Monday Morning Critic – 5.11

On tap this week:
— Going off the beaten path with Akira Kurosawa
— Another theory as to why there are no more movie stars

Random Thoughts of the Week

Bill Simmons of ESPN wrote a terrific column this week on the exposure of athletes in the modern era. It’s from ESPN the Magazine but as I was reading it a couple parallels came to mind involving movies. Simmons argument is on how with the advent of the electronic media, we really don’t know athletes as well as we once did.

The press doesn’t have the vantage point they once did; he uses Lebron James of the Cavs as perhaps the best example. Yeah we know Lebron but we really don’t because everything he does and says is calculated to a chilling degree. The athlete can now directly interact with the fan. Curt Schilling retired from baseball via his blog, not in an interview or at a press conference. So did Barry Sanders many years ago. Athletes are now taking extraordinary steps to be around their fans. It’s an exciting time in a way; no longer is some fat sportswriter the lone vanguard of the athlete. There’s more to it, though, and Simmons made such an extraordinary point that it got me thinking. And thinking. And some more thinking. Then I saw a girl who looked like she’ll be having some back problems in her older ages. And then I thought some more.

What I concluded was that while we know athletes significantly less than we did, we know actors much more. It’s an odd thing, really, as actors and movie stars alike had such carefully controlled images for so long that when the studio handlers were pulled away was not necessarily the best of things. I decided since it’s fertile ground, I want to focus my thoughts on it this week; that and I didn’t say anything markedly offensive, insulting and/or hilarious that bears repeating.

Cinemagoers know actors as people now because of their exposure now; up until about 15-20 years ago the image of an actor was heavily controlled and guarded. Now with the advent of things like blogs, et al, as well as the random stupidity of most actors we know more about them than we used to. While it may be interesting to see actors on stage with Presidential candidates, I think it’s hurt Hollywood much more than any radical leftist screed it nominates for an Oscar. For as much as we want to blame Hollywood’s declining relevancy on it’s particular stance, perhaps it’s the fact that it’s taking any sort of stand is turning people off.

Hear me now and believe me later.

Part of the appeal of an actor like Denzel Washington, for example, is that we really don’t know a heckuva lot about his personal life. You can find who he’s donated money to politically, and his activism for the Boys & Girls Club of America, but you don’t see him front and center for any political cause. He has the rare movie star aura that used to be rather commonplace. You can say the same of Philip Seymour Hoffman as well; there’s the air of mystery to him because we don’t know much about what he thinks about the big issues facing us. He’s an actor with an aura that isn’t spoiled by actually knowing him. He’s crafted an image that doesn’t associate himself with anything that would tick off part of his potential audience.

Compare that to someone like Sean Penn. Maybe the best actor of our generation, which is still saying something all things considered, one can’t help but feel a bit awkward seeing him embrace Hugo Chavez like he was a big cuddly bear. Or seeing Matt Damon make videos about his objection to Sarah Palin. Or Jon Voight appearing onstage with Sean Hannity at some concert. It ruins the mystery and takes away from their onscreen persona whether we like it or not. Once we see an actor as having thoughts and opinions about subjects that don’t involve their profession they lose a little bit of the mystique.

Knowing that Robert De Niro and I didn’t vote for the same Presidential candidate in the last three elections takes away a bit of my thinking of him as a great actor. Not much, of course, but I can forgive De Niro for nearly anything based on his body of work. Most people do, because Bobby De Niro is still in that rare status of “we don’t care what crappy movies you do, you did Raging Bull and about a dozen other spectacular movies so it’s ok” in the acting realm. Most people thought that way after Righteous Kill to be frank and I can’t say as I blame them.

But an actress like Scarlett Johanssen, for example, doesn’t have the sort of bona fides to get over that hump with a lot of people, though. She’s been in the spotlight for less than a decade, not long enough to be a true star. Just someone who’s “popular right now” as Chris Rock would say. Another decade or so at the top and you can call her a true leading lady and a movie star. So she’s in that rare stage where she’s on the way up the pedestal but not quite a movie star yet. There’s a long line of people trying to climb up it and therein lies the problem; many young Hollywood stars are also in love with expressing their politics. I could care less either way.

