' ' Cinema Romantico: The Ultimate Movie Star Advertisement

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

The Ultimate Movie Star Advertisement

Among its many virtues, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” (2003) comically exemplified not just the soul-sucking experience of a movie star shooting a commercial but how commercials take the shine off the movie star shooting it, as it did fictional American movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray). You can be the most famous actor in the world, but when you’re shilling, you’re shilling, can’t get around it, reduced to the humiliating totem of some corporation. That’s why, as “Lost in Translation” knew, so many American movie stars choose to do their ad work overseas, where the humiliation can’t be seen in their home country. Or couldn’t be seen in their home country, anyway, until the advent of YouTube, which Harrison Ford probably wasn’t counting on during all those old Kirin Beer spots. This post is specifically about movie stars, yes, but before movies took over my life, nobody was cooler to my youthful Olympics-addled brain in the late 80s and early 90s than American Athletics superstar Carl Lewis. And while his ad for Coffee Pokka does not completely diminish all those Gold Medals and 28 inch long jumps, it doesn’t help.

Those T-Mobile ads airing right now where John Travolta recreates “Grease” alongside Zach Braff and Donald Faison for T-Mobile don’t help either; they merely remind you how much the actor’s star has already dimmed (again). Matthew Broderick taking a Ferris Bueller-ish day off for Honda in 2012 relegated his once larger-than-life character to something more adult, which is to say more parental, which is to say something squarer, like Jason Sudeikis in “Booksmart” asking, cluelessly, “Was that Cardi B?” Karl Malden repurposed his plainspoken persona for those long-running American Express ads with the omnipresent catchphrase in the name of fearmongering, if Columbo had become a F*x N*ws commentator. In some weird way, those AMC movie ads have been a boon to Nicole Kidman, at least where meme culture is concerned. But memes, in which imitation and repetition is the thing, are antithetical to the singular notion of the Movie Star. Matthew McConaughey’s Twenty-Ten spots for Lincoln played like stone-faced parodies while James Garner going to bat for Mazda in the 80s mostly became an accidental reflection of David Leisure becoming Joe Isuzu that same decade.

Come to think of it, Leisure put into perspective how utilizing comic actors rather than Movie Stars has long been the likeliest winning ad strategy, with Leslie Nielson and John Cleese doing crack work, respectively, for Coors and Magnavox (see above) back in the day. In our postmodern present, then, some Movie Stars have tried duplicating that comedic strategy, whether it’s Melissa McCarthy’s light-hearted spots for Booking.com or Ben Affleck’s more meta bits for Dunkin’, though like so many, these effect a try-hard strain. Burt Reynolds tried way too hard in making fun of his divorce from Loni Anderson while getting paid by Quaker State back in the 90s, cringy meta. Jeff Goldblum’s bits for Apartments.com as a tech tycoon Brad Bellflower barely effect anything, impossibly managing to throw cold water on the actor’s unique energy. Andy Samberg appearing in all these ads for Corona (along with Snoop Dogg and now Eli Manning too) work best to remind us that all Corona ever needed was that one palm tree decorated for the holidays. 

Some dramatic actors have found a way around the negating power of advertisements by only lending vocals, a la Sam Elliott for The Beef Industry Council and Gene Hackman for United Airlines, their commanding voices giving each spot’s tagline surprising heft, echoing the accompanying Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” respectively, rather than being overwhelmed by them. Could Orson Welles have managed such a trick had they kept him offscreen way back when for Paul Masson wine? We’ll never know. 

Keira Knightley’s ads for Chanel honored her Movie Star quality, a la Daniel Craig dancing for Belvedere Vodka, but those where essentially short films, cheats, in other words. No, reproducing that cinematic je ne sais quoi in 30 seconds or less, that’s the true test. Wilford Brimley was a perfect match for Quaker Oats, though his unassuming air always ran counter to the room-filling sensation of movie stardom, not unlike Jennifer Garner, really, who has managed to survive all these spots for Capital One for so long because her best Movie Star quality is an un-Movie Star-like affability. 

George Clooney’s Nespresso ads never compromise his innate magnetism even as they tend toward comedy, making splendid use of his penchant for droll facial expressions, one of the few successes of the genre. (In his more recent commercial work for Casamigos Tequila, on the other hand, Clooney is trying way too hard to appear as one of the guys, though that might be a product of him being a founder, knowing he has to sell it and working too hard at it.) James Coburn succeeded for Schlitz in the 70s in commercials that were kinda comedy bits, though Coburn played them less straight than unaffected, in his wholly committed but insouciant vibe presaging the celebrated Most Interesting Man in the World ad campaign of Dos Equis by a few decades. But no Movie Star – and here, now, finally we reach our point – has ever managed to maintain his or her Movie Star allure while pitching a product more than Penélope Cruz for Emirates.  

Every time in the last few weeks that I have seen this commercial, during every college football game, and every baseball playoff game, and every Real Housewives of Salt Lake episode, I have gasped. Every single time. These days may well be the strangest of my semi-long life, and I submit as Exhibit QXY-102 the above advertisement. Because the above advertisement more skillfully conveys the majesty of the Movie Star than most, nay, virtually all modern movies. It was directed by Robert Stromberg, who also directed Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent,” suggesting he knows his way around a Movie Star, and in the above advertisement, all he and Pé require to maximize her Movie Star wattage is sixteen seconds and three shots.

In the first shot, Cruz beckons us into her private cabin aboard the Emirates airliner, allowing us to share this small space with her, at once rendering her Movie Star quality more intimate and more luminous. In the next shot, we are in the cabin with her, looking at her in repose in a medium shot, and though she is elegantly dressed and impeccably coiffed (that goes without saying), Cruz’s air is casual, relaxed, making us feel like we belong there too. Even so, the light pouring through the windows, like that scene in “The Irishman,” still gives her a tinge of the ethereal, which comes fully into focus when it cuts to the signature Movie Star shot, a close-up, overwhelming us. And if for her other myriad Emirates spots, Cruz is doing something, texting, watching fútbol, even showering, by doing nothing here other than basking, the ad becomes about nothing more than us basking in her presence, Emirates and the majesty of Pé becoming one.

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