Film didn't invent the star player. They existed in the theater from its beginnings in Greece, even when the actors were masked. But film has made it possible for an actor to be in many places at the same time, reaching incalculably more people, if only in effigy. "But why," asked Siegfried Kracauer "is anyone chosen for stardom while others are not? Evidently, something about the gait of the star, the form of his face, his manner of reacting and speaking, ingratiates itself so deeply with the masses of moviegoers that they want to see him again and again, often for a considerable stretch of time. It is logical that the roles of a star should be made to order. The spell he casts over the audience cannot be explained unless one assumes that his screen appearance satisfies widespread desires of the moment — desires connected, somehow, with the patterns of living here presents or suggests."(1)
Often, an actor will do his best work for one director, even becoming a director's muse or inspiration. For instance, in Japan, actor Toshiro Mifune made several films, containing his best performances, with director Akira Kurosawa. In Sweden, Liv Ullmann appeared in several films made by Ingmar Bergman. In Italy, Giancarlo Giannini became an international star through the films of Lina Wertmuller.
In Hollywood, directors often create stars and shape their careers. Josef von Sternberg made Marlene Dietrich a star in a series of films. John Ford worked repeatedly with John Wayne, mostly in Westerns, contributing to his outsized, larger-than-life image. More recently, Martin Scorsese gave Robert de Niro opportunities to excel in several of his films. There are, however, some examples of actor-director partnerships that have not been as fruitful.
In Hollywood, at any given moment, there are twenty to thirty people - stars - who have the power to "open" a film. Their names on a contract, their agreement to appear in a film, is a guarantee that a film will get made. Because of this, these people are inundated with scripts, with offers, with pitches, from producers, directors, and script-writers who want them in their films not because they are the best choices for the parts, but because, without them, their films are unlikely to ever reach the big (or the little) screen. It is often a perilous bargain. So many of the people on the "A-List" didn't get there through great acting. They got there out of luck most of the time - the lucky accident of being in the right place at the right time - or the right role in the right film. The result is that films get made that are no better or worse than they have ever been.
For the people fortunate enough to arrive on the A-List, salaries are peaking at somewhere around twenty million dollars per film. This means that when the film's budget is determined, the salary for the person whose agreement to make the film has mobilized the small army of technicians who, together, put all the pieces together, is one of the first expenses to be factored in. Currently, there are some genuine actors among the people on the A-List, but acting talent is not at all a prerequisite. The general inability of critics to judge actors' performances, which exposes their ignorance of what it takes to be an actor, often accounts for the success and lengthy careers of some A-listers. The sometimes inexplicable choices of AMPAS, the organization that annually hands out Oscars, contributes to the shelf-life of many incompetent and unworthy actors.
A single case in point. I first noticed Leonardo DiCaprio in the Lasse Hallstrom film What's Eating Gilbert Grape? in the early 90s. He played the role of a mentally disabled boy so convincingly that, never having seen him before, I took him for a genuine idiot. The role was a lucky break, as it would've been for any fledgling actor. The only people who called it a great performance don't know what acting is. As any real actor can tell you, playing the part of a disabled person is easy.
But in the next few roles I saw him in, which seemed to arrive like the morning paper, DiCaprio played, in a scarily invariable manner: an overconfident young gunslinger, an Irish stowaway aboard a doomed passenger liner, the man in the iron mask, a luckless Western tourist in Thailand, and Arthur Rimbaud. He was equally terrible in each terrible film. And the films each made a boodle, largely due to the phenomenal boodle pulled in by one of them - Titanic. This made DiCaprio, before he was even able to shave, one of the most sought-after stars in the world. Miscasting him has become a lucrative profession.
