Thursday, May 06, 2004

Star making performances

I like watching "teen movies". There are a variety of reasons for this. One is that movies featuring unknown and young actors with low budgets often suffer from less studio interference than larger budget productions and they often have stars and directors and writers with smaller egos who are less likely to ruin the movie through pretentiousness. (Figuring out whether the writer and director of such movies are going to have a career is fun, too).

And of course there is the game of "Look at all the actors and figure out who is going to be a star". This game also applies when you watch the people performing in child and teen roles in non-teen movies, but it is more interesting when you have ten possible future stars in the same movie, and you are trying to figure out just who you will see again. The canonical movie for doing this was of course Fast Times at Ridgemont High, although the game was kind of defeated by almost everyone in the entire movie having later careers of significance, and the writer and director doing so too, although the writer (Cameron Crowe) went on to become a much more famous and successful director than the director (Amy Heckerling, although she went on to make good movies too, most notably Clueless).

Sometimes it is obvious who is going to be a star. Julia Stiles is obviously something special in Ten Things I Hate About You. Lauren Ambrose is easily the best thing in Can't Hardly Wait, although she has gone on to have a notable career in television rather than in the movies so far. Kirsten Dunst was in an endless number of movies as a teen, and it was fairly obvious right from the start that she was a future star.

Sometimes, though, things are different from what you expect. An example, back to Clueless. Alicia Silverstone is just wonderful in the Emma Woodhouse role, and the role was considered a star making one for her by just about everyone at the time. However, for whatever reason she never got a decent part again. Her next film, Excess Baggage, was absolutely execerable, and then she got cast as Batgirl in Batman and Robin. It was in no way her fault that that film was the train wreck that it was, but after that Silverstone clearly stopped being given good (or even decent) roles, and after appearing as Brendan Fraser's girlfriend in Blast From the Past, Silverstone was pretty much never seen in the movies again (at least until she got a supporting role in this year's Scooby-Doo sequel, another train wreck that was not her fault).

However, if you go back and watch Clueless again, you will find someone named Brittany Murphy playing the (supposedly somewhat dowdy) Harriet Smith role. At the time I first watched Clueless I didn't see anything special in her, and I would have been amazed to learn that she was the one who would have the career as a leading lady. You couldn't say that she has become a star, but she is being cast in leading roles in films today, which is a lot more than you can say for Silverstone. If she does become a star, it may be that her star making role was opposite Eminem in 8 Mile, in which she was indeed good. (If one wants to be extremely cynical about how Hollywood works, it has long been rumoured that one reason Silverstone's career failed was because she put on a little too much weight - ie she was a perfectly healthy woman rather than a Hollywood stick insect - and people became reluctant to cast her. Murphy on the other hand looks positively anorexic, so she has learned that lesson. I can't imagine where we got the idea that anorexic is attractive from, however).

And another case that I missed (departing from teen movies from a minute) actually came in Robert Redford's rather ponderous film adaptation of The Horse Whisperer. The original actress cast to play Kristen Scott Thomas' daughter in that movie was Natalie Portman. At the time, Portman was being named as a future star by almost everyone, after her performances in Luc Besson's Leon (aka The Professional) and the late Tedd Demme's Beautiful Girls (in which the then fourteen year old Portman managed to act everyone else in an ensemble cast consisting of about ten of Hollywood's best twentysomething actors completely off the screen). Portman backed out of that role in order to instead play Anne Frank on Broadway. Since them Portman's career has not taken off in quite the way many people expected. Taking the part of Princess Amidala in the three Star Wars movies has not turned out to be as great a career move as it might have initially appeared, particularly as these movies have crowded her out from some of the other parts she might have taken in here rather limited time she has had left to make movies while she has been studying at Harvard. She has appeared in occasional supporting parts (eg in Cold Mountain recently, but that is about it. Portman may well still become a major movie star, but it hasn't happened yet, and I really thought it would.

However, when Portman dropped out of The Horse Whisperer, she was replaced with another actress about the same age named Scarlett Johannson. When I saw the movie I acknowledged that Johannson was good, but I didn't think she was as good as Portman would have been. I didn't pick Johannson to be a future star at that point. (When I saw her in the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't there in 2001 I did pick her as a future star, however. When she actually became one with the release of Lost in Translation last year, I wasn't surprised).

The Horse Whisperer also featured Kate Bosworth in a small supporting part. Here is another actress who is now showing signs of becoming a star. (She was great in Blue Crush). But that was another performance I missed pretty much entirely.

But it's a fun game to play.

Update: On the same theme, I wrote about my initial reaction to Reese Witherspoon compared to my reaction to Alicia Silverstone a bit over a year back here. Witherspoon's career has gone into a bit of a stall since I wrote it, however. Nothing huge - it's just that Legally Blonde 2 was a complete dog of a film and one good film now would fix that - but she doesn't look to be ascending to stardom in quite the way she did at one point.

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