The Affleckization of Hollywood

09.27.2004 | Jonathan Leaf | Film, Theater | 3 Comments
What makes a Hollywood leading man?

I wondered about that last week as I saw movies on television starring Ben Affleck and Brad Pitt.  Affleck and Pitt are among the most highly paid of a group of young, bland character actors whose good looks — and accomplished agents, publicists and managers — have made them A-list Hollywood stars.  

This is not a good thing.  Bland and dim-witted, Affleck and Pitt have amply demonstrated that they are capable of ruining almost any film in which they’re given a leading role.  

Pitt was so overwhelmed by Julia Roberts’ dominating screen personality in “The Mexican” that the movie only showed signs of romantic life when Roberts was paired with the film’s obese, aging co-star, James Gandolfini.  Worse, in “Legends of the Fall” and “Meet Joe Black”, he seemed less like a son or would-be son-in-law of Anthony Hopkins and more like someone who mistakenly presumes that Hopkins wants to hire him as a trick.  Pitt’s limitations as an actor were rightly judged by the critic who said that the Andes, standing in for the Himalayas, gave the most convincing performance in “Seven Years In Tibet”.

The case is similar with Aflleck.  In “Reindeer Games” he was so limp that audiences rooted for the movie’s sneering over-the-top villain, Gary Sinise, while in “Gigli”, Affleck managed to be more cloddish and less engaging than a co-star who was playing a retarded person.  Nor has Affleck’s choice of scripts done much to aid his reputation or his record of accomplishment.  As one wag noted, Affleck’s “Paycheck” was the most aptly titled movie in film history.  

And Affleck and Pitt aren’t the only Ken dolls ruining movies and emptying theaters as they collect eight-digit salaries.  One might add to this list the likeable but dull actor Chris O’Donnell.

The rise of the Aflleck-Pitt phenomenon reflects the increasing role of media hype in the making of movie stars and the fact that coverage of actors’ sex lives is used as a way of judging an actor’s commercial viability.  Neither Pitt nor Affleck had ever “carried” a box-office hit at the point when it was generally decided that they were box-office stars.


Here’s a widely varied list of undoubted leading men of the past and present — Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Elvis Presley, Sean Connery, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Anthony Hopkins.

All of these men had (or have) presence, intelligence and a sense of humor.  But there’s something else I think.  They all acquired some of their presence from the experience of performing live on stage.  

Mind you, I don’t mean by this that they had necessarily acted in legitimate stage productions.  Of the above list, only Bogart, Connery and Hopkins started out in the theater.  The others learned to present the relaxed, confident and very powerful demeanor that was and is such a large part of their success by working on stage in something other than live plays.  

Grant and Lancaster were acrobats.  Presley sang.  Murphy did stand-up.  Murray did improv.  In this sense, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Robin Williams are all much more the inheritors of the tradition of Bogart and Rains than Affleck and Pitt are.  

I don’t mean to suggest that it is impossible to develop a compelling screen presence without having had to learn how to captivate live audiences.  Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts are examples of commanding screen personalities with minimal experience performing before live audiences.  But I don’t think it’s easy to do.  

Film acting is, by its nature, edited acting, and in supporting roles Affleck and Pitt proved themselves competent, sometimes much more than that.  But their deficiencies as leading men were hidden in these smaller parts because the roles they were playing required less of them — and because repeated takes and cutting concealed their inadequacies.   It was the move to bigger and more demanding parts that exposed their inadequacies.

So what does this mean?  As live theater declines in importance and stage productions increasingly come to cast “names” from the film and TV world in place of more able stage actors, it won’t only be the stage that suffers.  Film is already suffering, and the harmful effects are only beginning. 

THE YOKO OKO OF MOVIES and MUSIC i agree with you Leaf. these men are making money for bad films and people like me are eating it up. they are eye candy-nothing more. they are the men that attract women to films were there is a lot of violence and shit blowing up. but let me get down to the nitty gritty. you are missing a huge point in them being so famous besides the agents-you forgot about the women!
these men were just faces with some dialogue and very little money until a blonde came into the picture.
one woman linking both bland and dim witted pitt and affleck was gwen paltrow. her relationship with them got them into more spotlight because you is luminous and also the daughter of a produce and actress. she has been in hollywood for years and new people and things...she was their trick!
she dated both pitt and affleck during the beginnings of their careers into bad movies (pitt and affleck were fine in movies like thelma and lousie, chasing amy, dazed and confused.)
she has tainted them and they have therefore carried her past pussy clauses around their waists into other movies and new relationships.
she is going to ruin chris martin's watch.
the dim weren't always bland and dimwitted, the blonde made them that way. trust me, i know!
09.27.2004 | Jessica Soto
I could not agree more with your diagnosis and prognosis. There is an enormous difference between acting for the duration of a scene (or even a sub-scene) in front of an all-forgiving camera and performing on the stage. But the degeneration of film is actually overdetermined. Tight production schedules and monetary mandates have contributed as much if not more to this regrettable situation. I have often noticed that movies that might have been decent, had their gestation been extended for a year or so, are instead foisted upon the world as veritable miscarriages. For example, I recently saw Cast Away (dir. Zemeckis, starring Tom Hanks) on television. This film had real potential, but instead of allowing it to develop to maturity, an absurd and incomprehensible ending was slapped onto it. I honestly think that the ending completely ruined the rest of the film. This happens to me more often than not, which is why I rarely go out to see any but foreign and art films.

All of this is in some ways sad, but there's not much we can do about it except to not make the mistake of wasting our time going to first-run films, which are nearly guaranteed to disappoint. Fortunately The Third Man and other wonderful films can be purchased or rented for home viewing.
09.28.2004 | Ted

Have you ever seen Fritz Lang's Fury? It's a lynching movie Lang made after fleeing the Nazis and coming to America. Hollywood wouldn't let him use blacks, so he had to come up with a convoluted plot to get a white man lynched. He survives, unbeknownst to his would-be killers or even his loved ones, and watches with great righteousness and fervor as they are tried for murder. Just before they're to be found guilty, he comes forward, reveals himself and launches into a first-rate monologue on how his faith in humanity has been shattered and he'll never trust or love again. It's a fabulous ending. Right after this ending -- which it seems clear is where Lang intended the credits to come up -- his woman comes forward, calls his name, and they embrace in front of a statue of justice, blindfolded, holding the scales. Given the monologue our hero has just delivered, this makes no sense at all. Trust me, Hollywood's been tacking on happy endings since before Tom Cruise was a twinkle in a casting agent's eye.
09.28.2004 | John Blaze

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