staid, always-the-same-blown-out-hair, sartorially and stylistically conservative girl, dumped by Brad for exotic sexpot.

I’m also struck by the visual similarities to another Brangelina photoshoot, also in the Arizona desert, only for Vanity Fair, that was published after the pair came out publicly as a couple  –

Now, you might sense an abundance of vitriol directed towards Aniston, and you would be correct.  Long time readers (read: those who have read for the 9 months that I’ve maintained this blog) will know that I harbor general disdain for her.  Part of disaffection is certainly subjective — there’s just something about her, and about the stock character that she plays, that grates against me.  (Note, however, that I really love her in both The Good Girl and Friends with Money — in part because those characters are so different from the recurring-Rachelness of her mainstream fare, but also her role in Friends with Money seems so much more honest about what it feels like to be a woman in her late 30s surrounded by other women with marriages, money, and oscillating levels of happiness).

It’s not that I dislike Aniston for playing the publicity game.  Obviously, judging from my general admiration and fascination with The Brange, I don’t dislike those who manipulate their images.  Rather, it’s that Aniston is so transparent about that manipulation — but not on purpose.  She’s not ridiculously bad at it, like, say, Lindsay Lohan, or ridiculously obvious about it, like Heidi and Spencer.  She’s trying play at the level of Pitt and Jolie, and she fails.  The efforts of her — and her team — are derivative (again, see the photoshoot….five years too late).  A for effort, but a solid B overall.

And here’s where I make a big inflammatory claim and piss people off: I think they’re B level because she’s actually a B level star posing as A-level.  Once a television star, always a television star.  Not only has her beginning on Friends limited the extent to which she can successfully stretch her star persona (Rachel-like character = success; un-Rachel-like; no-go), but also the limits to which she can successfully manipulate her image.  She’s beautiful, yes; she has an incredible body, of course.  But is she special?  Can she use specialness — that uniqueness that distinguishes the most enduring of movie stars– to elevate her above and help us forget the way she plays the game?  I don’t think so.  In the end, we see her manipulations so vividly because her star shines so dimly.  She’s not a bad star, or an unsuccessful one.  But she’s not one for the ages, no matter how dirty she gets her hair.