Monday, September 27, 2004

Third Lieutenant From The Left

In Anthony Lane's recent review of Wicker Park in The New Yorker, he places an actor in his place in a way I haven't heard in a long while, writing of Josh Hartnett,

"In the days when Hollywood was Hollywood, when directors wore suits and eye patches and bellowed their instructions through a bullhorn, somebody of Mr. Hartnett's stature would have chiseled out a perfectly respectable career as the third lieutenant from the left in Civil War dramas."

I only know of 2 other occasions in the last 10 years when an actor has been so suitably put in their place. In a magazine that I can't remember Matt Damon was described as not worthy to serve as a coatcheck boy for Cary Grant. And the great film reviewer Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic, once described Gwyenth Paltrow, circa 1997, as a reputation without a basis.

But more interesting is the decline of the leading man in Hollywood films. Who today has the gravitas or charisma of the great Hollywood actors of the 30s through the 60s? George Clooney certainly. Possibly Brad Pitt on a really good day. Who else? No one I can think of. There is no one who can match Cary Grant, Bogart, Fonda, Stewart, etc. Perhaps this came through most clearly in the ill advised remake of Sabrina that came out several years ago. Playing Humphrey Bogart's character was Harrison Ford, who is nothing if not a B-grade Bogart. Playing Audrey Hepburn's role was Julia Ormond of which little of importance can be said. And replacing William Holden, one of the most underrated actors of his generation, was Greg Kinnear.

But is the decline of big name stars, and especially male stars, a bad thing for movies? I rather think not. While there was something fun and concrete about the giant stars, the level of crap put out by the studios in 1935 or 1955 is equal if not greater than today. The rise of the independent movie has led to the emergence of some really wonderful actors, even if the ratio of good independent movies to bad ones is even lower than Hollywood at its worst. Unquestionably this is the era of the great loser in American films. How would Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, or William H. Macy have made a career in the movies in 1940? Those kind of roles just didn't exist. Overall, I'd argue that American film today is richer for the amazing array of character actors than it was 50 years ago when screen giants dominated the industry.