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Are we witnessing the death of movie stars?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Here's looking at you, kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT")

LAUREN BACALL: (As Marie "Slim" Browning) You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE")

MARLON BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski) Hey, Stella.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Bogie, Bacall, Brando - you know movie stars when you hear them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIGHT CLUB")

BRAD PITT: (As Tyler Durden) The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOTTING HILL")

JULIA ROBERTS: (As Anna Scott) I'm also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRAINING DAY")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) King Kong ain't got s*** on me.

DETROW: Pitt, Julia, Denzel. And with others, it's an image. Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate, the breeze billowing her white dress.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH")

MARILYN MONROE: (As The Girl) Oh, do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn't it delicious?

DETROW: A young Tom Cruise in briefs sliding across the living room floor to the sounds of Bob Seger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TIME ROCK AND ROLL")

BOB SEGER: (Singing) Just take those old records off the shelf.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: Or Audrey Hepburn stepping outside of a taxi in black satin and tortoiseshell shades.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: I mean, when I think about movie stars, I think about someone who feels larger than life.

DETROW: NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour host Aisha Harris has been thinking a lot about movie stars lately, and she's a little worried about their cultural health today.

HARRIS: There's usually some sort of, like, mystique or mystery, I think, to a movie star.

DETROW: Since the Golden Age of Hollywood, movies have been defined by their stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN")

TOM CRUISE: (As Maverick) I feel the need, the need for speed.

DETROW: And, in turn, they've defined our times. But is that changing?

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Americans didn't have royalty, so these folks were our royalty.

DETROW: That's NPR's film critic Bob Mondello. He says long before the advent of franchises and intellectual property, major studios like MGM, Paramount and Warner Brothers depended on stars to sell their movies to hungry audiences. Stars weren't just born, they were made.

MONDELLO: MGM used to brag that they had more stars than there are in heaven. They created those stars. They were actors, workaday actors who came to Hollywood, and they were groomed in a variety of ways. Their hair color was changed. Their names were changed. They did as much as they could to make someone glamorous.

DETROW: With the help of fan magazines and powerful gossip columnists with studio connections, they would cultivate their images and give them personalities.

MONDELLO: And those personalities stuck with them from picture to picture. You went to a Cary Grant picture because he was making a certain kind of movie. He was playing a certain kind of character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHARADE")

CARY GRANT: (As Peter Joshua) Sorry. The name's Adam Canfield.

AUDREY HEPBURN: (As Regina Lampert) Adam Canfield? Wonderful. Do you realize you've had three names in the past two days? I don't even know who I'm talking to anymore.

GRANT: (As Peter Joshua) Oh, man's the same, even if the name isn't.

DETROW: Those personalities burrowed into the minds of audiences whose principal form of entertainment was going to the movies. At the height of cinema's popularity, more than 80 million Americans went to the theater more than once a week as these studios cranked out movie after movie.

MONDELLO: Well, it was a factory system. In the early days of film, film was what television has become. If you put out a Ruby Keeler movie and it was a hit, then you put out another one and another one and another one. And she - Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell made musicals together in the 1930s that seemed to come out every six months.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PETTIN' IN THE PARK")

RUBY KEELER: (As Polly Parker, singing) Come on. I've been waiting long. Why don't we get started?

DICK POWELL: (As Brad Roberts, singing) Come on. Maybe this is wrong.

KEELER: (As Polly Parker, singing) Well, gee, what of it?

POWELL: (As Brad Roberts, singing) We just love it.

MONDELLO: And the rationale for that was to keep the machinery going.

DETROW: Mondello says that machinery began to break down as stars wanted more control over their careers and directors got more control over their movies. But the legacy of that old star system cast a long and lasting shadow over the industry.

MONDELLO: I mean, I look at photos from those days and think there's no one like that now.

DETROW: But even if there's no one today like Marilyn Monroe or Clark Gable, there are still movie stars, right? Well, not according to some of the stars themselves.

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ANTHONY MACKIE: Like, there are no movie stars anymore. Like Anthony Mackie isn't a movie star. The Falcon is a movie star. The evolution of the superhero has meant the death of the movie star.

DETROW: That was a clip of Marvel actor Anthony Mackie from a 2018 Comic-Con event that's recently gone viral. And he's not the only one blaming the dominance of superhero movies and other established intellectual properties on the decline of the movie star. Director Quentin Tarantino echoed his words on a podcast late last year.

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QUENTIN TARANTINO: You have all these actors who have become famous playing these characters, but they're not movie stars.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.

TARANTINO: Captain America is the star.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.

TARANTINO: Thor is the star.

DETROW: Many critics have also sounded the alarm over a lack of real movie stars in Hollywood. Are there really none left? I asked Pop Culture Happy Hour host Aisha Harris.

HARRIS: Well, I think it depends on how you define a movie star, right? I mean, there's also this idea of who is bankable, who is going to draw a crowd merely just for the fact that they are in the movie. And I think to some extent that is true, that we don't really have movie stars in the traditional sense anymore, because even when we're talking about someone like Tom Cruise, like, he is someone who I think when you think about Tom Cruise, you're like, I want to go see this movie because he's in it. But most of the movies he's made in the last decade have been franchise films.

And so you have to question, you know, is this Tom Cruise who's driving, you know, all of this box office to movies like the "Top Gun" sequel and, you know, "Mission Impossible" or is it the franchise doing a lot of a lot of the heavy lifting? Because we do live in this era now where franchise is king. All of our biggest stars now are in franchises, and it's hard to tell where their charisma and where their pull begins and where the pull of the franchise itself and the familiarity of the franchise begins.

