It’s not enough for a star to be a major self-promoter; he must also pick good movies and avoid projects like current flop ‘Skyscraper.’
There was a moment in Skyscraper when I realized the movie had pretty much lost me. It wasn’t the scene in which Dwayne Johnson hurls himself through the slicing-and-dicing propellers of a gigantic wind turbine, just to reach a switch that has been incomprehensibly hidden there. Nor was it the scene in which he flies through the air, hundreds of feet above the ground, then catches a rope and swings Tarzan-like to safety. And it wasn’t the hall-of-mirrors sequence, an ancient movie trope familiar from such classics as Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, in which the bad guys and the good guys have a shoot-out amid a maze of mirrors that in this instance just happen to be perched on the rooftop of a towering inferno. No, it was the scene when our hero, a former FBI agent and amputee, trying to keep two sliding doors from slamming closed on him, yanks off his prosthetic leg and jams it between them, thereby saving himself while dooming any hope of believability.
Watching the film as it vaulted from one excess to another, I kept thinking of that classic Samuel Goldwyn line: “I want the movie to start with an earthquake and build to a climax.”
But I also thought of some of the stars of old, who would have done anything to avoid such mediocre material. Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland famously fought with Warner Bros. to be allowed to make good films and were regularly suspended when they demanded better ones. As recently as the 1990s, major actors such as John Travolta and Bruce Willis would agree to one fee for standard studio fare and another for art house pictures that they considered labors of love.
That tradition has all but disappeared. True, there are stars like Jennifer Lawrence who’ll stretch themselves in movies they never expect to be blockbusters (Lawrence went into guns-blasting mode in defense of Mother! after its critical drubbing — and good for her), but they’re the exception to the rule. What we’re seeing these days is stars as brands, larger-than-life performers who don’t so much run away from the unoriginal as hasten toward it.
I understand that. Because these stars aren’t competing with other stars; they’re in a death struggle with even bigger brands, franchises that come laden with products and theme parks and toys. It’s hard enough to be a star in the best of times; it’s almost impossible in an era dominated by transforming cars and metallic superheroes. The only way to do so is to market yourself as relentlessly as you can.
Nobody does that better than Johnson. He’s a master of modern media, as a recent Forbes article pointed out. “On Instagram, where he has more than 108 million followers, he delivers inspirational videos of himself talking directly to his iPhone, often in his traveling gym,” noted the magazine’s Natalie Robehmed. “Other posts — leveraging another 13 million Twitter followers and 58 million on Facebook — introduce movie trailers, show Johnson in development meetings and celebrate his ‘cheat day’ pancake snack, all decorated with multiple hashtags and millions of likes.”
He’s even taken a page from his pal Kevin Hart’s book and begun charging studios for these services. “In addition to hefty $20 million up-front paychecks and cuts of back-end studio profits — starting with July’s Skyscraper, in which he plays a former FBI hostage-rescue leader — he’ll insist on a separate seven-figure social media fee with every movie in which he appears, according to people familiar with his deals,” Robehmed continues. “In other words, rather than have studios dump money into TV ads or billboards, their new paid-marketing channel doubles as their marquee star.”
Thanks to this, Johnson has turned himself into a zillionaire, with a reported income of $124 million last year alone, and he’s done so by understanding the product he’s selling better than anyone else. He’s a tough guy with a heart of gold, a man whose hard surface is matched by his soft core. He conveys the impression of being both ordinary and extraordinary, human and super-human, the kind of person you could have a beer with and not expect him instantly to crush the can. He’s Arnold Schwarzenegger without the accent and, like that maestro of the muscular, he has a great feel for his limits. You won’t find him hurrying to play Hamlet.
If “know thyself” is the golden rule of life, no one knows himself better than Johnson. But knowing yourself is one thing; knowing a great movie is another.
Look at pictures like Rampage, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Baywatch and Central Intelligence. All were apt showcases for Johnson’s endearing personality, but none was the sort of thing people talk about for years. San Andreas at least delivered the over-the-top thrills people paid to see, but only Johnson’s efforts as part of the Fast and the Furious ensemble are a serious cut above run-of-the-mill. Given the pace at which Johnson makes movies (not to mention TV), it’s amazing they’re as solid as they are. But films like these are hardly a recipe for longevity.
Quality, not quantity, is the best guarantee if a star plans to stick around. Johnson may be shrewd enough to know stars have short shelf lives, even shorter than some other branded products; but if he hopes of outlasting the ephemeral, it won’t be by making middling movies.
The greatest of the stars all understood this and worked passionately to lift themselves above studio material. Think of Paul Newman and you think of Hud, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hustler and a host of other classics. Think of Gregory Peck and there’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Roman Holiday. Think of John Wayne and you have Stagecoach and Red River and True Grit.
Each of them knew that only quality stands the test of time. True, they made clunkers; but they strove for better and sometimes achieved best.
Brands aren’t like that. They’re based on the premise of returning us over and over again to the same experience, with only the mildest of variations. We turn to brands for safety and comfort; but we want a splash of danger in our stars.
Great brands may deliver theme parks and rollercoaster rides and a ton of products that can be licensed and marketed. They may deliver tried and tested materials that we’re willing to consume year in, year out. But there’s one thing they don’t deliver: great films.