The Mirth of Hollywood Money

In the case of Bringing Out the Dead, I was opposed to Nick Cage because the character I had written was about 27 years old and Nick can’t really, plausibly be less than 35 on the screen. I thought that this was really a young man’s thing going on here.

But it was a very tough story, in terms of Hollywood. Scorcese likes to take his time. He likes to spend money shooting. Last night they were doing a shot that I would do in a hour, and they were spending six hours on it.

That shows up on screen, but it costs money. So, a film that I could have made for 8-9 million dollars here in New York, they re spending 30-35 million. So financial justifications come into play, because you have to justify that 35 million dollars. Nick Cage, at the moment, gets around 20 million dollars a movie and he’s one of the highest paid actors at the moment. He s had a whole series of successes. But Nick read this and the idea of doing Schrader and Scorsese and a night in New York again – he agreed to do it for a million dollars.

That protected Marty. He knew that once he had Nick in his pocket for a million bucks, nobody would touch him. There wouldn’t be no studio interference, there wouldn’t be talk about changing the script, talk about having a different ending, or whatever.

So he opted to go with Nick, so that he could make the movie he wanted to make. If he went with an unknown, he would have had a lower budget or he would have had to make some script changes.

Paul Schrader, from an interview at Euroscreenwriters

Some people don’t believe me when I tell them that I believe that the only reason Leonardo DiCaprio, the worst “name” actor of his generation, got a certain role was because his name, attached to a project, brings in millions of dollars of investment from the movie studios. Do I seriously think the movie studios would hire a bad actor for a good part in a movie by a great director because they want to ensure a return on their investment?

Well, when you put it that way.

Leonardo DiCaprio is not popular and famous because of his great acting ability.  He does something that always looks like acting but never actually is.  He grunts and moans and moves his mouth but he has no particular insights into the character he is playing, the way Christian Bale, or Robert Duvall or Joaquin Phoenix or Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett has.  He is popular because he projects the kind of anesthetized de-sexualized appeal of gay men that adolescent girls adore and don’t feel threatened by.  He and Andrew McCarthy and Johnny Depp and Elijah Wood and Tobey McGuire are better actors,  I suppose, probably, than the cast of “The Brady Bunch”, but they really aren’t in  the same league as the others I named.  Watch DiCaprio with the alluring Kate Winslet in “Titanic” and ask yourself this: if I was Kate Winslet in this scene would I be worried about what Jack Dawson might do to me?

It’s a giggle.  He’s completely harmless.

All right– a certain segment of the population says, “no, I wouldn’t be worried, because I would want Jack Dawson to make love to me”.  But that is because the entire scenario, a rich, cultivated, young British woman, offering, in 1910, to pose naked for a strange little American boy, in an exclusive cabin, in the first class section of a ocean liner.  Unless you accept the rest of awful melodrama of Cameron’s “Titanic” as worthy of seriousness.

But DiCaprio is immensely popular with a large segment of the movie ticket buying audience.  He is so popular that his presence in virtually any professional production guarantee’s millions of dollars in revenue.  Thus DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, as Howard Hughes, as Hugh Glass.  That’s why people refer to his character in the movie not as J. Edgar Hoover or Howard Hughes or Hugh Glass but as Leonardo.  Did you see when Leonardo fought with the bear?  Did you see when drew the portrait of the naked girl?  Did you see nearly drowned?

And thus, Scocese.

It is so common a practice, to give a prime role to celebrity actor rather thant someone with real talent in order to lock in a big budget, that I look for it at the beginning of every big, serious Hollywood production, and even some independent films, even when the director is someone like Terence Davies, whose work I generally adore. We just watched his “House of Mirth”. Even with Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz in lead roles, it’s a gorgeous film, beautifully directed and scored; it’s thoughtful, delicate, subtle. And it has Laura Linney, a terrific actress, in the part of Bertha Dorset.

I really had no expectations about Gillian Anderson in the lead role. I thought, you never know– someone famous for her work on a slightly interesting but formulaic TV drama might turn out to be a good actress. Might. But she didn’t, and while it looks like she’s giving it everything she’s got and it looks like Terence Davies does wonders with what he’s given, she ends up reminding me of Lucy Ricardo.  And then you watch Laura Linney  for a few minutes and wonder why the hell she wasn’t playing Lily, and why Gillian Anderson was even in the movie. And the answer is obvious: Gillian Anderson was a huge star at the time the film was made (2000); she was a celebrity. She brought the money for an expensive movie.

She was at least serviceable in “House of Mirth” and the movie survived her shortcomings. Not so with Leonardo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar” or, ridiculously, “Aviator”. How far can Hollywood push the idea of using a celebrity to play parts for which they do not seem remotely suited? DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover?  Are you fucking kidding me?  As Howard Hughes?  Are you nuts?  Why not Churchill? Why not Jesus?

(Oh my god! I just discovered that they have actually cast DiCaprio as the lead in a remake of “The Great Gatsby”. Wow.)

Renee Zellweger as Brigit Jones? Can she even do the accent? Can she even handle a roll that is as light as a feather in a film that consists mostly of gas?

Tom Hanks as anything? (Although, he is at least improving as an actor, as evidenced in “Cloud Atlas”.)  We all love Tom Hanks– I want him to be my neighbor.  But he cannot act.  Ringo is a better drummer than Hanks is an actor.

This is the Hollywood disease. Actors are chattel: an investment, a product to be promoted and placed where-ever opportune, and exploited for as long as possible, even when you have to have a 70-year-old romancing a 20-year-old. God forbid you should have to go through the expense of introducing a new actor, promoting him, getting him onto the talk shows and into the gossip columns, getting his picture out there, his story, his rugged perpetual 5:00 shadow. It’s an investment, like fork-lifts and aprons and saucers and pig-iron.

As for real acting: it’s something best left to young, independent directors to uncover, in young, unknown actors.   Watch the film “Winter’s Bone” with Jennifer Lawrence before she was famous.

Watch her now.

It’s sad.