But, as any moderately intelligent artist knows, box office success isn't enough. Probably needing desperately to justify his success, DiCaprio wanted also to be taken seriously. In my review of Revolutionary Road from 2011, I wrote: "He has struggled so valiantly, hasn't he, to convince us these past ten years that he can play a man. He is getting there." After what he decided was a sufficient length of time to grow - physically at least - into mature roles, he approached the man who is - or was - widely regarded as the best American film director, Martin Scorsese, and in 1999 Gangs of New York, which was a long-cherished project for Scorsese, came into being.
Without knowing the details of his struggles with Harvey Weinstein, of all the fine actors that Scorsese got to appear in Gangs of New York (Daniel Day Lewis, Liam Neeson and Jim Broadbent, to name the finest), it was DiCaprio's name in a lead role that probably got the film green-lighted. The finished film has some great touches in it, most of which are directorial, and no one could argue that it should not have been made, that a director as great as Scorsese should not have been provided with the wherewithal to realize it. But, like so many other vanity projects, there is always a gap between design and conception and the film that ends up on the screen. That DiCaprio, who manages to be far less amateurish than he might have been in less capable hands, used his clout to help Scorsese realize his dream is nothing but laudable. But that it should inspire Scorsese, both out of gratitude and monetary need, to cast DiCaprio in his next three films is gratitude run amok. Every director has to make a living, but surely things like Shutter Island (2010) disqualifies Scorsese from making an honest living?
It was 2004's The Aviator, which actually cost more to make than Gangs of New York, that best reveals the inadequacy of DiCaprio and the impact of that inadequacy on Scorsese's legacy. Whatever Howard Hughes had been to his friends, his business partners and competitors, he was manifestly a man. His wealth may have been a major part of Hughes's appeal, but casting DiCaprio in the role of such an outsized personality made Scorsese's film seem hollow.
It was equally painful to find DiCaprio cast as Jay Gatsby in the fourth (but not the worst) screen adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel. Baz Luhrmann's insistence on DiCaprio in the role reminded me of Richard Burton's insistence that his wife Elizabeth Taylor should be cast as Helen of Troy in his low-budget production of Doctor Faustus in the 1960s. When critic Vernon Young saw the film and heard Burton intone the famous line, "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" Young was moved to shout (in a crowded theater) "Not bloody likely!"
Currently, DiCaprio is in the running again for the Best Actor Oscar. His performance this time, in Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant in the role of the legendary trapper Hugh Glass, made me wonder why no one but me remembers a 1971 Richard Harris film called Man in the Wilderness, in which he plays Zachary Bass, a character based loosely on Glass, who is mauled almost to death by a bear and then left for dead by members of an expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Bass survives and tracks down the expedition to wreak vengeance, only to find, at the film's conclusion, that his hunger for revenge was what saved his life and that, with his chance for revenge at last in sight, he walks past the men who left him for dead and heads in the direction of civilization, where a son he never knew is perhaps waiting for him. After reading a synopsis of the story of The Revenant, Bass's tale sounds far more edifying.
Richard Harris, in full Man Called Horse mettle, was memorably moving in the role. His bear-mauling was, for a 1971 film, when CGI was no more than a distant dream, equally difficult to watch. Who cares if the exteriors, meant to evoke an American wilderness, were shot in Spain, when The Revenant was shot in Argentina? And Harris had the further advantage over DiCaprio in being unarguably a man; not just a star with enough glued-on hair and painted-on wounds to make him look like one. Harris's film, directed by Michael C. Sarafian, goes in for some blatant "revisionist" effects, not the least of which is its unflinching portrayal of human - and animal - brutality. Iñárritu, who relies heavily on close-in handheld camerawork (just as he did in Birdman), is working in the same vein, trying to burrow underneath the surface of a conventional Western whose elements are all there: the dirt, the horses, the natives, the bears and buffaloes, and the knife's-edge separation of life and death. But at the center of his drama is Leo DiCaprio, physically beefier than he once was, but just as slight an acting presence as ever.
Will someone worthier supplant DiCaprio on the A-List? (This as an appeal, not a rhetorical question.)
(1) Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film, Oxford University Press, 1960.