DETROW: Right. I mean, we've got the buzzy movies of the summer are - what? - "Indiana Jones" 5.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY")

HARRISON FORD: (As Indiana Jones) You.

MADS MIKKELSEN: (As Dr. Voller) Have we met?

FORD: (As Indiana Jones) My memory is a little fuzzy. Are you still a Nazi?

DETROW: "Mission Impossible" 72. I think it's, you know, it's 7 Part 1, I think, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - DEAD RECKONING PART ONE")

VING RHAMES: (As Luther Stickell) None of our lives can matter more than this mission.

CRUISE: (As Ethan Hunt) I don't accept that.

HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah.

DETROW: And then "Barbie," which is a movie based around a toy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARBIE")

RYAN GOSLING: (As Ken) Hi, Barbie.

MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Barbie) Hi, Ken.

ALEXANDRA SHIPP: (As Barbie) Hey, Barbie.

ROBBIE: (As Barbie) Hi, Barbie.

EMMA MACKEY: (As Barbie) Hi, Barbie.

DETROW: Is IP just the movie star now?

HARRIS: I kind of think so. It's interesting because you have, like, one example is Zoe Saldana, right? Zoe Saldana is - recently became the first performer to star in four movies that made at least $2 billion at the box office. Now, that's like a very arbitrary sort of record to break, but it kind of points to this idea that, you know, Zoe Saldana, yes, she's famous, she's a movie star, but I wouldn't necessarily call her a movie star. Like, people aren't going to see "Guardians Of The Galaxy" or "Avatar" just because she's in it. That's no shade to Zoe Saldana. But, like, that's the truth.

DETROW: Yeah.

HARRIS: And I think that, you know, the way that we are measuring movie star has had to shift because the landscape has shifted, and things are not the same as they used to be 10, 15, 50 years ago.

DETROW: How much does this matter, though? Does this matter just because these are people that we think about and talk about and are common bonds for all of us? Or is there an effect on the movies being made if this orbit of movie stars that has centered movies for so long is changing?

HARRIS: Well, I think it definitely matters in the sense of, you know, what is being released in theaters and what gets to be released in theaters. And so we're having this ongoing conversation about the death of moviegoing and the fact that the only way to get butts in seats seems to be to, you know, create this familiar IP and cast the biggest movie stars you can think of in them.

And I think that from a creative standpoint, it feels kind of dire because, look, I'm always happy for another "Mission Impossible" movie. I think that this is, like, the rare franchise where the movies have actually gotten better over the years. But at the same time, it'd be nice to see Tom Cruise in something that, you know, wasn't IP because some of his greatest performances are in, you know, dramas or one-off, you know, movie action, movie set pieces. And I think that it really does sort of swallow up in many ways our favorite actors and performers into these roles that are driven by not necessarily character driven or narrative driven, but just by, you know, what is going to draw people into theaters. And that's familiarity. That is reboots. That is sequels.

DETROW: Now I'm interrogating myself. And I feel like I've seen a lot of movies I really like on my couch. And the only time I've been in a movie theater in the past year was a couple of weeks ago to see the new "Flash" movie, which I knew would be terrible, but I wanted to see Michael Keaton as Batman. And I was like, you know, I'm going to go. And then it was terrible.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, we're all complicit. We're all part of the problem. Our money is what is making Hollywood want to keep going back to the well and not being daring, not being creative, not being interesting, unfortunately, you know.

DETROW: Is there a limit to this, though? Because, I mean, if you look at some of the returns, "Indiana Jones" - hard to find a bigger franchise than that - Harrison Ford - hard to find a bigger movie star than that, even though he is - not exaggerating - roughly the age of President Joe Biden - but, I mean, it's - it is underperforming and falling off a huge cliff. And that's just one of several examples of what you think would be a no-brainer maybe not panning out. Or maybe we shouldn't make movies with 80-year-old action stars is the takeaway. I don't know. You could go a few different ways there.

HARRIS: Well, I mean, I don't want to be ageist about it, but I do think that, you know, it doesn't help that the last "Indiana Jones" movie, it was widely panned for good reason. It was not very good. And so, you know, I think that something like "Top Gun," the fact that that did so well at the box office last year definitely sort of kind of proves the opposite point. But you also have to realize that it had been like 30-plus years between the first and the second one. And so I think there was that extra draw. And I think that the diminishing returns are often because there's just not enough time in between, you know, these sequels and these franchises.

And it's just - I really do think, though, now that I think about it and now that you've asked that question, I do feel as though Tom Cruise does feel like sort of the last sort of last person standing because, you know, all of his peers, even, you know, Will Smith, when he makes an action movie, it's not really doing it. It's not doing it the way that it did, you know, when he was Mr. Fourth of July for that long stretch of the late '90s into the aughts.

DETROW: Yeah.

HARRIS: And I think part of it is also that Tom Cruise, unlike a lot of other movie stars, does not really play the social media game. If you look at his Instagram page, pretty much all of it is just promotion for whatever movie he's hawking, you know, that summer. Other performers like Will Smith feel the need to put themselves out there on social media. And so there's not as much mystique or mystery there. Whereas with Tom Cruise, it's like we know a few things about him. We know about the Scientology. We know about all that stuff. But, like, he doesn't really try to put himself and make himself seem like a normal person. He still has that air of mystique. And that, I think, helps in bringing people into theaters because, you know, we don't know every little thing about him.

DETROW: And he doesn't do the prestige TV game either, right? If you want to see Tom Cruise, you have to get your butt to a movie theater.

HARRIS: Yeah. That's very true, too. He shows up every year to, you know, do his "Mission Impossible" thing. And that's what we're here for. We know exactly what we're going to get with him.

DETROW: That was Aisha Harris. She's a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
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