Friday, May 12, 2017
Last week at The Ringer, K. Austin Collins wrote that “Chris Pratt Is Not a Movie Star”, a conclusion I agree with, though not entirely. The response to the piece in the usual corners of the Interwebs (that is, the comments section and Twitter) was, as you might surmise, less than enthusiastic, which is not necessarily wrong even if I could only roll my eyes at the manner in which so many took offense.
“I reject this (utterly random and pulled from your ass) definition of movie star. A movie star doesn’t have to be someone that audiences will be willing to watch do nothing. A movie star is someone whose name brings people to the theater. That’s it,” went one rebuttal. “you know what a movie star is..one that can deliver a box office hit,” went another. And then there was the dude who helpfully pulled the definition of movie star from Google...
an actor or actress who is famous for playing leading roles in movies.
”she is one of the world’s biggest movie stars” synonyms: (movie/film) actor/actress, film star, leading man, leading lady, lead
That? That’s a movie star? “an actor or actress who is famous for playing leading roles in movies”? Could anything possibly cheapen the term movie star more than a definition culled from melted vanilla ice cream? I would like to think if some nincompoop pitched that definition to Bogart that Bogart would’ve taken a drag off his cigarette and said something like “Gee, I’d like to think I’m a little more than that but then I haven’t updated my copy of Webster’s in a long time.” In fact, the Dictionary.com definition of “definition” says this...
the act of defining, or of making something definite, distinct, or clear: We need a better definition of her responsibilities.
Yeah. Sorry. But we need a better definition of movie star than “an actor or actress who is famous for playing leading roles in movies.” Ye gods, do we.
Defining a movie star is so much more complicated than Dictionary.com or Box Office Mojo that Jeanine Basinger spent 553 pages wrestling with it ten years ago in her book “The Star Machine”, which I encourage anyone who has any interest in the Movie Star™ to read. Then again, defining a movie star, as Basinger paradoxically notes, is not really that complicated at all. “The truth is that nobody — either then or now — can define what a movie star is,” Basinger wrote in her opening, “except by specific example, but the workaday world of moviemaking never gave up trying to figure it out.” Yet by the end of the same paragraph she was espousing about “the highly self-confident version of ‘something you can’t define’ that is a variation of Justice Potter Stuart’s famous remark about pornography: ‘I know it when I see it.’”
So sure, Chris Pratt can be a movie star if that’s what you see. But what you see has to go beyond box office receipts and or the literal act of starring in a movie. “(W)hat they responded to in movie stars really was something that seemed physical,” wrote Basinger. “Great movie stars were ‘alive’ inside the frame. It was their home, their owned space. They were utterly at ease up there.” That is a detail often lost these days in movie star conversations. In an unrelated piece for Vulture, Tommy Craggs mentions how, in a changing industry, “sportswriters rarely bother to describe the action on the floor”, comparing it to “the same way that film critics no longer describe how actors move across the screen.” But how the actor moves across the screen is often paramount in terms of Movie Star or Not A Movie Star.
In “Salt”, Angelina Jolie, playing the titular CIA operative Evelyn Salt cum Something Else, moved across the screen like a ballerina going after a blocking sled. If the director, Philip Noyce, does a nifty job of drawing out sequences, like Salt’s opening escape from a CIA office or her later infiltration of the Vice President’s funeral, so that we do not know precisely what she is up to, Jolie plays the moments with such rhythmic determination that you simply become lost in watching her, momentarily rendering whatever it is she is about to do immaterial, her bodily motion, her mere physical presence surpassing plot. A mid-movie moment, on the other hand, finds Jolie slowed down and standing still, on a boat in New York Harbor, gazing at the Statue of Liberty, so small on the horizon, the 150 feet copper statue dwarfed by “Salt’s” leading lady, which I don’t mean to sound crass but merely an evocation of who gets top billing at the movies. It’s the most indelible Movie Star Moment of the last few years and it comes off because Jolie has mastered the art, whether going hard or playing it cool, of charismatic on screen ease.
George Clooney has mastered it too. In cinematic soufflés, sure, like “Ocean’s Eleven” where even if his character is under fire Clooney feels so rested and relaxed, but also in more solemn affairs such as the remarkable “Michael Clayton” where he moves across the screen hurriedly yet gracefully, like a man with a sixth sense about the brass tacks of a fallen world. And in the moments when he settles down, like his titular character watching from the front seat of the car as his kid goes to school, he remains completely still, allowing his seductive bind with the camera to do all the work. Angie and George, to paraphrase Basinger, belong up there.
Pratt, on the other hand, does not always look so at ease in movies, not, to my eye, even in ensembles which is where Collins contends he strictly excels. Because even in something such as “Jurassic World”, where Pratt might be the foremost character yet still part of a team, he seems like he is trying to effect a proper Leading Man, too much laconic gravitas, too beholden to the edict that a movie performance is better smaller rather than bigger, which might be a solid rule of thumb except that certain actors most flourish when giving rules the heave-ho. Pratt, of course, became famous on the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation” where he fit snugly into an immense, awesome ensemble, playing Andy Dwyer. Initially Andy Dwyer was scripted as something of a smug mooch, but the further the show went, the more Pratt everted the part, transforming him into a profoundly endearing, gregarious dim bulb.
His air was a frenzied going-with-the-flow and Pratt’s body language, a kind of humanistic embodiment of Vincent D’Onofrio’s all-over-the-place alien antics in “Men in Black”, hilariously underlined that idea. Indeed, his character’s comical alter ego, FBI Agent Burt Macklin, which was like Pratt’s own commentary on movie stars, would, upon cracking a “case”, gaze into the distance and remark “Macklin, you son of a bitch”, as if he was amazed by rather than impressed with his own genius. Even if this was the product of much behind the scenes thought, Pratt really came across like an actor inventing in the moment, not just getting outside the box but then using the box to, like, improbably build a damn balloon animal. Subsequent interviews and public appearances, on his own or with his wife Anna Faris, made it seem as if Chris Pratt and Andy Dwyer were one and the same. They weren’t, of course, just as Lauren Bacall’s voice was devised, just as Jean Harlow’s hair was colored. Still, what Pratt was doing, whether he knew it or not, was creating, as Basinger might put it, his “type.”
“The product was not any individual movie. It was the actor,” Ricardo Montalaban is cited as saying in Basinger’s book. And by “actor” what Montalban meant was an actor’s “type.” That echoes the irascible Richard Brody’s contention that “(w)hat makes a movie star is the inability to subordinate oneself to a character – the charismatic force of personality that renders the star more fascinating than any scripted role.” To Brody that is a negative, but I personally don’t mind the times when Angelina refuses to subordinate herself to a character, dialing up her magnetic Jolie-ness instead, or when Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic force of personality renders him more fascinating than the scripted role.
On the big screen Pratt comes across inhibited, unable to follow his inexplicable impulses, like he did as Andy Dwyer, where they want to go, too stiff in behavior and movement, shrinking within the wide frames of the screen rather than exuberantly allowing himself to expand. It’s possible, of course, that Pratt is merely trying to do something else, which is commendable, to get away from rather than re-subscribe to his “type”, or perhaps he is merely pledging loyalty to the scripted role. And it is not, mind you, that I wish Pratt would merely re-be Andy Dwyer. No, it’s that I wish Pratt would do what he did when he became Andy Dwyer. I wish he would switch off his targeting computer, trust his instincts, refuse to subordinate himself to the character, and let himself go wild.