Establishing credibility is much tougher now, and decades worth of credibility aren’t established overnight to begin with. Washington didn’t become the coolest guy on the planet based on Devil in a Blue Dress after all. It was tons of great movies, and roles, that established him as the actor whose appeal translates over every racial and ethnic line. EVERYONE loves Denzel because he’s a great actor and seems like the kind of guy you could have a beer with. Now if he came out and started ranting and raving about some issue or another it’d be odd at first, then we wouldn’t look at him the same ever again. Which is why the only time you see him is promoting a cause no one in their right mind could be against or promoting a movie.

He hasn’t left that pedestal of being a movie star and become merely human like a lot of actors have. Once you stop being iconic and start being flesh and blood then the problems begin. An icon can be looked up to and emulated; a man is just a man. Once you come off that pedestal to be amongst the masses you can’t just climb back up and all will be forgiven. Alex Rodriguez is living proof of this; he will never be viewed in the same way as he was 12 months ago in terms of his credibility.

We can laugh at people like Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage not going to see a movie with a particular actor in it because of their politics, but tons of Americans also think like that. Hollywood wonders why revenues keep declining; maybe the fact that actors don’t seem all that special anymore is part of it. When you see an actor as a person, flawed as the rest of us, it takes away from them being a movie star. Lebron James, who Simmons writes about as a focus of his piece, gives us a good vantage point .

Lebron James may not have gone to college but he and his advisors are remarkably bright in how they’ve handled his image. It may be debatable on whether or not he’s the best basketball player on the planet but he has a rock-star presence any A-list actor would kill to have. We know so little about who he is as a person but he’s pretty much loved by most sports fans. But if he came out and discussed that he thinks Global Warming is a sham, or that abortion is a-ok with him, we would think differently of him. It’d be easier to accentuate his flaws, or not watch his games, because we don’t like something about him as a person. He becomes something less than what he is in a weird way.

The difference is that Lebron’s money-making talent is what he can do on a basketball court. An actor makes their living on the screen and if audiences don’t come out because they don’t like you then I imagine it’d be tough to make a living. Tougher to be taken seriously as a movie star, too, I’d imagine, and one could almost say that it’d be harder to pay money to see someone who they didn’t like as a person.

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

This Week’s Film – Drunken Angel


Akira Kurosawa may be known for his samurai films, but Drunken Angel was an early classic that gets unrecognized in light Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai, et al. It’s hard to look at Kurosawa and think he did anything but samurai films but he does have a small library of character pieces that he did over the years.

This film marks several firsts for Kurosawa. It’s his first film with Toshiro Mifune, who he worked with over a dozen times including most of his samurai classics. It’s also his first film independent of the Japanese government, giving him a new sense of artistic freedom.

The film is a small, character based drama about a hitman (Mifune) trying to recover from tuberculosis. Trying to balance his high octane lifestyle and his sickness, he finds that it’s a balance that’s hard to maintain given his predilections.

It’s interesting to see Kurosawa make a smaller, more personal film considering the bulk of what I’ve watched from his resume has been his big epic works but Drunken Angel works because Kurosawa was just becoming the best story-teller of his generation. Lots of his trademark style, including his cutaways that George Lucas blatantly swiped, are in their fully developed state here. Kurosawa the younger film-maker is pretty much the same as he was in his prime; he’s one of the few I think hit his stride early and didn’t lose it for the longest time. Most great directors eventually lose it; he lost his at the end, right around the time he got fired from Tora! Tora! Tora!.

Strong recommendation.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and Northwestern University Co-Eds with low standards at The Keg

Angels & Demons – Tom Hanks has to save the Vatican from crazy scientists seeking to blow it up.

Skip It – The first one wasn’t that good, and sequels tend to aim downward so this will be mediocre at best.

Do you have questions about movies, life, love, or Branigan’s Law? Shoot me an e-mail at and you could be featured in the next “Monday Morning Critic.” Include your name and hometown to improve your odds.

Tags: , ,